Mitch Morse was 4 years old, living what he calls a life of “rainbows and pizza” on the dark day that forever altered at least six lives in ways no one could ever imagine.
On April 1, 1996, an agency babysitter violently shook Morse’s 4-month-old brother, Robbie.
As Robbie was put in an ambulance, their mother, Catherine, called husband Kevin and told him she didn’t know if he would live.
Kevin immediately ran from his office three-fourths of a mile or so to Brackenridge Hospital to meet the ambulance.
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When he saw Robbie, he thought he was dead.
Mitch remembers being in the room, unable to see his baby brother covered in wires connected to sensors.
In those desperate moments, there was no time or room for asking why … or for anger.
“When you’re praying for your child to live,” Catherine Morse said, “you can’t simultaneously be filled with hatred or vindictiveness.”
To the Morses, it was a miracle that Robbie survived with brain injuries from suffering a bilateral subdural hematoma.
“There’s no word,” Mitch Morse, now the Chiefs’ center, said, “to describe all the symptoms.”
But so many others that might have come with it.
He wasn’t blind, after all, and he can walk (with some difficulty). Even as he remains essentially non-verbal, he can convey love with his smile and otherwise communicate with squeals, groans and hand gestures.
To an outsider, there’s also a miracle in the way the Morses responded with infinite compassion and perspective.
All with the help of a caretaker seeking new purpose in life after suffering third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body in a gas explosion.
“Ain’t that a Cinderella story?” said the caretaker, Mia Spiller, who is more aptly known as a second mother to Mitch and Robbie.
It’s also a revelation to see the impact this had on Mitch Morse, whose NFL career has helped the family be able to better provide for Robbie by enabling it to buy a house for him to live in with Mia.
Mitch was born a generous soul, no doubt, the sort of boy who as a kindergartner ran outside at recess to gently bring in the girl with Down syndrome who strayed.
But he became all the more that way through what his father calls “a privilege and a responsibility” that marked his childhood.
One in which he’d have occasion to rub his brother’s feet … or put him on a toilet … or tickle the back of his neck … or simply physically carry him from place to place when he was in his “Gandhi phase” and unwilling to move.
“I have soft spots,” said Morse, who believes he became more aware, patient and empathetic because of Robbie and added, “I don’t think I would be quite the person I am today … without that tragedy happening to my brother.
“People say it’s a cross to bear, but he hasn’t been a burden at all. He’s been a blessing.”
One that speaks to his role as a Chief.
When he played tackle football for the first time as a ninth-grader, he was a cement-footed receiver with “OK hands.”
The next year at St. Michael’s, he was going to be a JV quarterback but recognized he wouldn’t play much.
So he asked to be moved anywhere he could get on the field and a coach said, presto, you’re an offensive lineman.
“No one grows up wanting to be an offensive lineman,” he said.
More seriously, Morse knows there is plenty to the job, including the camaraderie in being part of something bigger than himself — and something that suits him in a way no other position really could.
“It’s kind of weird and cliché, but as an offensive lineman, you’re the protector of the quarterback, right?” said Morse, who finds himself laboring through the aches and dangers of football motivated by his brother’s future financial security.
Perfect for a young man whose vocabulary long ago became dominated by terms like, “Can I do this for you?” and whose mindset always was trying to be part of the solution.
“Isn’t that the aesthetic of an offensive lineman? Isn’t that the ethos of kind of what you look for when you want to have somebody doing the thankless job?” said Kevin Morse, a retired attorney. “He’s been doing the thankless jobs in this family for 21 years.”
That started, though, with the remarkable example of his parents, people we could all learn from.
Even as they “descended into a little bit of a nightmare,” as Catherine Morse put it, they somehow gravitated to a mindset of mercy that helped them not just survive but thrive since.
The woman who injured Robbie was about 20 at the time, and Kevin Morse said they were content to know she had entered into a plea arrangement in which she received no jail time.
Because they’re sure she was traumatized, too.
And they wanted her to have a chance to heal.
“What a horrible thing to go through life knowing you did,” Catherine Morris said. “And she didn’t mean to. She just lost control of herself.”
Moreover, the Morses speak with conviction when they say despite their deep pain they found broader meaning in what happened.
Excruciating as this was, it’s also been enlightening and life-affirming.
Kevin Morse will tell you he never felt anger — something he acknowledges seems “bizarre” — and says “had it not happened, I don’t know where I’d be now” in terms of being grounded about life.
Catherine Morse, general counsel for Samsung Austin Semiconductor, thinks about what she learned as she leaned on various readings by such authors as Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest and inspirational speaker.
“A lot of people go through life feeling they’re cursed by misfortune and illness and bad luck and everything,” she said. “But in truth, if you don’t … experience suffering and you just go through life from one success to the next, then you really can’t live in solidarity with anyone else who suffers.
“And you know very little about your soul.”
She added, “So there is a gift aspect to the idea that you can only know joy after you’ve known suffering, you know? And I think there is a redemptive aspect of suffering.”
