Eyes wide open

By Alex Helmbrecht, Sports Information Director

Like a majority of college football players, Dominic Morris' life revolved around the sport he loved.

He defined himself as a football player. He introduced himself as being part of a team and those teammates became an extended family.

On an unseasonably warm September afternoon in Chadron, the game he loved almost took all that away from him.

Humble Beginnings

To hear Morris tell it, his time at Chadron State has been an eye-opening experience.

The senior tailback grew up in the Southern California city of Rialto and played football two years at Ventura College, a junior college within walking distance from the Pacific Ocean.

Both those destinations were far away from the wide open prairies of northwest Nebraska he first saw in early 2010 during a recruiting visit.

Morris, who was Ventura's leading rusher in 2009, shrugged off the differences in scenery and chose Chadron. However, his first few weeks as an Eagle were spent on the practice squad.

"Playing on the practice squad humbled me," Morris said. "I wasn't as good as I thought I was and it made me work harder."

Following the Eagles' opening game in 2010, he impressed the coaches enough to give him some repetitions with the starting offense in practice.

His first opportunity to make his mark came in the second week against Pittsburg State. He carried the ball seven times for 16 yards. Pedestrian numbers to some but he finished the game as the Eagles' leading ball carrier against the Gorillas' rugged defense and earned a spot in the backfield.

He followed that up with games of 40 and 84 yards before reeling off 122 against Colorado State-Pueblo. After a disappointing game at Nebraska-Kearney, he rallied off three 100-yard performances in the Eagles' final five games – all victories – and formed a formidable duo with then redshirt freshman Glen Clinton.

"Once I showed them I could play, I was part of the team," Morris said. "Everyone took me in and treated me like I had been here all four years. That helped me being away from home. I felt like I had a family."

Morris and Clinton combined to run for more than 1,800 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as the Eagles went 8-3 and finished third in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. By all accounts, the future was bright for the Chadron State backfield.

An Unforgettable Day

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011 was hot. The temperature at kickoff read 81 degrees but there was no breeze and the Eagles' football team was decked out in their home colors, dark cardinal. Not a favorable hue to play football in under a brilliantly clear autumn sky.

"I really remember it being hot," Morris said. "I don't know if that was because of the temperature or because I felt more pressure on me since we were coming off a loss and Glen was still out with an injury. Looking back, though, I know I didn't feel right before the game. I was probably a little dehydrated and I had a headache."

Chadron State took a cue from the weather and started out blazing. The Eagles led 21-7 at halftime over Angelo State – it was the two teams' first-ever meeting – and they were looking to add to it.

However, things in life, just as in football, can change in an instant.

On first down, with six minutes to play in the third quarter, Morris scampered six yards to the Chadron State 34-yard line. Following an uncharacteristic delay of game on second down, Morris was again called upon to carry the ball.

It would be the last time he touched it.

Time to Forget

Morris would soon forget much of 2011, especially the summer and early autumn.

"No doubt about it, those were the worst two months of my life," he said.

The first unfortunate event happened in late July when he and three of his teammates were involved in a car accident following a relaxing weekend in Colorado.

Morris, who was driving his sports utility vehicle, veered off the road after hitting a pothole. He suffered some major bumps and bruises and his car was totaled.

While the injuries weren't critical – two other friends of Morris were unable to play for a few weeks following the crash.

He acknowledged the accident took a toll mentally, even though he was cleared physically.

"I felt like I probably came back too soon but it was my senior year and I wanted to play," he said. "I didn't want to let my team down."

He wasn't going to let anything stand in his way. He was 21 years old, in his mind, invincible. It was his senior season and he wasn't going to miss it.

"I felt like I had a lot of pressure since Glen was out," Morris said. "We were coming off a loss and I wanted to show that I could take it on."

He didn't let the Eagles down in 2011's opening game at the University of Mary, rushing for 140 yards on 24 carries in a loss while Clinton was recovering from a hand injury.

The Eagles still lost, though. Morris, as well as his teammates, felt like they had a lot to prove against Lone Star Conference member, Angelo State.

It was, after all, the home opener for Chadron State.

Left Heavy, 29, Toss

Football players and coaches have a vernacular all their own. Their play call sheets serve as a Rosetta stone, the players as chess pieces.

The play call when Morris was injured was Left Heavy, 29, Toss.

Left Heavy signifies the formation the Eagles were in on second and nine from the 29-yard line. Pre-snap, it looks like an ace set – two tight ends on each side of the field – but the H-receiver, another name for a tight end, motions to the left side of the field to create an unbalanced, heavy, set.

The other part of the play call – 29 toss – means the tailback, which had the ball tossed to him, is running to the nine hole, which is outside the tight ends, and to the outside.

Basically, to the football layman, the play was a run to the left.

The Rams had the play defended well and forced Morris to reverse his field at the 26. He never got the chance because he was held up by a defender allowing Alvin Johnson to tackle him high. Morris fumbled the ball and JoJo Schumpert scooped it up at the 25 and raced to the end zone for a touchdown.

The hit on Morris resonated through the hills to the south of the stadium. Even many Angelo State fans had a hard time cheering their team's momentum-swinging play while Morris was lying on the field.

