There's something about Morey

By Chad Galts / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007
With less than two minutes left in a meaningless preseason game, the New England Patriots have the Dallas Cowboys beat, and the crowd is thinning out. On the field, though, a New England wide receiver leans over the Dallas twenty-three-yard line as though facing the first play of a Superbowl. He drops his hands to his sides and scans the defense. With the Patriots keeping the ball on the ground for most of the fourth quarter, Dallas is probably expecting another run. At the snap, the receiver lowers his head and barrels straight ahead. The coverage stays tight all the way to the end zone. He checks over his shoulder - the quarterback is scrambling - and converts his out pattern to a deep fade. When he checks over his shoulder again, he can see the ball coming on a fast, straight line a few steps ahead of him. As he jumps for the pass, one thought in his head is loud enough to drown out what's left of 50,000 screaming fans: Catch the ball.

The next thing he knows, Sean Morey '99 is standing in the south end zone of Foxboro stadium with a touchdown pass in his hands. The fans have erupted, the public-address announcer is yelling his name, and his teammates are running toward him. Morey is standing stock still, facing the stands. He holds the ball quietly at his right side and stares into space. Rain is falling over him in great gusts, but he doesn't seem to notice. His first touchdown in the NFL is only going to happen once: he wants to savor it.

Scoring a touchdown in a New England Patriots uniform is something Morey has dreamed about since he can remember having dreams. Growing up south of Boston in Marshfield, Massachusetts, he studied every step, shimmy, and juke of every Patriot who was thrown a ball. And now some of Morey's football heroes - Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, and Ty Law - are giving him high fives and butting their helmets onto his.

The time for celebration is brief. After the successful point-after conversion, Morey straps his helmet back on and hustles out for duty on the kickoff team. He races down the field after the kick - his speed is startling, but a tough block takes him out of the play. After the referee blows his whistle, Morey trots energetically to the sideline. As a rookie, Morey does everything energetically, mindful that the coaches are watching. Running downfield on a kickoff five yards ahead of his teammates could give him the edge he needs to make the team.

It's a long way from the Ivy League to the NFL, however. At Brown, Morey was the only player in football history to have his number retired. He graduated leaving the record book in tatters behind him; Morey had more yards (3,850), more catches (251), and more touchdowns (forty - one for every game he played) than anyone in Ivy football history, and he was an important reason for Brown's recent gridiron success. The NFL has an altogether different record book, however, and Morey was the 241st of 262 college players selected in the 1999 draft. He was the last player chosen by the Patriots (but the first draftee from Brown since the Minnesota Vikings picked Steve Jordan '82).

Beyond the small world of College Hill, the conventional wisdom about Morey's NFL chances were neatly summarized last year by Pro Football Weekly: Morey, the paper's editors wrote, "dominated on [the Ivy] level and looks like an awfully good football player and competitor, but he has not had to go against anyone really good and, in terms of size and speed, is just a marginal prospect." Fortunately for Morey, one of his biggest fans is Patriots head coach Pete Carroll. "I'm really excited about this kid," he told the Providence Journal after watching Morey run practice routes last May. "There's just something special about him. He has something very unique. I don't know if he can make our team, but his heart is huge, and he's going to go for it."

After the preseason game against Dallas, Morey is briefly the center of media attention. Being a hometown favorite has made him something of a local-media darling, so his locker is obscured by a knot of cameras and reporters. Tonight they have supplemented their usual question to him - Do you think you'll make the team? - with another: How does it feel to catch your first touchdown pass?

"It was like time just stopped," he says. "I caught it and turned around. All I could see were cameras going off."

All-pro defensive end Willie McGinest walks by Morey's locker on the way back from the shower, muttering over his shoulder: "Morey for Mayor." Morey dissolves in giggles. He is dirty, has two dislocated fingers, and won't know for another eight days if he has made the team. But tonight he's a star.

