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Coach Mike Morse: Talks the Talk and Walks the Walk, Briskly

It’s August 5, 2005. Michael Morse and his son Willie are on a wilderness fishing trip in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario with another father-son duo, Eric and his son Tanner. It’s a tradition they’ve indulged in numerous times. The goal: Bring as little as possible and live almost completely off of nature. The four men canoe to remote island in the middle of nowhere for their adventure.

Coach Morse Camping
Michael Morse (left), Willie Morse (center), and Eric Fabian (right), at Vixon Lake, Kawartha Highlands, Ontario

But at 7:40 p.m. on this day, a severe thunderstorm comes through the area. A lightning bolt goes through the side of the tent in which the men were taking shelter. The bolt first goes through Willie, then transfers through Michael, then to Eric. Tanner, the only one not hit by the bolt, sees the three men levitate from the force of the bolt. Eric’s legs turn black instantly, Michael is unable to move bilaterally, and Willie convulses.

It looks like Willie died right there. The others begin to pray. Using a satellite phone, they contact Canadian search and rescue. But due to the severity of the storm, helicopters are deemed unsafe for the crew and the men are told it’ll be seven hours before they can get to them. They are told by the search and rescue team to build as big of a fire as possible so that they could be located. Despite the pouring rain and their limited mobility, the men are able to burn towels, clothes, sleeping bags, and everything else combustible to sustain the fire. At 4:30 a.m., the search and rescue team arrives on an amphibious vessel.

They miraculously resuscitate Willie, and take the four men to the nearest hospital. The doctors there tell Michael it’s a miracle his son is still alive. Willie Morse, a year and a half after the incident, is playing basketball for Colgate. During his time at Colgate, he becomes the captain of the team.

willie morse colgate
Willie Morse at Colgate.

*****

I’m sitting in a small office in Rec Hall belonging to Mike Morse and his officemate. The office is windowless, far from spectacular, and what some might call claustrophobic. Closer to the door is an empty desk above which the wall is decorated with numerous posters of Penn State sports teams. On the opposite side of the room is another desk, this one belonging to Mike Morse. It’s adorned with the typical desk items: computer, photos of his family, and office supplies.

“There’s something about a near-death experience that brings you closer. You look at life differently,” he says. “You really value things you overlooked in the past.”

Mike Morse wears a Big Ten Championship cap, shorts, high white socks, and a towel around his neck, an outfit I’d seen him wear before. Morse, known by his students simply as Coach, or Coach Morse, currently teaches fitness walking, bowhunting, and men’s basketball as part of the Kinesiology Physical Activity Program (KPAP). He is often seen leading a pack of students through campus, donning a baseball cap and a towel draped around his neck, much like Forrest Gump running in the desert with a pack of clueless followers behind. And from the life stories told by Coach Morse, it seems as though he may have a lot more in common with Forrest than your average Joe.

“It’s easy for me to teach fitness walking because I realize movement is a gift.”

*****

It’s April of 1983, and Coach Morse has just visited family near Westin, Mass., and is en route back to Maine, where he is coaching a basketball camp. Between 11 p.m. and midnight near Newburyport, Mass., he leans down to tune the radio. When he looks up again, he is facing a pair of headlights, after which he has no memory.

According to witnesses, a three-quarter ton truck, operated by a drunk driver, had struck the van Morse was driving. The truck, left relatively unscathed from the impact thanks to its snow plows, was then able to drive through a snow fence and field, away from the scene. Meanwhile, the side window of Morse’s van had gone through its frame and broken his sternum.

Additionally, Coach had swallowed pieces of glass from his windshield. He explains that he doesn’t remember much about the accident, but the doctors were primarily concerned with treating his sternum and esophagus for internal cuts.

****

Years later, while getting an X-ray at the chiropractor’s office, he discovered he also broke his back in that accident. In 2009, Coach Morse was hospitalized for two weeks for his back, during which he wondered if he would ever walk again.

“I’m just blessed to be able to walk and interact with people half my age,” he says.

