Morris veered past all this and headed straight to the far corner of the sideline. Once there, he hopped over the wall, sat down, and apologized for being late.
Thus began one of the most unusual pre-game routines in Washington sports: Morris’s weekly communion with his friends who work in guests services or security at FedEx Field. It’s a tradition he started during preseason of his rookie year — before he became one of the most productive running backs in the NFL — when an usher asked him to stop by and chat. The rookie obliged.
“He was just a normal person, treating me like a normal person,” Morris recalled. “So I kept doing it.”
The group grew, and the conversations became a fixture of his game days. Morris learned all the staffers’s names. He kept in touch with them during the offseason. They started meeting up for all-you-can-eat crab and shrimp feasts at local restaurants. He calls them “my Stadium Fam,” and if you think there isn’t peace and happiness at FedEx Field on fall Sundays, you’ve never observed these 20-minute sessions, which start with laughter and end with a prayer.
The running back slapped hands with one staffer on this September morning, shook hands with another, slapped hands with a third, and then settled back to talk about … what exactly?
Well, fishing. The weather. The latest television shows. The previous day’s college football action. Family life. How his friends were doing at work. Just the usual stuff NFL players discuss with stadium staffers two hours before kickoff.
“We just talk about regular things, regular life,” said Lorenzo Parker, 31, one of the guest services employees.
“All sorts of things,” said Campbell McKenneth, 45, another regular.
“Just life, basically,” said Elizabeth, who’s in her first season working in that corner of the field. This whole Morris thing still feels a bit unusual to her, so she mostly stays off to the side and listens. But for many of the 10 or so staffers who meet up with the running back on Sundays, these sessions are as natural as talking about “Game of Thrones” at the Keurig machine, or ordering Chinese food every Thursday: just another office ritual.
“He acts just like he’s one of us,” Parker said. “I just look at him like a regular friend. It’s nothing different.”
“My first reaction was, ‘Dang, this is Alfred Morris.’ You know what I’m saying?” McKenneth said. “But seeing how cool and relaxed he was in talking to us, it made us feel cool and relaxed and easy talking to him.”
“I think it does say something for him,” Parker said. “It just shows the type of character that he has.”
There’s been a lot of anguished talk in Washington this week about whether you need to admire the athletes you’re rooting for. Many Nats fans are gutted by the near-certain offseason departure of Ian Desmond, the most fan-friendly of the Natitude era’s core. Many of these same fans feel uneasy — or worse — about cheering for Jonathan Papelbon, the closer with the unsavory reputation who has taken one too many swipes at Bryce Harper’s throat.
Morris, though, appears to be everything you could hope for in a local star: a late-round pick who borrowed his touchdown celebration from a youth baseball team, cherishes his ancient beater of a car, uses his prime parking space in Ashburn for bicycle storage, has refused to complain about his woefully low salary, and has gone out of his way this fall to praise Matt Jones, the rookie who already is eating into his starting role.
At that last home game — five hours after Morris hugged his game-day friends — Jones emerged as the offensive star, with his first 100-yard game. Morris’s response? He spent the postgame talking about mentoring this kid who was filling up his rear-view mirror.
“I’m just paying it forward,” Morris said. “I had older guys who would do the same thing for me, not only in this world but in college as well, so I just always want to give that back. I know we’re competing, that’s easy, but just to be able to help each other, I think it’s definitely been paying off. … I’m happy for him. I really am.”
That’s about what you’d have guessed after watching Morris — in burgundy shorts and a gray t-shirt, with a brown cross hanging around his neck — giggle his way through his pre-game routine. You imagine NFL stadiums as caverns of noise and violence and bad behavior. But there’s a real peace before all that, when defensive coordinator Joe Barry is slowly circling the field in his street clothes, and Tress Way and Nick Sundberg are having a relaxed game of catch, and staffers are jogging up and down the steps.
It was sunny and breezy, almost serene. Morris and his friends could have been having a weekend picnic or waiting for an outdoor show to begin. The conversations, he said, help him “quiet your mind, just have that little peace and just chill out before the game, before it gets chaotic. Because once that whistle blows, it starts, and it starts fast.”
Even asking him about the sessions feels crass, as if he has any reason to explain being pals with his co-workers. Still, he tried.
“I mean, I’m a person just like anybody else. You’re a person; I’m a person; but just because I play a game, they elevate me,” Morris said. “I’m a normal, everyday person; I just happen to play football in the NFL. … I ain’t no better than the next person.That’s just the way I look at life, man. In God’s eyes, we’re all equal, so why should I act like I’m better than anybody else when I’m not?”
Two minutes before 11, the nine people in that corner — black and white, male and female, NFL star and non-NFL star — held each other’s hands and bowed their heads. By now, the stadium sound system was firing up, blasting “Renegades” as ushers prepared for the gates to open. Parker led the small group in their weekly prayer.
Then Morris handed out more handshakes and hugs, and hopped back over the wall.