HHS Player turns season of loss into a season of triumph

IshmaelMorrisPB070760.jpg
IshmaelMorrisPB070760.jpg

Ishmael Morris dedicated what turned out to be a super season to his mother and God.

Measured by numbers, Ishmael Morris?s football season, which ended last Tuesday, was outstanding.

In his first year as the team?s feature back, the Hillsboro High School senior rushed for 1,368 yards on 171 carries, averaging an astonishing 8.0 yards per attempt and scoring 17 touchdowns to help lead his overachieving teammates to a 6-4 record.

But Morris?s accomplishment on the gridiron can?t be measured by statistics alone. Unfortunately, there is no way to calculate heart and determination, no way to quantify the achievement of team unity and support.

If you could, ?outstanding? is an inadequate adjective. ?Inspira?tional? might come close.

Amid the well-earned accolades Morris has received this fall, the ones coming from his biggest and most avid fan are left unspoken.

Rebecca Morris, his mother and head cheerleader, lost her battle with cancer Aug. 24, six days after the start of preseason practice. She was only 49.

?The first couple of days of practice were kind of hard,? said her only child. ?I tried to focus on practice, but it was pretty tough. But I decided I was going to dedicate the season and my playing time to her and for God.?

* * *

His mother?s death came suddenly even though her health had been declining after her cancer returned in summer.

?I don?t think I really expected her to die because she had fought it once before and beaten it pretty good,? Morris said as he reflected on how his summer began and ended.

?It was kind of in the back of my mind, I guess, but I always thought she was going to get better again. So I was working hard in the summer, lifting weights and getting ready for the season.?

In late July, his mother?s health worsened as the cancer turned aggressive.

?She wasn?t keeping anything down. She couldn?t really eat anything except for drinks, and she even had trouble with that,? Morris said.

?It was kind of tough. She was really too tired to do much. She?d sleep most of the time and I think she was in pain quite a bit.?

Having grown up with only minimal contact with his father, Morris became chief caretaker for himself and his mother.

?I pretty much made my own food because she was so sick and too tired to get up,? he said. ?So I helped her with that. I always made this nasty rice-milk stuff because she could keep down regular food. I?d do that and then make my own supper.

?I was pretty much living on my own for the last two months.?

* * *

Around 4 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, Morris was awakened by his uncle, aunt and grandparents. They gave him the news that his mother had passed away during the night under hospice care in Wichita.

Morris managed to fall back to sleep an hour or so later. When he awakened, he was without his mother, but he was not alone. Teammate Tyler Lofton was sitting on the porch swing.

?He came over about 8 and talked with me for a while, then asked if it was OK if a bunch of people from the youth group came over,? Morris said. ?They brought a big vanload of people and had all written me cards and notes.

?It was just amazing.?

In the van were classmates and youth sponsors. Coach Len Coryea came by, too.

?The house was full of people, praying for me and giving me cards,? Morris said. ?They even did all the dirty dishes and cleaned the kitchen up a little bit.

?It was really fantastic that I had all their support.?

* * *

That support system carried over into school and the football practice field.

?We knew what Ishmael might be facing, but we didn?t know when,? Coryea said about his fellow coaches. ?All along I told Ishmael that he was free to miss practice whenever he needed to. Football is one thing, but you have only one mother.

?But he kept coming to practice and kept working hard every day.?

On that first day back after Morris?s mother died, the team ended practice with a group prayer. It became part of the routine the rest of the year.

?Two other boys had lost grandparents during that same time,? Coryea said. ?It was a hard way to start to the season.?

* * *

Morris said when he stepped onto the field for the opening game with Sacred Heart, his mother was on his mind.

?I was thinking of my mom a lot,? he said. ?I decided maybe a week before that I was going to dedicate the season to her. I stepped out there?and it was kind of weird. She always came to all my games.?

A proud mom, Becky Morris had always made sure her son was aware of her presence.

?She was excited about every game,? Ishmael said with a smile. ?She?d bring this bullhorn and scream. I remember one game she was yelling ?T-R-O-J-A-N-S? through the bullhorn?and spelled it wrong.

?I had some friends sitting below her who told me about it. I was so embarrassed?but it was so funny I couldn?t help but laugh.?

That first game, Morris rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries and scored a couple of touchdowns in a dramatic 35-34 Trojan victory. Hillsboro lost the next game to Smoky Valley, 44-22, but for Morris it was a breakout game: 174 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and an 89-yard kickoff return.

?I really remember playing Smoky even though we got dominated,? he said. ?That was the first game that I had really done ?outstanding,? and it was our first game on (artificial) turf.

?I had a good time.?

* * *

More good times followed, including four straight games of at least 100 yards rushing, including two over 200 yards.

Then came Southeast of Saline, a decisive 32-13 loss in which Morris managed 85 yards, but fumbled five times and seriously dislocated his finger.

It was the low point of the season for Morris and his teammates.

?I really didn?t come to the game focused at all,? he said. ?I don?t know what was going on. It was probably the worst game of my career.

?I was really upset with myself for playing so bad,? he added. ?I was determined to come back and prove that I was better than what (the coaches) saw on film.?

Morris did just that, finishing the year with 100-plus games against Herington and Marion and 76 in Tuesday?s loss to Hutch Trinity in bi-district play.

?I never expected (to run for more than 1,300 yards),? he said. ?The highest hope I had was to gain 1,000 yards and be the third guy in three season to get 1,000 yards.?

Coryea said Morris?s natural speed?he is a state-qualifying sprinter in track?and his work in the weight room transformed him into a weapon on the field. Coryea ranks Morris among the top three backs?with Vaughn Jost and C.J Hill?he has seen at HHS during his 20-plus years on the coaching staff.

?Ishmael has explosive speed and he was tough?he ran over people,? Coryea said. ?In addition to the dislocated finger, he had a bruised knee that gave him a lot of trouble. But he never complained.?

* * *

Morris is living these days with his uncle and aunt, Londell and LeNora Duerksen in their rural Goessel home. LeNora is his mother?s sister.

?We had decided a couple of years ago already that if anything happened, I?d go live with my uncle and aunt,? Morris said. ?They took me in like I was one of their sons. They?ve really done a great job with that.

?And since I got all that support from all those people right away, I?ve never really felt alone.?

Morris said he?s had a few initial contacts from small colleges about playing football after high school, but he hasn?t made up his mind about his future.

?I?ve been looking at Tabor (College) and if I end up there, I?ll probably play football. If I go anywhere else, I don?t know if I will.?

He added with a smile: ?Four more years of getting beat up?I don?t know if I really want that.?

Morris hasn?t had a lot of time to reflect on the past four months, but he does believe he has changed as a result of his experiences off and on the field.

?I think my relationship with God has become quite a bit deeper,? he said. ?I knew right away from all the stuff my mom taught me that when you know you?re in trouble, you go to the Lord.

?I got in good with him, and did a lot of praying.?

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