It’s stories like these that make Coach Morse’s classes truly remarkable. Most students sign up for fitness walking because they get a simple credit and a half to walk around campus. They don’t realize that once they’ve enrolled in Coach’s class, they’re in for a semester of inspiration. In fact, Coach Morse’s contact page through the College of Health and Human Development lists Motivational Speaking under his specializations.

Coach Morse is no stranger to the Penn State community. This year is his 30th at Penn State, not including his time here as a student. Having graduated from the university in 1977, he went on to coach high school basketball at Penns Valley High School. Coincidentally, one of the girls he coached at the time was Brenda Wert, who is now a Finance and Accounting Assistant of the Kinesiology Department at Penn State, working just down the hall from his office. His coaching career then took him to New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and back to New Jersey. While he was in Washington, he coached football, basketball, baseball, and taught one physical education class at Sidwell Friends School. Sidwell Friends School boasts an impressive list of alumni, including Chelsea Clinton and Bill Nye. Malia and Sasha Obama currently attend the highly prestigious school.

Coach Morse New Jersey
Michael Morse coaching his high school basketball players in New Jersey

Despite the busy schedules of the many diplomats and politicians whose children attend Sidwell, Coach Morse seemed impressed by the parents’ involvement in their children’s lives.

“They were some of the most supportive parents,” he recalls. He explains that had the cost of living not been so high in Washington, he could have coached at Sidwell for much longer. Coach Morse displayed some of those family values himself years later when he made the choice to quit coaching and teach instead. In 1985, he contacted Coach Parkhill, the varsity basketball coach at Penn State, and became the assistant men’s basketball coach from 1985 to 1989. After being given the opportunity to become a head coach at the college level, he was told by Coach Parkhill, “Don’t get in it.” Coach Morse then made the decision that he wanted to see his kids grow up.

He brings up the initial e-mail I sent to him earlier that week to get in touch with him. He laughs at me for having written, “I hope you remember me.”

“I remember my students,” he says.

He shows me letters and photos of past students who have stayed in touch with him throughout the years. One letter is from a student who took his bowhunting class, attached with a photo of a young man with a freshly hunted deer. Among his previous students are Chad Seifried, Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator of Kinesiology at Louisiana State University, and Mike Signora, the NFL Vice President of Football Communications.

“I really like it when students stay in touch, and they do.”

He shows me a photo of a young Coach Morse sitting at the desk of Red Auerbach, who was the beloved president of the Boston Celtics until his death in 2006. He tells me one of his students had become the general manager of the Celtics, and gave Coach the unique opportunity to sit at Auerbach’s desk, cigar and all.

celtics
Coach Morse at Red Auerbach’s desk, circa 1994

Among his other notable alumni is LaVar Arrington, who took Coach Morse’s basketball course.

“There was a young man with hydrocephalus, or a soft spot in his skull,” Coach recalls. “We gave him the nickname ‘The Man.’ He gave it his all, but he was really challenged physically.” He tells me that Arrington and ‘The Man’ were on the same team, which made it to the class’s team championship game thanks to Arrington’s stellar athletic ability. At the last dwindling seconds of the game, Arrington had the ball, and the last shot would have given his and ‘The Man’s’ team the victory. When defenders ran at Arrington, he saw ‘The Man’ open.

“[Arrington] knew this shot meant win or lose, but he passed it to him anyway,” Coach says. ‘The Man’ made the shot, and they won the championship. “When that boy hit that shot, LaVar picked him up on his shoulders and carried him around the gym, and that is a memory I will never forget.” But Morse has had some pretty crazy things happen during his classes, too. When I asked him the craziest, he smiled, knowing instantly.

****

It’s the first day of Coach Morse’s basketball class, Spring 2013. A young man drops to the floor with an apparent major seizure. Coach Morse clears the gym, stays with the student, and calls 911.

Before the medical staff arrives, the student comes out of the seizure, eyes open wide. Coach Morse has his hand behind the student’s back, but smells an awful odor, none describable to anything he’s smelled before. The student looks at Coach and begins putting a chokehold on him.

In order to rescue himself, Coach elbows the student in the solar plexus to loosen his grip. When two members of the emergency medical staff arrive, they observe the scene and ask Coach if that is the student who was in a seizure.