Mia Spiller, now 52, was in a coma for weeks after the explosion in Galveston in 1998.
When she recovered months later, she said, the state rehabilitation association sent her to Austin to become a certified nurse’s aide.
Her then-husband worked for a relative of the Morses.
That led to her meeting Robbie when he was 3 — and working with him for 18 years before Robbie moved in with her a year ago when he turned 21 in a house the Morses bought.
The Morses marvel at the “care team” they’ve had over the years, including the pediatric neurologist who has been treating Robbie for nearly two decades and will do so as long as they want him to.
But Mia’s connection to Robbie is something on a tier of its own.
“Robbie and my story go hand in hand,” she said, noting how many people had helped her get back on her feet. “When I met Robbie, I felt like just like other people gave me a chance, he needed a chance. …
“They didn’t want help back. They wanted me to pass it on.”
Today, she added, “I love him more than I love my own children.”
At first, Robbie didn’t like her.
He was so dependent on his parents and so demonstrative, he would beat at windows when they’d leave for work.
Not long after she began caring for him, Mia said, she wrestled Robbie down and sat on him and said, “I’ll never hurt you. I’ll take care of you.”
Soon, he loosened up and calmed down … and trusted her as they’d spend 80 hours a week together and she became what Mitch calls the “rock” of the family with their own “special lingo.”
Which shows up even when he lapses into unpredictable behavior — like waking up in the middle of the night and screaming and turning on all the lights.
“When he’s mad at me, hits me or something, 10 minutes later he’s going to come kiss me on my forehead and say I’m sorry,” Mia said. “In the morning, when I give him a bath after his rough night, he reaches his forehead over and says ‘kiss me, thank you.’”
With Robbie sitting in a chair across the room as she spoke, Mia said, “Come give me a little sugar.”
Beaming, Robbie ambled over and smooched her forehead.
“I love you too much,” said Mia, whose eyes teared up repeatedly as she spoke.
Robbie’s innocent needs are simple and typically immediate: eat (about eight times a day even though he bears only about 130 pounds on a 5-10 frame), be cleaned up, go to the restroom …
And listen to classical music.
“I have no other choice but (that) we jam off of Mozart (and) Beethoven,” she said. “It relaxes him. It soothes him.”
Football, meanwhile, does nothing for him.
When the Chiefs can be seen on TV, Mia usually dresses Robbie in a Chiefs T-shirt and tries to get him to watch.
“And I say, ‘This is Mitch,’” she says. “And he looks at him, and then he says bye-bye and goes on off about his business.”
When Mitch left for the University of Missouri in 2010, things began to change from the days he wheeled Robbie around the galaxy of kids on Tallowood Drive — a tightknit street where some neighbors had cabinets of food just for the voracious future NFL player.
“He was like everyone’s disabled brother,” he said. “Everyone had Robbie’s best interests in mind, and Robbie was comfortable with everyone. That was really cool.”
Now, Mitch only is able to get home a few times a year amid the career that he hopes can continue to make a difference in the care Robbie receives.
He felt some of the distance of that when he saw Robbie for the first time in months during a visit to his school amid the Chiefs’ bye week.
Reunited in Robbie’s classroom at the Rosedale School for children with severe special needs, a place of love and caring the Morses have considered crucial in Robbie’s life, Mitch found it hard at first to connect with Robbie.
“I don’t feel estranged from him, but it definitely takes its toll,” said Mitch, noting he was breaking the routine — and that anything breaking Robbie’s routine is a sin.
Just the same, Robbie smiled as Mitch pulled off his Chiefs’ ski hat and caressed his face and envied Robbie’s hair and thinner frame.
And they still connect in ways no one else could appreciate, ways that the adoring Mitch says can’t be defined by one sensory description but rather a combination of them.
Still, one expression resonates more than others — a smile that makes Mitch melt.
“It’s worth doing everything to get one of those, and you feel truly connected,” Mitch said. “Because it’s so pure.”
So mostly Mitch tries to treat him like any “another dude.”
On this day, it’s by teasing that blue-clad Robbie is becoming invisible as he blends into a blue beanbag chair or breaking into “When The Saints Come Marching In” as Robbie comes down the hall.
“And here he comes …” yells Mitch, who constantly is singing. “ ‘Oh, when the Saints …”
Meanwhile, the ties will forever bind.
As his parents and Mia inevitably will face their own health and mortality issues, Mitch will become fully responsible for Robbie — whose impending graduation from Rosedale will present a new challenge for all as they work to establish a day-habilitation center for Robbie and those with similar needs.
That bond is why when Mitch asked former Mizzou volleyball player Catie Wilson to marry him, he made it a point to say “part of me is my brother” — something she understood and embraced.
That’s forever in a different way because of a dark day anybody would change if they could … but one that also galvanized the best of humanity from so many.
“My life is still filled with rainbows and pizza,” Mitch said, smiling, “but it’s different.”