When Syracuse University Running Back Joe Morris came home to Ayer, Mass. the other day for a respite before submitting himself to the rigors of August football practice, his mother greeted him, unseen, from elsewhere in the house. "Joe, clean your feet," she hollered.
"And don't mess up my kitchen."
August 23, 1981
"And wash your dishes."
"And close the door unless you want to pay my electricity bill."
So it was that Joe Morris, 20, the leading rusher in the history of Syracuse football (3,105 yards and this year still to play) was welcomed home. This was the same Joe Morris who had—in three seasons, including 1980, when he was hurt and missed five of the 11 games—eclipsed all the rushing records of the great Syracuse backs before him: Jim Brown (2,091 yards), who went on to establish the NFL career rushing record of 12,312 yards; the late Ernie Davis (2,386 yards), the Heisman Trophy winner who in 1959 led the Orange to their only national championship; Floyd Little (2,704 yards); and Larry Csonka (2,934 yards). Morris also shattered Csonka's single-game school rushing record (216 yards against West Virginia in 1965) by blitzing Kansas for 252 yards in 1979.
Measured against this crowd, Jim Nance, who led pro football in rushing (1,458 yards in 1966) after completing his Syracuse career, and John Mackey, a running back briefly at Syracuse before becoming an All-Pro tight end for the Baltimore Colts and being voted the Ail-Time Team's outstanding tight end in 1969 by the Hall of Fame selectors, are also-rans.
So, Joe, how does it feel to be in this kind of company?
"Well, that's some company to be in, but, really, I'm not in it."
How do you compare with them?
"I won't compare," Morris says, "because I don't compare."
But, of course, he does. No less an authority than Ben Schwartzwalder, the Syracuse coach for 25 years, who retired after the 1973 season and who coached all the great Orange backs except Morris, says, "He is in their class, yes sir. He's like something out of a cannon."
A Lowell, Mass. newspaper reporter wrote, "Joe Morris is not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He does, however, give a speeding bullet a good run for its money." And he gives every other back in the country a good run for his money. In fact, if only Syracuse were a better football team—the Orangemen may have to play above their heads to achieve a .500 mark this year—Morris would be an even-money Heisman pick.
In sum, Joe Morris—so tough, so fast, so strong, so willing, so straight, so modest, so dedicated—ranks among the very best all-round football players in the land. He is, however, perhaps only the fourth best player in his own family. True. If they chose up sides in the Morris family, Joe just might be the last choice. Nobody understands that better than Joe, who, when told once by a reporter, "You're the greatest," responded, "No, sir, I'm just the latest."
These days he's even losing his grip on being the latest, because two of his three brothers are scholarship football players as freshmen at Syracuse. Larry Morris, 19, is a devastating runner who obliterated Joe's rushing records at Ayer High. Larry got 5,758 yards; Joe had a school-record 3,367. Larry scored 72 touchdowns, Joe 49. Mike Morris, 18, is an extraordinarily fast sprinter who runs holes in the wind (he broke all of Joe's track records at Ayer) but loves football best.
Then there's Jamie, 16, a 5'6½", 155-pound 10th-grader this fall, who has everything his brothers have—only more. When Joe was a senior at Ayer High, he ran a creditable 51.2 440; last year, as a freshman, Jamie broke Joe's school record with a 48.9, and he wasn't going all-out.
In fact, every one of Joe's football records and every one of Joe's track records at Ayer have been broken by his brothers. "I ain't got nothing left," sighs Joe from a green and white sofa at home.
"Joe," hollers his mother, Addie, "you know you ain't supposed to sit on that sofa."
"Joe, I've been hearing you talk."
"And you're the best one. Always have been, always will be."
"Thanks, Mom." And he allows himself a small smile. Actually, there are a lot of smiles in this family of flat-out incredible athletes, headed by father Earl, a no-nonsense former' Army sergeant who believes in nothing but straight lines and 90-degree corners, and a similarly no-nonsense mother, who had a go at basketball and Softball back in North Carolina and who can strike fear in any heart with her tongue or with her eyes.
"I think all this 'yes, ma'am, no, ma'am' stuff is old-fashioned," says Addie, "but Earl seems to like it." Still, for all the discipline, there is a lot of love on Markham Circle in Condo 2A. It's a mixture of Ozzie and Harriet ("Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Hi, Joe. Hi, Larry. Hi, Mike. Hi, Jamie. What's for dinner?"), Father Knows Best and Norman Rockwell.