“Yeah, it is. You’re gonna need more than two people,” Coach replies. Eventually, six adults strap the student down completely. They later determine that the young man was on PCP.

*****

Coach laughs. “You know what’s ironic about that story? That same week, two days later, I parked my car for an 8 a.m. class, and that’s the last thing I remember.”

He tells me that though he doesn’t remember getting out of his vehicle, apparently he had slipped in the parking lot. A maintenance lady in East Halls had seen him lying in a pool of blood. A month and 14 staples, a grade 3 concussion, and vertigo later, Coach finally regained his consciousness.

“The first thing I said to my wife was, ‘Why are you at my basketball class?'” he laughs again.

Coach looks at the wall in his office. It’s the far wall from the door to his office, and it is freckled with old photos, some in black and white. He explains that the wall used to be filled with many more photos, but a pipe burst above his desk which destroyed many priceless ones. He holds up a frame that houses a newspaper article from years ago. Despite being slightly water damaged, a photo is visible of young children playing basketball. He tells me that the photo was taken years ago when he coached basketball camps. One of the boys in the photo is his son, Willie.

Coach Morse and son

Among the other photos on the wall is one of Coach Morse and another Penn State coach: Joe Paterno.

“I will remain a Joe Paterno supporter until the day I die,” he says. He wishes that others would remember that Joe Paterno and Tim Curley were so much more than what they were associated with in 2011. “I’m proud to be associated with both of them.”

He discusses his concern about the new Intramural Building’s requirement of having a valid student ID to enter the building. “It goes against Tim’s vision of town and gown,” he explains. “Tim saw town and gown as being one and the same.” Coach tells me that there’s no reason why a member of the State College community shouldn’t be able to go into a public building.

joepa
Coach Morse and Joe Paterno

*****

Two weeks after our last meeting, I reunite with Coach, again in Rec Hall but this time in the very classroom my fitness walking class congregated in a year ago. Coach has just finished the “Troll Walk,” a four-mile loop around the Penn State Golf Courses, for the fourth time this day. Coach has brought me a bag full of photos, e-mails, and newspaper clippings. He explains to me what each and every one of them is, and adds a story to each one of them. He seems to gather inspiration through each letter, article, and photo.

He shows me a photo of five men in what looks like someone’s home. The three in the back are younger, athletic-looking men. Coach Morse is in the front, next to an elderly gentleman.

“This photo is one of me and my mentor,” Coach explains. His mentor is Dr. Ralph Sabock, a late professor at Penn State. Coach Morse took Dr. Sabock’s courses as an undergraduate as well as in grad school, where Dr. Sabock served as Coach’s advisor as well.  “Those three in the back are Mickey Shuler, Sean Lee, and Josh Hull. They’re all in the NFL,” he says. “You can tell I was going through some chemo here,” he adds.

Coach Morse mentor
Top Row: Josh Hull (left), Sean Lee (center), Mickey Shuler (right) Bottom Row: Dr. Ralph Sabock (left), Coach Morse (right)

I shake my head. “Coach, I’m sorry if I missed something, but did you say you had chemo? Did you have cancer?” I ask in disbelief.

*****

Coach Morse goes to a routine physical with his family doctor, in either 2002 or 2003.

“Have you always had that freckle under your eye?” his doctor asks.

Coach is sent that same day to the dermatologist, where they scraped the area to get tested.

“I’ve got some bad news,” the dermatologist tells Coach. “You have malignant melanoma.”

The next day, Coach heads to Hershey to undergo surgery. The surgeon there tells him that the excision is too deep for her to do, and that there is only one surgeon in the East Coast who could do such an excision.

Luckily, the tumor is taken out. Coach is put on chemotherapy for about six weeks as a safety precaution. Because of the golf ball-sized tumor being removed, he is helped by an oncologist specializing in plastic surgery to save his eye. Four more surgeries ensue.

*****

Coach points to an area below his left eye. Only a small patch of skin protrudes slightly where the tumor once was. He tells me that a screw was put into his head with threads to hold his skin together after the surgeries.