A month earlier, on a bright, late-July day, Morey stands in his parents' driveway with a garden hose and a sponge, washing his new dark-green Toyota 4Runner. Progress is slow. Marshfield, Massachusetts, is small enough for most of its long-time inhabitants to know one another, but as soon as he made the evening news, Morey's sphere of acquaintances seemed to mushroom. Neighbors and friends stop by for autographs and see how he's feeling about his chances of making the Patriots. Morey smiles broadly, shakes hands, addresses everyone older than himself as Mrs. or Mr., and gladly fills each autograph request.

The afternoon air smells of the sea, which is only a few blocks away from the Moreys' small house. From a distance, Sean - bare-chested, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and one of his ever-present baseball caps - doesn't look much like a professional football player. He is almost two inches shy of six feet and weighs 190 pounds. But up close his body looks like an exaggerated diagram from Gray's Anatomy - every muscle and tendon in his upper torso stands in sharp relief.

In the garage behind him, Morey's father, Dennis, is sipping a beer, smoking a Marlboro, and repairing wooden lobster traps that look as if they have been hauled in and out of the ocean a few too many times. Dennis has been lobstering out of Marshfield for the last twenty years. He has spent the last four of them waging a losing battle against traps with bad corners, broken or missing slats, and shredded nets.

"I haven't been able to reinvest a single penny in the business since the kids have been in school," Dennis says. "If I was smart, I would just drop this out there and leave it." Sean and his twin sister, Erin, the youngest of the four Morey children, have both just finished college. Sean also has two older brothers. Dean lobsters with his father part time, and Mark Dare is a correctional officer at a local prison.

Standing several yards apart, Morey and his father say little to each other and display the same rapt focus on their respective tasks. Several minutes pass with the sound of Sean's scrubbing punctuated only by the light tapping of his father's hammer or the whine of his saw. Morey's father is an older, somewhat grizzled version of Sean. They each have wide, strong jaws and brightly vigilant hazel eyes. When they speak, it's in short, direct sentences.

When every inch of his truck is buffed to a high sheen, Sean begins rolling up the hose. His father fishes a fresh cigarette from the pocket in his nail pouch and walks through the tool-crammed garage. He asks when Sean is going to have time to do the rest of the cars parked in the driveway. Sean laughs. Morey idolizes his father, who had his own career as a semi-professional football player in the 1960s and 70s. Sean has consulted his father on every major decision in his life - from choosing Brown over every other school in the Ivy League to weighing the ten offers for free agency that came before he was drafted by the Patriots. He admits that he and his father don't always agree, but he adds reluctantly that almost every time he's neglected to follow his father's advice, "the old man," as he calls him, has turned out to be right.

Morey retreats into the house to find a shirt and shoes so he can run his errands. He winds his way up the narrow staircase to the second floor, where his room, the same he had growing up, is a disaster of clothes, papers, and football gear. The last Brown jersey ever to bear the number twenty-four is neatly framed and hanging opposite the door. Morey pulls a Brown T-shirt off one pile and replaces his baseball cap with one from Spike's, a Thayer Street hot-dog joint he frequented often enough to have a dog named after him.

He jumps into his new truck, rolls down the windows, and retracts the sunroof. Morey leased the truck after inking a contract for the NFL minimum and collecting a $25,000 signing bonus. Once he'd settled a few debts, the new 4Runner is the one luxury Morey afforded himself. It's a far cry from the used pickup he drove delivering pizzas in high school. If he makes the team, Morey will collect $170,000 for the season. If he doesn't make it, he knows he has a solid education to fall back on - his chance to play in the NFL is not his one-and-only shot at success. But Morey isn't eager to entertain the idea of not making the team. "All I want to do right now," he says, "is concentrate on doing whatever it takes."

