University of Missouri

Missouri’s Mitch Morse finds inspiration, purpose in special-needs brother

Robbie Morse, the younger brother of Missouri tackle Mitch Morse, has severe physical and intellectual limitations after getting hurt 18 years ago.
Robbie Morse, the younger brother of Missouri tackle Mitch Morse, has severe physical and intellectual limitations after getting hurt 18 years ago.

Missouri senior left tackle Mitch Morse is a devastating blocker.

One of the strongest players on the Tigers’ roster, he plays with a ferocity that is likely to earn him a spot at the NFL Combine and a job in the league this spring.

Away from the field, Morse — a 6-foot-6, 305-pound native of Austin, Texas — is a gentle giant and probably has his younger brother, Robbie, to thank for the stark dichotomy between his on- and off-field personalities.

“I’ve never been a really angry person and I’ve never been a confrontational person,” Mitch said. “I don’t know if deep inside it has something to do with Robbie, but I feel like I’ve always been pretty grateful for what I have.”

Mitch was only 4 years old when Robbie suffered a traumatic brain injury as an infant while in the care of a babysitter.

Robbie, barely four months old at the time, was left with severe physical and intellectual limitations by the April 1, 1996, incident.

“He’s completely non-verbal,” Morse’s mom, Catherine, said. “He definitely has a personality and whatnot, but it’s hard for me to describe. It’s different than most kids with special needs, because he doesn’t have nearly the intellectual capacity of someone with Down’s syndrome. It’s very limited.”

Robbie, who turned 19 earlier this month, is mobile, but he doesn’t walk normally and communicates only through squeals, grunts and gestures.

“He’s kind of the great observer,” Morse’s father, Kevin, said. “Robbie doesn’t have many communication skills, so he’ll either tug on you or vocalize, make some noise to try and get your attention.”

When Robbie isn’t at the Rosedale School, a facility for children with profound special needs operated by the Austin Independent School District, his days center on endless SpongeBob SquarePants reruns.

“The dude loves SpongeBob,” Mitch said.

It’s as normal a life as Robbie ever will have.

“People ask, ‘What does Robbie think of Mitch’s football career?’ ” Catherine said. “Robbie has no ability to comprehend anything like that at all. He can understand basic things like, are you hungry, do you want to eat, do you want to go to bed, do you have to go to the bathroom. He can understand some of that stuff, but he can’t understand anything complex.”

Mitch’s childhood was atypical, because Robbie required near-constant attention.

“You can’t leave him alone for any amount of time,” Mitch said. “You can leave him alone in a room, but you can’t leave the premises and let him be on his own at all, so I had obligations that most 10-to-18-year-olds didn’t have.

“I’d have to sacrifice time when my parents wanted to go out to take care of my brother, but they never burdened me with it. Around the house at night, I’d help my brother get to the bathroom and things like that.”

There have been trying times, like when Robbie went through what the family calls “his Gandhi period.”

“He refused to move for like three weeks,” Mitch said. “We didn’t know if maybe something was hurting him, but he just refused to move. I’d have to carry him everywhere. Then, one day he just walked out of school.”

Doctors estimate Robbie would have been 6-9 or taller if it wasn’t for the brain damage and Mitch marvels at Robbie’s “freakishly huge hands.”

“He’s got terrible scoliosis too, which is a blessing in disguise,” Mitch said. “He’d be a lot harder to handle if he was 6-10.”

Despite some challenging moments, Mitch (and his parents) found a way to turn Robbie’s tragedy into something transformative.

“He’s done so much in regards to how we view things,” Mitch said. “Little things just don’t mean that big of a deal. The dude is just happy as hell with the simplest stuff and it’s like, ‘Why can’t we just be happy to sit down and hang out for a little bit too?’ You figure out that the service of others brings you as much joy as people serving you. You feel happy as hell inside when you do something good for someone and they’re just ecstatic.”

Mitch’s parents are grateful he found a silver lining in Robbie’s circumstances, using the bond he has with his brother to find an uncommon perspective in a college kid.

“I know for a fact that Mitch has been able to take his understanding of Robbie and how Robbie goes through the world and realize that, even on Mitch’s very worst day, even on days when he’s struggling, he’s got a brother at home who’s got different needs,” Kevin said.

“I think it gives Mitch an incredible perspective on life. … He’s pretty mean on the field, but he’s an incredibly nice person, an incredibly thoughtful person, off the field. I don’t think you become thoughtful at 22 without having some perspective on life, so I think it’s helped him mentally.”

As a teenager, Mitch admitted that he dealt with occasional anger and frustration about Robbie’s situation, but he’s come to peace with it.

He said “five or six years ago” he might have confronted the woman who injured Robbie, “but you grow up and realize you have to forgive people. People make mistakes and, in the end, it’s worked itself out. … My brother could have had some helluva life. Who knows? But right now he’s changed our lives and the people around him so much that it really doesn’t matter.”

Eventually, Mitch will inherit sole responsibility for Robbie’s care. Kevin and Catherine are making financial arrangements, but knowing that day is coming also impacts Mitch’s personal goals.

“For the longest time, I really didn’t want to play professional football,” Mitch said. “It just didn’t seem that appealing.”

He changed his mind during the last two seasons, and not strictly because he’s flourished on back-to-back SEC East division championship teams as MU’s starting right tackle last season and starting left tackle this season.

“You kind of grow up and realize an opportunity like this doesn’t come along often,” Mitch said. “Plus, you become more of a competitor and it seems like the ultimate dream. Who doesn’t want to play football for a living?”

Mitch also understands and appreciates what the opportunity, and a few NFL contracts, might mean for Robbie’s future.

“If I’m an undrafted free agent or a first-round draft pick, money is money,” Mitch said. “I’m definitely going to have to take care of my brother, and to have a nice financial cushion would be fantastic. … “We do fine as a family financially, but, in the end, it’s going to cost a pretty penny to get the kind of care for Robbie he needs.”

Mia, a family friend Mitch refers to as his second mother, has helped care for Robbie for more than 15 years.

“She was there for all of my in-home visits with coaches,” Mitch said. “She was there for all the important things when people came through. She’s done such a great job for Robbie and, who knows what’s going to happen in the end, but she’ll probably have a huge role in his life.”

The Morse family, of course, hopes those days are well into the future.

For now, Mitch tries to enjoy the rare moments he gets to spend with Robbie.

“College football takes up 90 percent of your time,” Kevin said. “He’s not home much, but, when he comes home, Robbie’s delighted — as delighted as Robbie can be, smiling and Mitch is always very solicitous towards Robbie, giving him hugs and talking to him and doing everything he can.”

Mitch can’t speak with his brother on the phone and doesn’t get back to Texas as often as he’d like with the demands of playing major-college football.

He cherishes the walks he takes with Robbie — also known as “Bobs” (pronounced with a long ‘o’ sound) by close friends and family — pushing him through groves of peach trees in the neighborhood and wheeling him up and down sloped driveways.

“He digs it; he loves it,” Mitch said. “When I’m there, you make it about the moments you have together, and I honestly wish I’d had more. In college, there’s so few things I regret, but when I’m home I always wish I spent more time with my brother.”

That sentiment is one more reason for Morse’s parents to feel grateful.

“If I was going to go out and pick any person on earth to be Robbie’s brother, it’d be Mitch — somebody exactly like Mitch with all his thoughtfulness and his kindness and his ability to think of other people,” Kevin said. “That’s kind of what an offensive lineman does, so he kind of lives that life. He is the exact person I would go pick to do this.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer.

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