Indeed, it's impossible to overstate the role of the family in any evaluation of the athletic success of the Morris boys. Ayer High athletic director Chet Steele says, "The good Lord gave these boys some pretty decent ability and a damned outstanding family to grow up in." The Morrises are outstanding not because they're smart, not because they're rich, but because They Are a Family. The boys behave, they study and they play sports. That's it. When they're not in school or at sport, the boys are always home. "I just like to sit around and talk to my mom," says Joe. "The best thing I can say about my parents is they made us better human beings than they did football players."
Earl grew up tough and, he says, "on relief in St. Louis, the son of a man not often on the scene. Earl has done a lot of physical things: During his 28 years in the Army, he was Airborne and a Green Beret and a sprinter; he was blinded in his right eye by a hand grenade and landed a plane in Vietnam after the pilot was shot. He once tried selling air conditioners door to door but didn't do well because people would say, "What's wrong with using my fan?" Earl, being an honest sort, would say, "Nothing. Actually. I prefer a fan myself." After leaving the sales job, he began looking for another job through the unemployment office; instead, he was offered an unemployment check, which made him furious. "I want to work," he stormed. "I don't want no handouts." Today he is a clerk at the Groton, Mass. post office and taking a business course at night at Mt. Wachusett Community College. "I think it will help me in the future," he says. "Besides, I can't get no dumber, and knowledge is power."
He constantly gets after his sons, telling them, "If you can make a B, you can make an A." In truth, the Morrises aren't strong students. They are pluggers. As Owen Kilcoyne, a former Ayer football coach who has coached all the Morrises, says, "They work very hard to be average in the classroom." Sitting at the dining room table (the same kind of yellow tablecloth with white polka dots that Rockwell used to love), Earl says to one of the boys, "The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory." He says, "None of these boys is my favorite. Or maybe I should say, they all are. The point is, I have always told them that if they want to be as good as anybody else, get an education and go prove it. Don't just sit around talking about it." Not one of the boys had a driver's license while growing up in Ayer, a scruffy little town 25 miles northwest of Boston that does considerable damage to the storybook image of New England villages. Why no license? "Well," says Joe, "there was no place I wanted to go." Jamie shakes his head and says, "Joe walked, Larry walked, Mike walked, I walk." Unspoken is the feeling that Wanda, one of two older sisters, squandered an athletic career on the rise when she decided to get a car, then went to work to pay for it. Last month Joe became the first of the brothers to get a license.
Larry and Mike didn't go to a graduation dinner last spring because they had a track meet the next day. The boys take turns doing dishes and, mercy sakes, don't argue about whose turn it is.
And, most of all, they don't get in trouble. Oh, well, there was the time, Larry recalls, when his friends got some plywood out of a garage when they lived in Fort Devens (the military post which is the reason for Ayer's existence) to build a tree house. But Larry said, "No, that's Mr. Johnson's plywood. We're putting it back in his garage." As they were returning it, Mr. Johnson appeared and could not ascertain the direction of flow of his plywood. Well, anyway, that's what Larry says and if you believe that, you'll believe water runs uphill. Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson believed water runs downhill. And once Joe belted a classmate in the cafeteria because the fellow put a fly in Joe's hamburger. But really it amounted to nothing.
Jamie, what if you got arrested?
"Whether I had done it or not. I'd say, 'I'm guilty, handcuff me, put me in jail, I'll serve my time. But don't tell my father.' "
But what would happen when you didn't show up at home?
"I would just tell the police to report me as a missing person—but don't tell my father."
As Norman Parker, a local resident, was saying over coffee in downtown Ayer, "The Morrises don't hang out, they work out. They're not like all the other kids."
That's because Earl and Addie didn't want them to be like the other kids. While Earl served in Texas and Germany and Vietnam, Addie stayed home in North Carolina. Then, in 1972, they all got together at Fort Devens. Says Joe: "I remember my dad getting up at 5:30 a.m. and polishing his boots, and I asked him why he spent so much time on that. He said, 'Because I want to be the best soldier I can be.' " That lesson wasn't lost on the always observant Joe, who says, "When you're a Morris, you know second is never good enough."
Riding through Ayer the other day, he looked around and said to himself, "Yup, yup, no change. No change. Yup, there it is. Right there. No change." Explaining later, Joe said, "My father also taught me that if you want to talk to someone really intelligent, talk to yourself." And he excused himself so he could talk further to himself.