The last errand of the day is a haircut. Except for a brief, ill-fated period in high school when he decided to cut his own hair, Morey has made regular trips to Johnny's in Marshfield center. The barber shop has been in the same space for thirty-seven years. It's the kind of place where barbers use hot shaving foam and a straight razor to trim around your ears. The shop's namesake, Johnny Malouf, greets Morey with a booming hello in a thick Lebanese accent. Malouf hands him a bag of cucumbers he picked that morning from his own garden. There are a few customers in front of Morey, so he sits next to a middle-aged woman and her young son on the long vinyl bench opposite the barber chairs.

Malouf and his co-barber, Tom Tickson, begin peppering Morey with questions about the Patriots. He answers vaguely; they seem to be much closer readers of the sports pages than he is. As the football chitchat drones on, the woman next to Morey helps her son into a chair, then asks him: "Are you that kid everyone around here has been talking about?"

"Not unless you've been reading the police report," he says with a grin.

"Don't you listen to a word he says!" Malouf thunders. "Sean here is going to be a big name in football."

Saying nothing, Morey moves into Tickson's chair. As the barber shaves the sides of his head almost down to the scalp, Morey asks the woman about her son, Richie. He recently competed in the Special Olympics, she says. Morey tells her he worked as a volunteer in last year's running of the event and is about to ask her more about it when Richie, his haircut finished, hops out of his chair, ready to go.

"Don't you want to shake this man's hand?" Richie's mother asks him. "He's going to play for the Patriots."

"No," Richie says, inspecting his new haircut in the mirror over the vinyl bench. "I don't feel like it right now."

"Hey Richie," Morey cuts in, "how did you do in the Special Olympics?"

The boy's face lights up. "I won a gold and a silver in the 100-meter and the relay swim," he says proudly. Still facing the mirror, he begins to enumerate his other events, his times, and how he placed.

Morey waits until the boy is finished speaking, then turns around in his chair and sticks out his hand. "Hey Richie, that's really something. Can I shake your hand?"

The boy blushes and lets out a little snort. Staring at their reflections in the mirror, he steps backwards and offers Morey his hand without turning around. "I hope you win," he says quietly to Morey.

Two weeks later Morey gets another sort of haircut. He and every other rookie at the Patriots' training camp are hauled out of their dorm-room beds at three o'clock in the morning by the team's veteran players. It's time for a head shaving, yet another of the hazing rituals that have come to define the rookies' lives. Like all such rituals, the head shaving is a welcome break from the pressure and monotony of camp. The players, who are sequestered away from their families in dorms on the northern Rhode Island campus of Bryant College, face an unvarying daily schedule: wake at six, practice from 8:45 to eleven, eat lunch, practice again from 2:30 to five, then attend team meetings until 9:30. Curfew is at eleven.

On the field, Morey's speed and strength are no longer good enough to open up wide spaces between him and the defensive backs. Lining up against the likes of Ty Law or Steve Israel, Morey is still able to create catching opportunities, but the gaps are tiny, and he has to respond to them in a split second. Morey's ability to do so is earning him the first thing every rookie longs for: the respect of his teammates and coaches. "[Everyone wants] to see if the preppie can play," says the Patriots' wide-receiver coach Ivan Fears a few days into camp, "and he's proved he's tough enough." Morey's relentless intensity earns him one of the nicknames he seems to be collecting: Insane Asylum. (He is also known as "Brownie" and "I.Q.")

Of course, the history of professional football is littered with tough and hungry young men whose careers lasted less than a season. Unfortunately for Morey, the Patriots have one of the deepest receiving corps in professional football. Twelve wide receivers are competing for six spots on the team, and five of them belong to veterans Terry Glenn, Shawn Jefferson, Troy Brown, Tony Simmons, and Vincent Brisby, who are among the NFL's best receivers. Morey has to beat out the remaining seven players, three of them veterans, to make the team.