"I remember I got wrapped up by one guy and I was trying to fight for more yards. I was fighting for the yardage and then I got hit in the head. I went unconscious but then I came out of it and I remember seeing (trainer) Don (Watt) in my face. He asked me what the number was of the guy who hit me. I told him the play," Morris said.

Morris had suffered a brain hemorrhage and it was causing him to drift in and out of consciousness.

Watt, who has been the trainer at Chadron State for more than 20 years, knew he had to get Morris off the field.

"I knew he was conscious when I first saw him and I immediately checked to see he didn't have any broken bones or a spinal injury," Watt said. "We got him up to walk off the field, so we could look him over by our team's bench.

"Dr. (Jerry) McLain and I were assessing the situation on the sideline and as the symptoms increased it become apparent that there was something wrong with Dominic inside his skull. We made the decision to call the ambulance to take him to the hospital to receive more diagnostic care to find out if there was a more severe injury than we first suspected. When he was going in and out of consciousness and vomiting, we knew it was bad. I've seen a lot of injuries and there have been some scary ones. This one really affected everyone who saw it."

Morris remembers he was in terrible pain while on the sidelines.

"It was the worst pain of my life and I just wanted to scream. Don and the coaches were talking to me and trying to keep me awake. Don kept telling me to squeeze his hand and then I started to throw up. My head was hurting and the next thing I knew I was going to the hospital."

The situation became dire when he was in the ambulance.

"They told me to move all my extremities but I couldn't move my right leg," he said.

He received a CAT scan at Chadron Community Hospital and doctors determined Morris' brain was bleeding. He was flown in a helicopter to Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff.

"It was the most uncomfortable ride of my life," he said. "I was on a platform and I was strapped in there. I remember all of it."

Once Morris got to Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, he was prepared for surgery. The doctors had to remove part of the right side of his skull to relieve pressure in his brain and to remove the blood clot.

"They asked me if I had a living will and I said, no," he said. "I had never even thought of having a will."

The surgery took more than four hours and it wasn't until late that evening the surgeon said the bleeding had stopped and the blood clot was removed.

He came out of surgery better than expected and when he woke up, he had several well wishers in the room with him.

"All the coaches and their families and Don were there," he said. "The first thing I saw when I woke up was Sean McGowan's (CSC's former starting center) mom and she asked me how I was doing. I asked her if we won the game and she said, no. I went in and out the entire day."

Morris stayed in the trauma wing at Regional West for two days before he returned to Chadron for a day to talk to teammates and coaches. He then went home to California and recuperated for three weeks before coming back to Chadron.

"I never thought I could play football again," he said. "I came back with the mindset that I was just going to be a student."

That mindset didn't last long.

The Comeback Trail

Morris was getting back to normal and wasn't thinking much about playing football.

However, he got a routine checkup with his doctor during winter break and on a whim he asked him if he could play again.

The doctor responded, yes.

"Of course, I was excited but at that point, I hadn't fully decided to play," he said. "A lot of thinking went into it and the person who made the biggest impact on me was Coach (Chris) Stein. We're close and he called me in during the spring and told me that he was scared of the risk I was taking.

"It was a fatherly talk and it helped me a lot with my decision. I had to do it for myself and I couldn't live with myself to just walk away. I had a second chance and I had to come back and play. I needed to take advantage of it."

Stein, who is the offensive coordinator at Chadron State, initially had reservations about Morris playing football.

"I told him, if he was my son, I probably wouldn't let him play," Stein said. "I was worried about it. It crushed me to know that the kid almost died. It was the scariest moment of my coaching career when I saw him fall down on the sidelines. I wanted him to know how I felt.

"But, at the end of the day, it wasn't my decision. I respected his choice and I know he talked to his dad at length about it. He had to do it for himself and I can't knock that. To be honest, I don't worry about it anymore and I felt better after we talked. He's done everything he needed to do and I enjoy having him on the field."

Watt didn't want Morris to play either, but doctors assured him he was OK.

"One of the rehab doctors told me what happened to Dom was like a bruise and it went away," he said. "As long as there is no structural damage, he's fine to play. It didn't deter from his mental capacities and my staff and I treat him like everyone else on the team now."

Fall camp was a little different for Morris this year. He was denied contact for the first two weeks to ensure he was back at full speed. Watt and the coaching staff wanted to break him in gradually.

"Camp was nerve-wracking because I hadn't taken a hit and I wasn't allowed any contact for a couple weeks but once I got hit, I knew I could do it," Morris said. "My confidence built each day and having the support of my coaches and teammates means the world to me."

Through six games this fall Morris has indeed taken advantage of his second chance. Although he plays with an extra padded helmet – his father requested he take the precaution – he shows no signs of slowing down.

He's rushed for 102 yards and scored a TD. He also recently went over 1,000 yards rushing for his career.

Of those 102 yards, 36 of them came in Chadron State's game at Angelo State. Morris finally helped his team avenge their loss from the season before. The Eagles won, 19-7 during another hot day in September.

But to Morris, the numbers don't matter. He got another chance.

"It was a life-changing experience and I learned so much. I still came out on top and a lot of it is coming from God. He's the one who blessed me with playing again."

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