“I’ll never win the good-looking award,” he laughs. He tells me that when the lighting bolt went through him in 2005, he had lost 13 of his teeth. Between time to first see a dentist, get fitted for temporary teeth, and getting a new set of teeth, there was plenty of time when he was teaching classes during which his teeth were nowhere near perfect.

“There was a time when I was teaching and I didn’t have two front teeth. On Rate My Professor, I never get any hot peppers, and I know why,” he jokes.

letters to Coach Morse

He holds up a blue card. Inside is a genuine message of thanks to Coach Morse for an inspirational semester. “This is from two Muslim girls who took my bowhunting class,” he explains. “They never said one word during class.”

Coach tells me about Michael Murphy, a student he had in 1996. Murphy, a Navy SEAL officer, was killed in action in Afghanistan, giving his life to save his platoon, and he was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The movie “Lone Survivor” tells the story of Murphy and his platoon. Coach takes his fitness students on a walk to the Michael P. Murphy Veteran’s Plaza, named after his late student.

veteransplaza

“Penn Staters need to remember that as a country, the greatest honor we can give to its people is the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Coach shows me a photo of him and another notable student: Sean Lee, who is currently a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. Lee had taken Coach’s bowhunting class during his time at Penn State. Coach talks fondly of Lee’s humility, and recalls the last day of bowhunting class with him.

“On my doorstep was a case of Guinness beer and a note that said, ‘Thank you to the finest Irish Penn Stater. From, a fellow Irish fan.’ He put his number and I knew it was him,” he says.

sean lee
Sean Lee and Coach Morse

****

When I ask him which class is his favorite to teach, he laughs and apologizes for giving me a somewhat political, roundabout answer. “I like basketball because I love the game, fitness walking because I can influence people differently. I hope I can positively influence my students. I hope I can hit a nerve so (my students) can say, ‘Wow, that was a great class.'”

He explains that bowhunting is special for him because of the diversity in the class. “That class has one of the most diverse groups of students you’ve ever seen,” he says.

He tells me that he enjoys the class because you learn to understand the entire life cycle by seeing everything in nature and learning to problem-solve, such as learning how to prepare the deer you just killed to be eaten and how not to waste any part of the life you’d just taken.

I notice a photo of a class full of men in blue and white basketball jerseys. The jerseys read “MORSE ASSOCIATION,” with a basketball on the middle with the words KPAP stamped across. “I don’t require them to, but [my students] get them every semester,” he explains. “I only require them to wear a t-shirt to class.” Even today, the students in his basketball class can be seen entering and leaving the Intramural Building with Morse Association basketball jerseys. I text a friend, a 2011 alum, who took his basketball class during his time at Penn State and ask if his class got Morse Association jerseys. “Oh, yeah. Still have mine,” he replied.

morse association
Coach Morse’s basketball class dons Morse Association jerseys

Coach Morse received the Health and Human Development Award for Excellence in Teaching, but he won’t take that as a sign to leave while he’s at the top of his teaching game. When I somewhat hesitantly ask if he is considering retiring in the near future, he replies, “I can retire at any time. The question I ask myself is, ‘How easy is it gonna be for me to end a job that I really love?’ I’m busy, but I love teaching. I absolutely love the interaction with my students.”

“I’ve never looked at this job as ‘I gotta go to work.’ I look forward to going to work.”

At the end of our chat, we say our goodbyes, and he tells me he is going home to walk his dogs. Coach drapes his signature towel around his neck, ready to walk a few miles more.

About the Author

Yuka Narisako

Yuka legally immigrated to the United States via airplane in 1996 from the small island nation of Japan. Since then she has migrated throughout the country and now identifies herself as a senior majoring in Architectural Engineering. The Shandygaff is her Happy Place, though she was once kicked out of the establishment after breaking her shoe and screaming “I LOVE DAY DRINKING. I’M HAVING FUN.” Yuka is overly enthusiastic about life in general, but especially Ja Rule, Halloween, and the puffy black vest she purchased from the Gap. You can reach her at [email protected], or through Twitter @yukahontass.

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