Mike Morton speaks at Carson
CHINA GROVE — A.L. Brown will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 1989 3A football state championship this fall, a reminder of just how fast the seasons change and the years roll by.
Bob Boswell and his staff poured the foundation for that success, and when Bruce Hardin debuted as head coach in Kannapolis in 1989 and added his offensive creativity to the mix, the Wonders won it all.
Mike Morton, a tight end/linebacker, made 214 tackles for Hardin as a senior in ‘89, an extraordinary performance that would put him on the road toward a Super Bowl ring.
Morton spoke in the Carson cafeteria on Tuesday to Cougars and the East Wilkes players who are camping with them this week. The 42-year-old Morton’s life isn’t all football — he was a very good baseball player, he’s a devoted family man, and he’s a successful Kannapolis dentist — but it was football that shaped what’s happened to him and for him.
Actually, it’s still shaping him. He’s a rising official. He worked mostly Division South Atlantic Conference games on Saturdays a year ago. This year, he has only two SAC games because he’s moving up to regular work in Conference USA and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“Seems like yesterday I was sitting on the hill as a freshman at A.L. Brown and listening to Coach Boswell,” Morton said. “It’s all been a blink. The state championship, four UNC bowl games, the Super Bowl — all just a blink of an eye,”
At the heart of what Morton had to say to the teenagers was just how important high school athletics, in general, and football, in particualar, are.
“Bad things are going to happen to all of you at some point,” Morton said. “There’s going to be adversity. But if you can deal with football practice in 100-degree heat, you’ll be able to handle anything you face in life. There’s no better preparer for life than football. Even if you don’t play much, you’ve got a lot more going for you than that guy hanging out in the hallway.”
Morton was an outstanding student, first in his class at Brown and a Morehead scholar at UNC.
His father’s parting advice to him when he went off to college was to never embarrass himself, his team or his family, and Morton stayed true to that.
He was a good enough linebacker to make the All-ACC academic team. but still believed the NFL was a long shot and prepared diligently while at UNC for life after football.
“Three of us went to the mall one day and we saw Lawrence Taylor,” Morton said. “He looked like he’d been chiseled right out of a brick wall. I was thinking that if that’s what NFL linebackers are like, I’d better find something else to do. I was thinking medical school.”
Fortunately, not all NFL linebackers were Lawrence Taylors, Most are human. After playing in Peach, Gator, Sun and CarQuest bowls for the Tar Heels, Morton was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round in 1995.
“Football just kept working out for me,” he said.
He made the team. As a second-year player in 1996, he started six games for the Raiders. He made his first interception and his first sack. His most vivid memory was temporarily being alone in the open field against Detroit Lions whirlwind Barry Sanders after a pass to the flat. Morton missed the tackle — he wasn’t the first to miss Sanders — but with the help of the sideline, he made Sanders stop, cut and spin. By that time, his pursuing teammates arrived on the scene.
“It’s important to know not just your job, but to know where all your teammates are supposed to be,” Morton said.
Then there was the time Morton got blindsided on a kickoff against the Dolphins on national TV. He got knocked out and had his chin split open. His teammates never got tired of replaying that one over and over.
Morton was a starter for the Raiders at age 25 in 1997 and made 75 tackles, but a back injury sent his career into a decline phase. He survived four more years as a special-teams player and backup linebacker for the Raiders, Rams, Packers and Colts.
Morton thinks of himself as a Raider — they drafted him and he played four of his seven NFL seasons with them — but it was with the 1999 St. Louis Rams that he was on the winning side in a thrilling Super Bowl victory against the Tennessee Titans that came down to the last play.
“We dropped a bunch of touchdown passes in the first half,” Morton said with a groan. “We should’ve been up 35-0 at halftime. Then I would’ve gotten to play a lot.”
His playing career was over before he knew it.
“But that’s what the NFL stands for — Not For Long,” Morton said.
Morton jettisoned his thoughts of a medical career shortly after suffering with an infected wisdom tooth. He walked into a dentist’s office miserable and walked out 30 minutes later feeling fine. That’s when he decided he wanted to pursue dentistry when football was done.
That’s worked out for him. He actually passed his final boards for dental school the day after his wife gave birth to quadruplets. Hollywood should make a movie about that.
Morton’s new passion is officiating. He’s good at it, and it keeps him in shape and involved with the game. His neck and forearms still look NFL-ish, and that probably keeps him from getting too much grief from even the loudest coaches and fans.
“The funny thing is I used to hate officials,” Morton said. “I thought all they did was not call holding on the people who held me while they were calling stupid stuff on me.”
Good people have helped him. He’s advanced quickly. Five years ago, he was calling jayvee games.
Appreciating help was a central theme for Morton as he talked about his life on Tuesday.
“Your coaches don’t get paid much and they put in long hours trying to help you, and you’re lucky to have them,” Morton told his audience. “They open the weight room for you in the morning, they teach classes, them they coach you, and then they stay and clean up after you’ve gone home. You’ll never forget your high school coaches and you’ll never forget your high school teammates. But when it’s over — it’s over. Enjoy every minute of it.”
Morton is understandably proud of his Super Bowl ring —it’s a size 14 1/2, by the way — but like he said, high school is where the strongest memories and the tightest bonds come from.
“That Super Bowl ring is wonderful, it’s awesome, it’s everything you’d expect it to be and more,” he said. “But that ring from the high school state championship — that’s a ring I won with guys I knew in kindergarten. That’s the ring that means a whole lot more.”
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