TAMPA, Fla. — James Morris and his younger brother, Jake, stayed in a big hotel, saw the Gulf of Mexico, and attended Iowa’s first Outback Bowl as members of the team's traveling party 10 years ago.
It was new, great stuff for the boys, whose worlds had already dramatically changed for the better in the year leading up to that trip. In May 2003, their mother married Greg Morris, the head equipment manager for Hawkeyes football. Lynn Morris had been a divorced mother raising the two boys on her own.
She was introduced to Greg the year before. Their relationship quickly grew, as did his with her two sons. Lynn and the boys attended their first Hawkeyes game in Kinnick Stadium in 2002. The next year, it was holiday sun, fun and football in Tampa Bay.
Ten years later, things have come back around in the sweetest of ways. James is a young man finishing a wonderful senior season and career as a Hawkeye linebacker, decorated with football and academic honors galore. Jake, a tight end, is excited about launching a football career at Coe College next fall after having played for one season at Iowa Central Community College and then transferring to Northern Iowa for school only.
Both are again in Tampa for another Outback Bowl after sharing another happy Christmas with their parents here. James is preparing for the game with his Hawkeye teammates. Jake is vacationing, but has lifted weights at Iowa’s practice facility here.
“As I was driving over the bridge here,” Lynn said, “it flooded me with memories of our first bowl trip with the football program. The second time we came down here (two years later), the boys and I spent two days going to the beach in a convertible.”
“It’s an incredible full circle,” said Greg while on a break from his duties after the Hawkeyes got done practicing here Saturday. “That first trip here back then, the smiles on those two kids’ faces, it was like they were at Disneyland. And it was just a nice hotel.”
That was a fun snapshot from their 10 years as a family. But where Iowa's Academic All-America and second-team All-Big Ten linebacker, got most of his right stuff was from a mother who never wavered and a father who came into his life when he was 11 and added stability.
Lynn doesn’t publicly discuss her first marriage. She simply says she looks forward, not back. Going forward has been good for over a decade now, a product of two adults with similar philosophies and principles coming together to make better lives for each other, and provide security while setting boundaries for two kids who are now articulate young men.
“I’m afraid I’m going to cry,” Lynn said when asked what Greg had brought to their family, but Jake blurted “Nothing” as an answer to get her to laugh and make it easier for her to proceed.
“Unconditional commitment and devotion, and a strong male presence,” she said. “And obviously, love.”
In a separate interview, Greg said “Lynn is a very strong-willed, caring individual who has all the priorities in her life right.”
When he met her, he not only found the woman that he quickly came to love and respect, but also two boys who came to embrace his support and guidance.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I know that.” Greg said. “To inherit two young kids who all they really wanted in life was stability, love, and someone who was always going to be there. Those three things I promised them, almost immediately.
“I had to earn their trust because ‘Yeah, people told us that before.’ They found out quickly that I won’t go away.”
James’ good upbringing started with their mom, though. Lynn works as a nurse in Cedar Rapids, involved in a variety of things like health fairs, insurance exams, and home health care. She kept her sons loved and cared for before Greg came along.
After getting remarried, her work schedule gave her the flexibility to make sure either she or Greg attended every event their sons were involved in, be it sports, music or anything else.
If James had a game at one place and Jake at another at the same time, Greg would be at one place, Lynn at the other. “We ate dinner as a family,” Lynn said. “We’re pretty old-fashioned. We still bring our Christmas tree on bowl trips and do our Christmas presents here. That’s the way Greg and I were both raised.”
But when you ask her how James became the kind of rare person who could handle the rigors of major-college football and still become a first-team Academic All-America, she makes the extraordinarily difficult sound doable.
“The boys were raised to do things right and do your best,” she said. “I think that just takes care of it.
“If your best is B’s and C’s, do your best. If your best is A’s and B’s, do your best. If you want to be a diesel mechanic, do the best you can in that program. If you want to be a nurse, do your best at that.
“James is very driven. When school starts, all he does is football and school. That doesn’t mean it’s not overwhelming at times. It can be. But his desire is to do well and to follow through.”
James has a 3.84 grade-point average. He is a political science major.
Jake said this about his big brother: “In his free time, he’s more into looking stuff up, reading the Internet.
