Morsell leads Maryland’s basketball team with toughness molded by his childhood and his Baltimore roots. This squad isn’t packed with star power, but the Terrapins rely on their defense and grit — qualities Morsell embodies. The senior needed only a week to rebound from that facial injury. When he returned, he wore a clear face mask that simultaneously protected the healing bone while serving as a reminder of Morsell’s tenacity. The person Morsell has become is a striking reflection of all he lost.
“Darryl’s toughness is his brother. Terrell was 100 pounds soaking wet, but he wouldn’t back down,” said Marty Hines, who coached 10-year-old Terrell’s AAU team. “When you see Darryl in an opponent’s face and he’s talking stuff, that’s Terrell.”
Morsell can only imagine the person his brother would have been, and it’s impossible to know how much this tragedy shaped his own life because everything changed that day. Darryl was 8, and Terrell was 10. They were both still kids who loved sports and one another. Darryl watched Terrell collapse during a basketball scrimmage. Doctors discovered an anomalous valve in Terrell’s heart, and he died two weeks later.
Ever since then, Morsell has wondered: What would Terrell’s life have become? And how would his own story have changed, if not for that terrible day?
“I don’t know if I would have been as serious with basketball,” Morsell said. “I don’t know if I would play as hard as I do.”
There are no answers to those mind-bending questions.
Morsell is close with his parents and respected by his teammates. He reached this year’s NCAA tournament as the leader of a 10th-seeded team that, just a few months ago, didn’t have an obvious route to the postseason. He’s an elite defender, with Connecticut’s prolific scorer James Bouknight the next difficult task in front of him. As his senior season comes to a close, the loss of his only sibling is an ever-present part of his story, one he rarely discusses publicly. He believes the tragedy forged the path that led him here.
When the Morsell brothers were young, their father, Duane, built a basketball hoop on the wall in their playroom. Morsell’s parents would hear the thuds from the boys crashing into the wall as they roughhoused and tried to dunk. Duane laughs as he remembers those days, how the brothers put holes in the wall. Eventually, he tore down the drywall and added 2-by-4s for more support. Their mother, Carolyn, said Darryl and Terrell were best friends. Always together.
They played video games in the same basement and had seasons together on Madden. They created their own players, with Darryl the quarterback and Terrell a wide receiver. Terrell particularly loved sports; sometimes Darryl would stay inside playing video games while his brother went outside to throw a football in the air, run and catch it himself. Darryl remembers sharing a bathroom with his brother in the mornings and family trips to Virginia Beach. He wonders how their relationship would have grown as they matured.
As the little brother who tagged along, Darryl was at the gym the day Terrell collapsed. It has been nearly 14 years, but the moment remains vivid. During the scrimmage, Darryl played on a hoop off to the side with other kids. Terrell lifted up his hand toward Hines, the coach of that AAU team, indicating he needed to come out of the game. It was an intense matchup, Hines said, so he assumed he needed rest. Then Terrell said his chest hurt.
Darryl wasn’t paying attention to the action on the court, but he realized something was wrong in time to watch his older brother collapse.
Darryl had never seen his dad look so uncomfortable, and that rattled him as they waited for the ambulance. When Darryl visited the hospital during the next two weeks, he assumed his brother would eventually wake up and that, even if it took time to recover, he someday would play basketball again. He knew it was serious, but he didn’t expect the worst.
One morning, both parents were home — usually at least one was at the hospital — and they called Darryl into their bedroom for a talk. His brother was gone. Darryl went into Terrell’s room and grabbed a video game. He went to the basement, played the game and cried.
Early on, Carolyn had trouble going to the grocery store. She would break down in the aisle with taco shells because Terrell loved tacos. Certain dates, such as birthdays and holidays, are still emotional. She worried about how Terrell’s death could emotionally scar Darryl, so she looked for signs — maybe unexplained anger or falling grades. Perhaps he internalized his grief, she said, because he didn’t struggle outwardly. Darryl remembers those around him expressing their condolences, but he never felt sorry for himself.
The world’s unwavering ability to carry on can feel cruel and unfair. But it shaped Darryl’s mind-set. He processed this all as an 8-year-old — and maybe, his parents say, kids are more resilient than adults — but even so young, Darryl realized he had to succeed.
“I'm the one,” Darryl remembers thinking. “It's all on me now.”
When Terrell was in the hospital, Darryl hardly stopped playing basketball. He would go to school, spend a few hours with Terrell and then go to practice. Darryl’s mom made an effort not to uproot her son’s life. “Even though things were hard for us,” she said, “we had to do it for him.”
Darryl describes basketball as his “safe place.” He didn’t resent the sport, even though his brother collapsed while playing. A few times, he had to play in the same gym in Catonsville, Md., but once he got on the court, the emotion associated with that building disappeared.
Shortly after Terrell’s death, Duane insisted Darryl have an echocardiogram to check for the same heart issue. Doctors found a problem with a valve that wasn’t as severe as Terrell’s but still worrisome enough to warrant heart surgery. Darryl cried because the procedure forced him to miss AAU nationals. The operation gave his parents some comfort. And Darryl realizes that without the surgery — which came only in the wake of his brother’s death — the same could have happened to him.
“That's kind of how I felt so much pressure on me,” Darryl said. “I felt like, ‘Damn, why him, not me?’ It was tough.”
Terrell’s death brought Darryl even closer to his parents, who have remained deeply involved in his basketball career. “We used to live in a circle because it was all of us,” his mom said. “And now it became a triangle. We’re still connected.” Until the pandemic necessitated empty arenas this season, Darryl’s parents hadn’t missed one of his games since Terrell died.
Darryl watched his brother’s childhood friends venture into adulthood, which prompts him to wonder what Terrell’s future would have looked like. Darryl thinks his brother could have played college basketball. Terrell was talented, already tall and lanky as a 10-year-old. He loved to shoot corner threes, Hines said, and Terrell celebrated while his coach implored him to get back to play defense. Around that time, when he posed for a team photo wearing orange basketball shorts and his No. 34 shirt, he beamed with a giant smile, similar to that of his dad and brother.
Darryl can’t know how Terrell’s life may have unfolded. But he can look at his own life and consider how that day changed his future. Darryl said he thinks about that often, falling down a butterfly effect rabbit hole.
In some ways, the tragedy led Darryl to Maryland. He appreciated Coach Mark Turgeon’s genuine family-focused culture, and he didn’t want to attend college far from home. As an only child, his parents had plenty of time to devote to him and his schedule, so maybe that helped his athletic pursuits. But mostly it changed his mentality — how hard he works, the way he appreciates the game and his life.
“You value it,” Darryl said, because they went to the gym that day thinking they both had years of basketball ahead.