IOWA CITY, Iowa — James Morris’ talent was in line with every great Iowa linebacker who played under Kirk Ferentz.
Morris had size at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and could cover ground with equal quickness. His instincts were so good that former linebackers coach Jim Reid teared up when describing how perfectly Morris could marry scheme with execution. He was physical and destructive on the football field.
A political science major, the 25-year-old Morris could provide narrow analysis, dissecting plays without revealing schematic intentions better than most players. His intangibles translated into natural leadership qualities. Nobody was more committed as either a student or an athlete from 2010 through 2013 than James Morris.
But Morris’ post-college career hasn’t panned out quite as smoothly as his Iowa career. Morris went undrafted while fellow linebackers Christian Kirksey (third round) and Anthony Hitchens (fourth round) found homes. Morris has moved from team to team and fought through multiple injuries. There was a blood clot. Then a torn knee ligament. Then a shoulder. Three teams, three seasons, three unfortunate situations.
“I think the best way I would describe it would be an injury-riddled adventure,” Morris said. “That’s part of the game. And that’s a part of the game at this point that I know better than I ever would have liked to have known it. That’s the risk you take when you play. Sometimes everything isn’t going to happen exactly the way you may have planned it or wanted to, but you’ve got to make the best out of the opportunities. That’s what I’ve tried to do. There’s been multiple times where the result has not necessarily been up to me. That’s how I rationalize it.”
That’s not lip service from Morris. Far from it. He keeps a positive, yet realistic, attitude and approach to the rigors of the vagabond NFL lifestyle. Currently, he enters his second season of a two-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys. He’s working out in Dallas but he understands the team could release him at any time.
That’s where the Iowa mindset of focusing strictly on the task at hand has served Morris well.
“You’ve got to really focus on what you can control and what you can do,” Morris said. “I can’t really control whether or not I get injured. You can try to do stuff to maybe reduce the probability of you sustaining serious injury, but there’s no way to remove that from happening entirely. When it does happen you just kind of take a step back and say, ‘Well, what can I do now?’ A lot of times your only option is to rehab as best you can and try to maintain mentally fit and into the game and stick to your routine and stick to your plan.”
At Solon High School, located just 10 miles north of Iowa City, Morris was the model student-athlete. Twice he was named Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He led the Spartans to 41 straight wins and three straight state titles. Even when he shifted to quarterback in part of his senior year, Morris rushed for 2,247 yards and scored 40 touchdowns.
Morris’ 6,646 career rushing yards ranks eighth in Iowa prep history. His 113 touchdowns is third. As a sophomore, he committed to Iowa, where his father, Greg, is the football equipment manager. Morris finished high school with a 3.95 grade-point average and was a member of National Honor Society.
Solon has produced several Division I athletes, including many under football coach Kevin Miller. But none measures up to Morris as the full-package person. It’s probable nobody ever will, either.
“Just a different level of maturity,” Miller said. “How he attained that? I don’t know. It’s remarkable.”
At Iowa, Morris played in 50 games and started 42. He was named second-team all-Big Ten as a senior and ranked second in the league with eight sacks. He recorded 400 career tackles, which lists sixth in school history. He posted three straight years on Iowa’s leadership council, was academic all-Big Ten his final three seasons and was a permanent team captain his senior year.
Everything pointed upward for Morris as the 2014 NFL Draft approached. Then, he went undrafted.
While slightly disappointed, Morris shifted into his blue-collar mindset and signed with New England minutes after the draft. Then a spiral of bad luck ensued, starting with failing his physical for a blood clot in his leg. He was released and spent the next three months on blood thinners. In what he described as “a mad scramble,” Morris hurriedly got into shape, was re-signed by the Patriots and rushed into action. Then, in his final preseason game, Morris tore his MCL in his knee and was out for the 2014 season.
After an offseason of rehab, Morris continued to compete with the Patriots. He recorded the second-most tackles in the preseason opener against Green Bay. He played the majority of defensive snaps in the final 2015 preseason game against the New York Giants but was cut anyway. New England personnel told Morris it was “a clean break” and the team planned to move on without him. But he made an impression on the Patriots’ opponent.
“I had a tryout the next week with the Giants,” Morris said. “That went good and I stuck. I grinded on the practice squad for about half a year there and got called up and started playing special teams full core, having fun, having a little success and then got hurt, too. So that was like Week 15. I got hurt and that was it for that year.”
Morris played in six games for the Giants and recorded two tackles. He was released after the 2015 season and spent most of 2016 working out in Iowa City preparing for his next chance. He had a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, who signed him to a two-year deal. In his second preseason game, Morris injured his shoulder, cleared waivers and was placed on injured reserve.
“It’s been a struggle, but it’s a humbling process,” Morris said. “It helps you mature when you face some adversity. I think it really helps you focus on what you really want and how important that dream is to you. Do you want to continue to sacrifice or work hard to attain that dream even when there’s the potential for significant injury? I feel like I’ve got a good handle on that in my mind for what I want and I’m prepared to do. That’s just kind of my thought process.”
In his three years away from Iowa football, Morris has lived in Boston, New York and Dallas with his wife, Taylor (Van Scoyoc), whom he married in June 2015. In trying to find perspective, Morris looks beyond the injuries and turmoil and instead views his life optimistically.
“Despite being hurt all the time, I’ve been incredibly lucky,” Morris said. “I’ve gotten to be around an organization (New England) that won a Super Bowl in ’14, to live right on the Hudson River in New York City and be an NFL football player in that environment, and I’ve got to go down to Dallas and be within the city when they had one of their best seasons. There’s so many good things going on that I have a hard time kind of playing that comparison game and feeling bad for myself.”
That also extends to his former teammate Kirksey and current teammate Hitchens. With the Cleveland Browns in 2016, Kirksey finished third in NFL tackles with 148. Hitchens started all 16 games in Dallas this season and 36 overall in his three NFL seasons. At Iowa, Morris-Hitchens-Kirksey was the most underrated linebacking trio in school history, if not the best. So does Morris look at his contemporaries and wonder what if?
“That’s kind of a dangerous game, the transitive property of football performance,” Morris said. “I follow them really closely. I’m always cheering for them. I know what kind of players they are and I know if both of them can stay healthy, they can both play for a long time. Just really happy for them and the success they’ve had individually.
“As far as do I go down, what I would say is a slippery slope of comparing myself to them, I try to not do that just for the simple fact that I don’t know that it would do much for me. For me to sit here and say, ‘Well, he’s successful and he’s successful, therefore I should be successful, but somehow I’m not as successful as I think I should be,’ I just think that’s a really dangerous habit to develop. That’s something that might lead to you becoming bitter or jealous and that’s not what to do, that’s not who I want to be.”
Morris’ words are honest and direct. There’s no ambiguity there. He’s proud of his former teammates’ success, but he’s focused on his own career path. Concurrently with his football training, he’s taking online courses for a master’s degree in business administration. No matter what venture he chooses outside of football, he’s likely to find success.
But he’s not finished with the sport. If he can stay healthy, maybe he can find the right situation. In the meantime, he’s battling, he’s staying positive and he vows to persevere.
“I’m three years into this thing and it’s been a head-scratcher,” Morris said. “Most guys in my situation are done. If you’re undrafted usually after the first year you’re done. I must be doing something right if people want to keep giving me a shot.”
“He certainly works hard and he’s paid the price,” Miller said. “If it doesn’t work out, then bigger and better things lie ahead for him. I know he’s certainly capable.”