By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
Jon Morris '64 sighs, in a mock-serious tone, "I'm on a losing streak,'' when asked about not being elected recently to the New England Patriots' Hall of Fame and being overlooked for initial selection to Holy Cross' newly created football Ring of Fame.
Morris, lingering accolades aside, is quite content living "very happily" with Gail, his wife of 42 years, in a stunning home they had built in Belfair Plantation, a gated golfing community in Bluffton, S.C. He enjoys reading in his library stocked with 2,000 books, golfing on Belfair's two 18-hole courses and dabbling in local politics. His daughter Jennifer '92, a financial consultant, lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., with his grandkids Faye and Nash. His son Jack '95, a web content manager, and his wife, Kristi, reside in Andover, Mass.
Life is good, very good.
His resume of gridiron glories is nearly complete: Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame; six straight American Football League All-Star selections as the Patriots' center; the Patriots 50th Anniversary team center; first Patriot to play in an AFL-NFL Pro Bowl; second most all-star selections (7) by a Patriot, trailing only Pro Hall of Famer John Hannah (9); Patriots radio analyst from 1979 to 1987; captain in Senior Bowl and center in the College All-Star game against the NFL-champion Bears; three-sport sensation at Gonzaga College High in Washington, D.C.; No. 7 spot-holder among the Top 10 Crusader Athletes of All Time as selected for Holy Cross Magazine by an elite panel. On and on the honors go.
"I'm a little disappointed by the Patriot outcome,'' admits Morris with trademark candor. "It would be a distinct honor to be voted in." Fifteen players, including the late Bob Dee '55, reside in the very classy hall at Patriot Place in Foxborough, Mass.
Morris has every reason to be a bit dejected. This marks the third time a special Patriots selection committee has nominated him since the voting went online in 2007. "I feel like Harold Stassen!'' quips Morris, referring to the former Minnesota governor who failed in nine attempts to be the GOP candidate for president.
There is a danger that Morris, a low-profile offensive center for 15 seasons, may be forgotten as Patriots from recent Super Bowl teams become eligible. Picking one Patriot a year and relying on Internet voting by fans is a suspect system of selection. "There is not going to be room for an old guy like me," cackles Morris.
Meanwhile Dick Regan '76, Holy Cross director of athletics, predicts Morris will soon join the first six Crusaders (Bill Osmanski '39, Eddie Murphy '43, Vince Promuto '60, John Provost '75, Gill Fenerty '86 and Gordie Lockbaum '88), selected for the Ring of Fame at Fitton Field.
Morris, 68, has ample time to ponder the past. Occasionally he wonders about what might have happened in his football career, alluding to Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken."
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both ..."
Two clear paths opened up to Morris in 1964 as he was drafted by the NFL and AFL, two warring pro football leagues.
Green Bay's legendary coach Vince Lombardi tried to lure him into the Packers fold with a two-year, no-cut deal. He told Morris that his all-star center Jim Ringo would not be an obstacle (indeed, that summer Lombardi traded Ringo).
Boston Patriots coach Mike Holovak, a Boston College legend, enticed Morris with a similar deal and the notion of immediate stardom in the upstart AFL.
Morris confesses he experienced the same confusions as other college graduates while facing an uncertain future, which included the military draft as the conflict in Vietnam heated up. Morris had options other than pro football and entertained the idea of going to law school. At Holy Cross, Morris observes, he had little career guidance.
There were no sports agents around to advise him. However, Jon Nicholson Morris, the oldest of nine children, possessed a very realistic view of life. Teammates and classmates describe him as a natural leader, far more mature than other 22-year-olds. "He is the guy everyone looked up to. He was our rock,'' says teammate Jim Gravel '65.
Morris exhibited a calculating and tough mind on the football field as an offensive center and defensive linebacker, competing against powerhouses such as Syracuse and Penn State. He was no slouch in the classroom, handling a rugged lineup of courses in English literature.
His father, Jack, a longtime, highly respected New York Times correspondent covering the U.S. House of Representatives, imbued him with a practical perspective. His mother, Lee, an orphan raised by a pediatrician named Margaret Nicholson (Jon's middle name), had a sharp creative mind and knew the ropes.
Wisely, Morris turned to his dad for help in haggling with the Patriots' Holovak and Green Bay's Lombardi. Mom got into the act, too. In their living room in Chevy Chase, Md., she challenged a Green Bay aide assigned to "babysit" Morris (so he wouldn't choose Boston).
"What will Jon do in Green Bay in the off season?" she asked pointedly.
"Well some guys work at the bowling alley, and another guy runs a gas station in town," sputtered the Green Bay aide. Mrs. Morris wasn't impressed. She didn't send Jon to Gonzaga and Holy Cross to pump gas.
In the end, Morris had to make the final decision. "I was 22, and Boston was a lively town, and I felt comfortable there. Green Bay seemed dead outside football," Morris recalls.
So Morris signed with the Patriots for a $13,000 paycheck for season one and a $17,000 salary for year two. With his $10,000 signing bonus, he bought a fancy convertible. "Back then, I paid $3,000 for the car and had $7,000 left. That seemed like a lot of money."
At the Patriots' direction, Morris signed on with the Massachusetts National Guard to fulfill his military obligation over six years. He enrolled at Suffolk University Law School's Evening Division. But after two semesters, he grew bored listening to lectures on the law while Boston's nightlife beckoned.
Why did Morris choose Holy Cross when nearly 100 colleges wooed the dynamic lineman, including the likes of Notre Dame, Harvard and Michigan? The Jesuits at Gonzaga, no doubt, pushed Holy Cross. Indeed nine of his classmates also ended up at the College. His dad reminded him that Holy Cross was offering him a free ride worth $2,000 a year, and Jon had four brothers and four sisters who would likely follow him to college.
Back then, Morris says, Holy Cross bore no resemblance to the school his son and daughter hated to leave in the '90s. The atmosphere was serious and gray, he recalls. Daily Mass. Jackets and ties at dining hall. No women. No diversity. Not much course selection. No on-campus pubs, no nightlife.
"It could be a grind, but I received an education with real value. If I could, I wouldn't change my decision to come to Holy Cross. The friendships with classmates and teammates have lasted a lifetime. We still stay in touch. We are bound together by the stories we share and remain tied tightly to a network of Crusaders,'' he says.
Morris thinks Holy Cross altered his life dramatically, gave him the athletic notoriety that led to his pro football career and the acumen to develop later his own successful food brokerage company.
Still unabashedly outspoken, Morris declares: "In my mind, Holy Cross has emerged as a top-rated college because of Father John Brooks. He is the most important person in the college's history. He saved the school, dragging it into the modern era. The endowment fund, the development of the campus, the quality of the education flourished under his guidance. I fully supported his decision to end football scholarships and to avoid the pollution of big-time athletics."
Morris recalls all the thrills playing under Dr. Eddie Anderson, even though Holy Cross had begun the slow process of de-emphasizing football. "We took some lickings, but we beat Boston College twice in my three varsity years," he says. His favorite victory was his last, a 9-0 triumph over Boston College in 1963. "Many ranked it as our second biggest football upset,'' says Morris. His most remembered play that day was downing a Fran Coughlin punt on the Boston College one-yard line, which led to a safety that gave the Crusaders a 2-0 lead they would never surrender.
Back in the fall of 1962, Robert Frost lectured at Holy Cross and read the closing stanza of his famous poem.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.'
Jon Morris, then forging his future, heeded those words and indeed chose a path to a meaningful life filled with rich memories.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of
Holy Cross Magazine.
John W. Gearan '65 was an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Rhode Island.