Mostly, the Morrises leave the opposition talking to itself. The Morris dynasty started when Joe started playing football at Southern Pines, N.C. in elementary school, but when he got to Ayer as a seventh-grader he took a look at the level of competition and wanted nothing to do with it.
"No, sir," says Joe. "Too bad."
He didn't resume his football career until ninth grade at Ayer, and then he ran for 998 yards and 15 touchdowns. By the time he was a junior, he was really rolling. Says Kilcoyne, "You could sense he was in charge of his own destiny." Never did Joe, or subsequently any of his brothers, ever miss one day of practice. "See, everybody wants to win on Saturday," says Kilcoyne, "but only a few want to win during the week. The Morrises want to win during the week."
And Joe was a star, the hottest thing Ayer had ever seen. As team captain, Kilcoyne says, Joe took his job so seriously that "he held more meetings than President Roosevelt." Joe was offended by the use of the word "scrubs" for the lesser talents. He therefore ordered it deleted from the Ayer vocabulary, substituting what he thought more appropriate: "starters designate."
College recruiters, however, didn't take Joe as seriously as he took the sport. The biggies were put off by his size—5'7", 180 pounds—and that limited the bidding to the likes of Syracuse, Boston College and New Hampshire. Syracuse, struggling after the Schwartzwalder era ended, was willing to take a chance on Joe's quick feet. "Size isn't very important," says Joe, understandably. "Actually, I'm a 6'3", 240-pound running back but I just happen to be inside this. 5'9" body that now weighs 195. The most important thing is that nobody playing is trying harder than me."
And it's a good thing that Joe is full up with try, for there has been much adversity since he arrived at Syracuse. Several times he wanted to leave, but his mother snarled, "You big baby. You stay there and grow up." But during Joe's stay the teams haven't been good (3-8, 6-5, 5-6), which led to a change of coaches (Frank Maloney was replaced by Dick MacPherson), and because of construction of the new Carrier Dome, the Orange had to play the entire 1979 season on the road. Then, last year, Joe missed three games because of a bruised shoulder in the heart of the season, including the one with Penn State. He came back but was ineffectual against Rutgers and Pitt, and then broke his right collarbone in a game with Navy. This year, with a pro contract waiting at the end of the rainbow (rainbows always follow storms, Earl would say), Joe knows he must demonstrate that he's durable enough to take on the big boys of the NFL.
In the meantime, here comes Larry. Ah, Larry. "A clone of Joe," thought Owen Kilcoyne when he first saw him, "only better than the original." Larry, the quietest in a very quiet family, tried to avoid playing football as a kid "because I didn't like getting hit, especially by Joe. They'd tell me to take the ball and run through the line. I'm not stupid, so I'd take the ball and run around end." Joe would be miffed. "Come on, Larry, these guys are just big," said big brother. "They can't hit." Whereupon in a scrimmage with Hudson High, one of their big guys crushed Larry. "Joe," he said, "you're a liar."
Once, at practice, Kilcoyne told Larry, who's 5'7½", 178 pounds, "That's a little bit more than Joe did." Said Larry, "That's good." And while Joe is a better broken-field runner and can cut better, Larry is more aggressive, more devastating. Yet, at Syracuse there will be emphasis on getting Larry to use his speed to challenge defenders in a footrace to the corner rather than to juke a defensive back, then duck inside. "I'm going to tell him," says MacPherson, "that he may be only fourth fastest in his family but that there aren't many people outside his family who can beat him."
At Ayer, Larry knocked over Joe's football records laughing. Another example: Joe held the single-game rushing mark at 315 yards; Larry did 355. In his senior year Larry scored 36 touchdowns, while Joe had 22 in his best season. Larry's problem was that he was too good. On five occasions he scored in a game the first time he got the ball. The games were such romps (Ayer was 11-0 in 1980 and the Division II Central Mass. Super Bowl champ) that in the first four, Larry got to carry only 21 times as Kilcoyne tried to avoid running up the score.
"I don't know what's going to happen at Syracuse," says Larry, "but the main thing is I don't want to embarrass Joe by playing bad." Joe laughs and says of his Syracuse rushing record, "That one will stand forever—until Larry gets his chance. Then there I'll go again."