Throughout camp, Morey tries to put what he calls "the numbers game" out of his head and just keep working. Because rookies run fewer drills during practice, they get fewer chances to impress the coaches. Morey shows up early and is often the last player off the practice field. He pays careful attention to how Glenn and the other veterans run routes, then interrogates them about their speed changes and footwork. He watches every cornerback and safety to see if they have weak spots - do they play loose off the line of scrimmage, or do they play tough on the start and fade late in the patterns?

"The only reason I was as successful as I was at Brown," Morey says, "was that I was mentally prepared." As a Bear, Morey watched hours of videotape before every game, looking for opponents' weaknesses; he pasted articles about his foes onto his dorm-room wall, looking for insight into the mind of each individual defensive back. "I would get to know his name, his nickname, where he was from, what his hobbies were, even what his parents' first names were," he says. "That way I always felt like I had an edge."

On September 6, Sean Morey made the cut. He officially became a New England Patriot and was given the number eighty-five. His euphoria was short-lived, however. Nine days later he was called to a meeting with the team's owner, Robert Kraft, and head coach Pete Carroll. The team had suffered injuries in other positions, Kraft and Carroll explained, they now needed to free up a roster spot. They told Morey they still believed in him and that they would offer him a spot on the practice squad - a five-man reserve that helps the team prepare for games but that does not dress for games.

Morey had twenty-four hours to pursue offers from other teams, but he refused to compromise his ambition to be a Patriot. He did not seek other offers. "In the meeting, Mr. Kraft said I reminded him of himself," Morey says later. "He told me he really appreciated my work ethic and he really wants me to be a part of this club. Of course, it's frustrating, but my role hasn't changed. I think I can really contribute."

By the first week in November, Morey has gotten to know a few of his football heroes personally, and has even taken a few of them down to Providence for a Morey Dog at Spike's. Five days a week he makes the one-hour commute to Foxboro stadium from his parents' house in Marshfield. His job is now to watch film of the Patriots' next opponent and mimic its wide receivers against the Patriots' defensive backs. Steve Israel, a cornerback who frequently lines up against Morey in practice, says the rookie approaches this new assignment with his usual ferocity. "He is one hard-working kid," Israel says. "He has really learned how to change speeds and shift gears in a route." Like everyone else on the team, Morey lifts weights, runs drills, and keeps up with changes in the play book. But unlike almost everyone else on the team, Morey often watches the games from the stands, or his Marshfield living room, instead of from the sideline.

It is a kind of torture, Morey says, but it's his only chance. At least practice and NFL coaching have deepened his skill and understanding of the game. "Realistically speaking," he says, "a lot of people have done everything they could to get in my position and, for whatever reason, they have fallen short. If I work hard, I'll be able to live with myself - I will have made the most of it."

With the start of the regular season, the press has turned its attention to the ups and downs of the Patriots veterans. Morey is rarely in the spotlight anymore. His parents have seen their lives return to something close to normal after months of being referred to as Sean Morey's mother and father. Their son still hasn't had time to find himself an apartment, and his room is still a mess, but they are willing to let these things slide, confident that he has wisely used his physical talent to acquire a good education that will still be there whenever his pro career ends.

On some of his days off, Morey returns to campus to visit his old teammates, many of whom remain his closest friends. Often he works with them to pass on the moves and ideas he's picked up with the Patriots. He tries to attend most Brown football games, even when the team plays on the road. Keeping his ties to his former teammates seems to shore up Morey's confidence and make the frustrations of his professional career more tolerable.

Then, on December 7, after days of rumors, Morey is called upstairs after morning practice at Foxboro stadium. There the director of player personnel tells him he will be promoted to a spot on the Patriots' fifty-three-man roster in time for a crucial game against the Colts in Indianapolis the following Sunday.

It's a crucial step forward, but a small one. Only forty-eight players dress for games, and by Sunday Morey is among the extra five players in streetclothes on the sideline. But he is closer now to each play Bledsoe calls, to the crunch of pads, and to the shouts of his teammates.

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January / February 2000