Mike Justice is the sort of Redskins fan who flies from his job in Dubai back to the United States, expressly so that he can go sit in the brutal July heat in Richmond and watch football players do drills. Two years ago, I ran into Mike during one of the first days of Washington’s training camp. After flying around the world to watch practice sessions featuring a bunch of guys who wouldn’t even make the roster, he had only one wish: to meet Alfred Morris.
“I just want to spend one minute with that guy, just talk to him,” Justice told me. “He’s the definition of a true-hearted athlete.”
I try not to peer inside the hearts of too many athletes, and I can’t tell you for sure whether Morris’s heart is true. But the fact is, that’s how so many Washingtonians viewed Morris, and he never gave them reason to think otherwise.
He was the sixth-round pick who set records while remaining sublimely oblivious to the hype; the guy who drove that famous 1991 Mazda and later started riding his bike to Redskins Park; the player who spent time before every home game with FedEx Field ushers and who went out for meals with them during the offseason; the guy who wore wigs at a Breast Cancer survivors event and played paintball with Redskins fans at a bachelor party; the guy who spent four years doing a touchdown celebration given to him by some random Little Leaguers he once ate cupcakes with.
Morris’s public face changed a bit over the last two seasons; he smiled less for the cameras, and tried to avoid interviews, and seemed less of a goofy kid and more of a world-weary adult. (Been there.) But when you got him going, he still said the sort of things that might inspire a fan who had traveled thousands of miles just to watch a practice.
“I’m a person, just like anybody else,” Morris told me this fall, when I asked him about his FedEx Field friends. “You’re a person, I’m a person. Just because I play a game, they elevate me. At the end of the day, it’s just a kids game. I’m a normal, every day person; I just happen to play football in the NFL. That don’t make me any different from the next person. So that’s just who I am. I’m a down to earth, hard working, average Joe.”
Redskins fans wouldn’t love him the way they did if he didn’t also produce. He ran for 4,713 yards in his four seasons here, second only to Adrian Peterson in that span. It was the 20th-most rushing yards in the first four years of a career in NFL history; virtually all of the men ahead of Morris on that list were drafted in the first or second round. Morris will leave Washington fifth in career rushing yardage here; the four men ahead of him all played far longer in D.C.
But that alone isn’t why so many Redskins fans will be so sorry to see Morris go — and go to the hated Cowboys, no less. All his goofy quirks and special moments with fans created that peculiar feeling you sometimes get while following a sports team: loyalty blended with irrational affection, a sense that you know and care about someone you don’t actually know and probably shouldn’t care about.
At least one local radio host mocked me when I wrote similar things about Brooks Laich a few weeks ago, and I understand why. It all sounds maudlin and silly, and it surely is. By next year or two years from now, most fans likely won’t wince when they see Laich in a Leafs sweater, or Ian Desmond in a Rangers jersey, or Morris in a … well, okay, they’ll still wince at that. But these happened to be three guys who all filled very similar roles on their teams: they had many great moments in competition, their production clearly began to wane, but they had earned that irrational loyalty based on something else.
Laich changed the tire of a stranger after one of the worst losses of his career, relentlessly proselytized for his sport and became a Washingtonian by proxy. Desmond threw himself into the Nats Youth Baseball Academy, embraced Washington’s wackiest fans, and formed an incredible bond with one young fan. Morris never changed his message of every-man humility, not when he was rushing for 1,600 yards and not when he was splitting carries in his final year.
“My goal is to make sure I have a smile on my face every day I come out here,” Morris told me this summer, when I asked about his season goals.
But what about helping a guy like Matt Jones, someone who was here to take his job?
“I do that to all the young guys, because 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.”
Maybe Morris isn’t as good as he seemed. Maybe in his free time, he tortures squirrels, or sings the Cowboys fight song. (Do the Cowboys have a fight song?) Maybe fans shouldn’t notice whether players care about the community, or have likable quirks, or seem like swell guys.
But look at Morris’s farewell message to fans, and then try to argue that all these transactions should just be regarded as business decisions, and that an emotional response is silly.
“No matter what happens I will always be a part of Redskins Nation,” Morris wrote. “And a special thanks to all the fans and their abundance of love, support, and loyalty. Y’all make this game what [it] is.”
Even better, listen to a guy like Darrel Young, who wasn’t as accomplished as Morris, but who filled a perhaps similar role in the community, with his own radio and TV shows, and with more community appearances than just about any other Redskins player. Young also was recently told the team was moving on, meaning his time in Washington was likely over.
“That’s been home for seven years. That’s home,” Young told ESPN 980, in one of the most anguished sports-radio interviews I’ve ever heard. “Of course, if they called me right now and said ‘Hey, we want to sign you back,’ I’d drive down there right now. I might even run. … This weekend was hard for me. I sat there by myself all weekend, just thinking.”
Redskins fans, I’d guess, will do the same thing concerning Morris. These aren’t tragedies. It’s just sports, and nothing lasts forever, and you enter into these strange allegiances knowing they will end. But the illogic of fandom is the thing that makes it work. If you never cared about Morris enough to make this transaction sting at least a bit, 2012 wouldn’t have been as fun.
I am probably as upset about this as I can possibly be about a football thing.
— Burgundy Blog (@BurgundyBlog) March 22, 2016
When I interviewed Morris about his FedEx Field crew, I first asked if it would be okay for me to write about it.
“You can write about what you want to write about,” he said. “I don’t care. I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
He might not think his departure is a big deal, either. If you step back far enough, it probably isn’t. But for thousands of Redskins fans who got attached to this unassuming kid they never even met, it sort of is.