Which brings us to Mike, 5'10", 165 pounds. He ended up being a freshman at Syracuse with Larry because Earl Morris decided Larry should repeat fourth grade. "Teacher just kept promoting Larry," says Earl, "and he just kept getting dumber. That didn't make no sense." But that meant Mike, also a running back, didn't get to carry the ball as much (only 1,216 yards as a senior at Ayer and a paltry 15 touchdowns). MacPherson plans to make Mike a wide receiver for the Orange because of his speed.
At Ayer, he destroyed Joe's track records so completely that big brother's marks look as if he had to stop and ask directions en route. Joe did a 9.7 100; Mike was 9.2. Joe ran a 220 in 21.9; Mike had a 20.9. Joe was on a 440-yard relay team that clocked a 43.4; Mike was on a team—which included Larry and Jamie—that did 41.2. Mike went to the New England championships and ran a 10.36 in the 100 meters, better than the then-listed National Federation record of 10.4 set by Darren Walker (the senior Stanford running back who, like brother Joe, is a long-shot Heisman candidate). Later, at an invitational in Naperville, Ill., Mike ran a 10.34.
For reasons he can't put his finger on, Kilcoyne thinks Mike may turn out to be the best football player of all the Morrises. "If he grows, plus all that speed, he's going to be unbelievable," says Kilcoyne. "There is something latent there." Some would say that, with his running potential, Mike should focus his attention on the Olympics, but he demurs: "I love football too much."
Sitting around home talking ("Mike, you're not on the sofa, are you?" "No, ma'am"), Mike says, "Do you know why all of us try so hard?"
"Because Joe tries so hard. And do you understand why I want Jamie to do better than me?"
"Because he's my brother."
Ah, yes, blood is thicker than anything.
Big brother Joe says, "Jamie is the true thoroughbred of all the Morrises. I dominated the other guys I played with and against. Jamie towers—I mean towers—over everybody."
Jamie's former Ayer track coach, Bruce Cobleigh, who is now coaching in Cocoa Beach, Fla., says, "Every one of the Morrises worked like a dog when he was a freshman, and from then on. But I have to say Jamie worked harder than any of his brothers. It's as if Jamie has nary a wart. While the other Morrises don't pass a baton well, for example, Jamie does. His acceleration is stunning. An area newspaper ran an out-of-focus picture of Jamie and tried to explain it away with a caption saying that the youngest Morris 'is just a blur as he runs down the sideline....' "
At Ayer, where freshmen are viewed with skepticism, Joe didn't start on the varsity his first year, nor did Larry, nor did Mike. Jamie did. "I don't have a choice," he says. "My mom and dad are pushing, my brothers are pushing—and, most important, I'm pushing."
How do you compare to Joe?
"My feet are bigger. I'm 9½, he's 9."
How did all of you guys get so fast?
"There's just something inside of us that pushes it out."
What kind of guy plays great football?
"The kind who doesn't get enough of it—like me."
Are you going to be the best?
Jamie seems to inspire unfinished sentences. Says Joe, "If his head don't swell, well...." Larry says, "But compared to Jamie...." And Kilcoyne says, "With all of them, you just run out of adjectives, but with Jamie...."
Yet, for all of this, the point is Joe has done it. The other brothers are talking about doing it. Or more correctly, others are talking about their doing it. There's a big gulf there, one not forded by many an able athlete in similar circumstances. But considering their God-given speed—nobody makes a 9.2 sprinter out of a plow horse—eyes glaze at the possibilities. Imagine a Saturday afternoon in the Carrier Dome this fall with Joe Morris and Larry Morris at running back, Mike Morris at wide receiver, the secondary giving ground and the corner-backs dropping off and the crowd going nuts—and Jamie Morris back in Ayer, aching to show them all how it's really done. It's O.K. to dream. It's been approved by the FDA.
Meanwhile, Joe is thinking about his family and his life. "I know I have a holier-than-thou image," he says. "I don't smoke, drink, party, fight in bars. My favorite corner in Syracuse is the one where Baskin-Robbins is. But life is based on winning, and I feel I can win more with my life-style than others can with theirs. And I fear failure. That's what drives me on. Yes sir, I think that every one of my brothers will be better than me. But I'm not jealous. I'm just happy that they're my brothers."
Now he's leaving Ayer, and his mother says, "I'm not going to kiss you goodby."
"Because you always cry."
"Close the door."