by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PASADENA, Calif. — When they were kids, Jamie Morris and his brothers and sisters would sneak up to the attic and go through their parents’ memories. One day they found a helmet. And a foreign flag, dog tags and C rations.

From Vietnam.

“Did you ever kill anybody?” a five-year-old Jamie once asked his father.

“Yes,” said Earl Morris, who had fought as a Green Beret. “Yes, son, I did.”

He shielded nothing. He told his children the truth. “It was kill or be killed,” Jamie now repeats. “That’s what he told us.” The elder Morris served when the Vietnam War was really heating up, the mid-’60s, and, as a member of the Special Forces he made more than 500 parachute drops, was wounded in action and was highly decorated.

And when he returned, Jamie said, “He brought the war home with him.”

That meant discipline. Room checks with a white glove. Chores performed to perfection. “When he entered a room, we all stood up,” Jamie said. “It was always ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir’ and he expected that to go for my mother as well. So it was ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am’ to her.”

To this day, the young Morris, now a star tailback for the Michigan Wolverines, addresses his parents that way. And, in a college environment where it is common to ball up your jeans and throw them into the corner before going to bed, he neatly folds his socks and shirts and makes sure all the drawers are closed.Parents are always with him

Having grown up during the Vietnam era, I felt a sudden gust of age when Morris told me these stories. The children of that war are now playing college football? Yes. And more will play in the years to come.

When Morris arrived at Michigan from the small town of Ayer, Mass., he was surprised to find students referring to Vietnam as a mistake, a national embarrassment. “I don’t think those people ever really talked to someone who’d been there,” he said. “They didn’t really know what those men were fighting for.”

He has studied the history of war — all wars — while at school, and he has surely turned the discipline from his military father into an athletic career no one expected.

Discipline? He is 67 inches of discipline. Too short to play college football, right? But he plays. Too small to absorb a hit, yes? But he always gets up — just like his older brother Joe, the too-small star rusher for the New York Giants.

And, like Joe, Jamie always seems to deliver in big games; witness the Ohio State showdown last month, or the Fiesta Bowl last New Year’s Day. All of which makes Morris, a junior, the little man to watch come the Rose Bowl Thursday against Arizona State.

His parents may not be there to watch it — “They prefer to watch on TV,” he said — but, in a way, they will be with him on every play.

Here is an intersection of past and present. A military iron hand, born from the Vietnam experience, shaping a football success story of the ’80’s.
“It was my dad who always stressed never give up, and work as hard in practice as you would in real life,” Morris said.

Without either of those things he would probably not be playing for Michigan right now.Getting ready to face the world

On a Christmas day in the ’60s, Earl Morris saw the steering stick of his helicopter shot out by Viet Cong soldiers. Somehow he managed to get back alive. Back in Ayer, when the war was over, he would wake up his children in the middle of the night, saying he had found dust in a room they were supposed to clean. The kids got up, got rid of the dust, and crawled back into bed.

“I guess I resented it some back then,” Jamie Morris said. “When you’re a kid and you go through that, you always say, ‘When I’m grown up I’m not gonna treat my kids like this.’ But now I see what my father was trying to do.

“If he had his way, we’d stay civilians instead of soldiers. But he was setting us up for the world. We can discipline ourselves now. I’m a very disciplined person.

“And I have to thank him for that.”

It is the last day of 1986, an appropriate time to realize the passing of the days. From kids to adults to kids in their places. Michigan was once a hotbed of protest, and now a son of a Vietnam soldier is carrying the ball and much of the Wolverines’ hopes for a Rose Bowl victory.

Older we grow. Wiser, we hope. One day Jamie Morris’ kids will sneak up to the attic and come upon a helmet. May it always be the kind with a face mask on it.

Even Papa Morris would say amen to that. CUTLINE

Jamie Morris


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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