“He’s a guy who would buy the New York Times and would still live in Iowa.”
“Both the kids are gifted,” Greg said. “But their gift isn’t necessarily their intelligence. Their gift is their ability to want to learn and grow every day in our house, every day at the University of Iowa, every day at Iowa Central, every day at UNI. Now soon, it will be Coe College.
“They have never, ever balked at right and wrong. They have never, ever balked at wanting to learn and grow.”
It’s not like James is or ever was a robot. Lynn and her sons moved from Iowa City to Solon, where Greg lived, in the middle of James’ sixth-grade school year.
“I just remember it being challenging at first,” James said. “Sixth-grade is kind of a weird time, too, an awkward age.”
But Solon turned out to be part of the equation in helping him soar. For most of the time they lived in Iowa City, he and his brother hadn’t been involved in sports and paid no attention to Hawkeye football.
“I was totally oblivious,” James said. “To be honest, I probably didn’t know what the Hawkeyes were. It was somewhat of a sheltered life. Just to kind of get home from school and run around the neighborhood with your friends. Sports was not part of my life until we moved to Solon.”
The boys first viewed the Hawkeyes’ football complex in Iowa City not as the home of a Big Ten team, but as a safe place where people cared about their father and, as a result, them and their mother.
“We were a family that didn’t know much about the football program,” Lynn said. “We just knew it was just Greg’s work. As we met the people Greg worked with, I think the boys were able to be themselves.
“Everybody in the football program was so excited Greg had this family.”
Greg legally adopted the boys in 2005 and they took his last name. The name “Morris” would become well-known and well-liked in Iowa not too many years later.
James and Jake asked Greg if they could play Babe Ruth baseball when James was 11, and away they went full-bore on sports odysseys. James soon became a wrestler, a golfer, and a football player.
He was an easy selection to be The Gazette’s 2010 Male Athlete of the Year. He was a state-qualifier in wrestling and track. Solon High won three of its four straight state football titles with Morris piling up rushing yards and touchdowns in ridiculous quantities and playing linebacker. Both his parents cite Solon football coach Kevin Miller as having a major role in helping their sons become who they are.
“My fantasy is for my sons to be the head coach at Solon High School some day,” said Lynn, who still goes to every Spartans game she can on Friday nights though Jake was done playing there two years ago. “But I’m not trying to chase off Kevin Miller.”
Fantasies of a different sort were realized earlier this month when Lynn accompanied James on a five-day whirlwind of recognition. First, the two flew to Los Angeles for the Lott IMPACT Trophy ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif. IMPACT is an acronym for integrity, maturity, performance, academics, community and tenacity.
UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr was the winner, but Iowa got $5,000 for its general scholarship fund because James was among the four finalists.
From there, James and his mother flew non-stop to New York for the National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy presentation at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That’s regarded as the most prestigious college football award, honoring a combination of on-field performance, academic success and community leadership.
Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel was given the award, NFF National Scholar-Athletes received an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship.
“It was grand, beautiful,” Lynn said of that event and New York City in December. Greg was able to get away from work to get to join them in New York.
Now, this Outback Bowl is the last of James’ 50 games played as a Hawkeye. (He missed one to injury as a sophomore.)
“You want to make it a game worth remembering,” he said Sunday after practice.
The Seniors Day ceremony at Kinnick in November, said Lynn, left her with “admiration and pride, and overwhelming sadness. Most of the boys on the field that day have spent time in the summer at our house. We fed them at least once a week in the summer.”
She said there will be more sadness Thursday, the day she returns to work. “I’ll be busy January the 2nd,” she said. “But for 20 or 30 minutes, I’ll be sad. Then the next chapter starts.”
Next fall, it will be going to Jake’s Coe games on Saturdays, and trying to find a way to attend as many of James’ games as possible on Sundays if he earns a spot on an NFL roster.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz offered James a football scholarship when the boy was a prep sophomore. The acceptance was immediate. James asked his future coach what he should do between then and joining the Hawkeyes, thinking there had to be a workout or dietary regimen of some sort.
“Get good grades and stay out of trouble,” Ferentz told him.
“I think he could handle that,” Greg said with a grin. A proud father’s grin.