(Above: The author, Jackie and Guy Morriss, and Dr. Greg Jicha of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging)
Five years ago, Jackie Morriss, wife of Guy Morriss, reached out to me and made an unusual request, the likes of which I’d never encountered: Would I tell the story on WKYT of how her husband, the former UK head football coach, was battling Alzheimer’s? After the initial shock and sadness I was touched that they would entrust me with the responsibility of explaining to friends and fans why the coach just didn’t seem to be himself.
After his coaching stint in Texas, he and Jackie had moved back to Kentucky so, naturally, they would run into members of the Big Blue Nation who remembered the giddiness of the surprising 7-win season of 2002, when Morriss became something of a household name in college football for the amazing turnaround he had accomplished in Lexington.
But people who knew him began to notice a change, which is why he and Jackie decided to finally go public with the heartbreaking news. Guy would be seen now and then at UK games and as recently as Aug. 7, attended UK’s public practice, where he posed for a photo with current head coach Mark Stoops.
The end came Monday, with Guy surrounded by friends and family. I got the sad, confirming phone call from a family friend early Tuesday morning. What follows is the column I wrote the day my story aired on WKYT.
RIP, GuyMo. You were a terrific coach, father, grandfather, husband and a wonderful person to work with. You’re already missed.
Fifteen years ago in my then-position as Sports Manager at WKYT, I would spend hours in an editing room, copying the highlights from UK football games to archive master tapes. It was tedious, but I enjoyed it. I love covering college football and it was especially fun during that 2002 season.
That’s the year the Wildcats went to Louisville and pounded the 17th-ranked Cardinals, 22-17. Then they proved that was no fluke by following up with three more wins, including a 77-17 shellacking of Texas-El Paso.
And oh, my, were there highlights: touchdown passes by Jared Lorenzen, kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns by Derek Abney, punishing runs by Artose Pinner. The defense featured guys like Ronnie Riley, DeWayne Robertson, “Taco” Burress and Sweet Pea Burns, not to mention the booming punts of All-American Glenn Pakulak.
And of course, head coach Guy Morriss – who soon became The Hot Property in college football coaching.
Morriss was in the process of reforming a team that the year before had been saddled with an ongoing NCAA investigation, which crippled his recruiting efforts. Hence, a record of 2-9 in ‘01 and predictions for a similar finish in ‘02, as well as a pink slip for Morriss, who had just had the “interim” tag removed from his job title.
Instead, they won seven (and barely missed out on a couple more). Those archive tapes, still on the shelves here at WKYT, contain dozens of happy moments and of course, some tough ones (advice – skip tape number three if you don’t want to re-live the LSU nightmare).
We reach for those tapes from time to time but how could we ever have anticipated the need for footage of Morriss that would be used to tell the heartbreaking story that broke on Monday afternoon? He has Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that robs the victim of their memory before ultimately taking their life. Devastating – to the person who has it, and the loved ones around them.
Morriss was diagnosed in September, 2016. It wasn’t his first trip to a doctor. His wife, Jackie, had noticed changes in her husband as far back as 2014, when Guy was working at the University of Texas-Commerce. They visited the BrainHealth Institute in Dallas, where he was told he had some form of dementia. The “A” word didn’t enter the picture until they moved back to their adopted home – Lexington.
That’s when the symptoms got worse. “People would stop me in the grocery store and we’d have a conversation,” Morriss said. “Thoughts don’t come fast enough to keep up. I know what to say but I just can’t get it out. The connection’s not there. That’s the most frustrating thing to me.”
Eventually, even the most mundane activities became impossible. “It was just frustrating, not being able to tie my shoes.”
So many questions from friends. Guy had questions of his own. Why couldn’t he write his own name? He couldn’t even say his ABCs, for crying out loud.
Dr. Greg Jicha of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, after examining the coach, had the answer: Alzheimer’s. The word alone is terrifying. Now, attach it to the name of an acquaintance, a friend, a relative. It slugs you in the gut as it breaks your heart.
Imagine hearing that word attached to YOUR name.
“It’s hard to accept,” Morriss said, stifling a sob.
He said that in front of a television camera; a light in his face, a microphone clipped to his lapel. With so many friends in their new Kentucky home wondering, What’s wrong with Coach? Guy and Jackie had come to a decision: They need to tell the truth.
“I go into Kroger,” Morriss says, “everybody’s, ‘Hey, coach! How you doin? Glad you’re back!’ I want them to know. They have questions. Now you know.”
Close friends and some relatives knew Morriss had been struggling. But when anyone else had inquired, Jackie had assured them: All was well. Once the diagnosis was in place, they decided to get it out in the open – by telling a reporter (Jackie chose not to be interviewed.)
At first, Guy was understandably reticent. But finally, his wife had told me off camera, he figured his talking about it could help others. So he sat with me for the toughest interview of his life. Only 73 seconds into it, he nearly broke down as he described how tough it was to handle knowing what was happening to him now, and what would happen to him in the months ahead.
The armchair doctor in all of us wants to instantly blame football. Dr. Jicha says it likely played a big role in Guy contracting the disease. Morriss is a 15-year veteran of the National Football League, after stellar careers at Texas Christian and Sam Houston High in Arlington, TX. There’s no telling how many concussions he suffered in a career spent in football’s “trenches,” absorbing thousands of blows to his head.
And yet, “I’d probably do it again, knowing what I know now, still,” he said.
Morriss recognizes the fact that the suits who run pro football finally are finally acknowledging that there’s a problem.
“The football world has accepted that you’re at risk if you take all these hits and stuff and they’re trying to make the helmets safer,” he said. “The techniques they’re now teaching is a lot different than what we were taught in my generation. Everything we did was with the forehead, butting with the forehead. Our helmets were really not very good.”
Of course, it’s too late for him and the dozens of NFL vets (the ones that we know about) who have been dealing with brain-related injuries for decades. Morriss has qualified for assistance from the “The 88 Plan,” named for the number of the late Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, whose life became a nightmare in his later years.
The 88 Plan provides funding for custodial care for former NFL players suffering from dementia. After he died, Mackey was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain damage now commonly found at an alarming rate post mortem in former football players.
Research in CTE, Alzheimer’s and concussions has prompted a change in the way football contact is perceived and instructed. In the past, players were lauded for playing through wooziness, even if it meant they had to be guided back to their teammates after trying to enter the wrong sideline or huddle. Today, concussion protocol is mandatory in virtually every organized sport, not just football.
“I think we’ve made great strides in understanding timeouts and being pulled from a game to allow the brain to recover,” says Dr. Jicha. “The incredible work and technology that’s gone into improving headgear for safety purposes is going to allow us to keep one of our great American traditions without posing potential risks to athletes of diseases like this in the future.”
That’s progress. And there have been improvements made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Morriss now takes a medication that has helped enormously. He can dress himself, tie his own shoes. Even put on his watch – impossible a few months ago.
“Dressing myself is a win for me,” he says. “Tying shoes is a win for me.”
Like victories in football, those wins don’t come easily. He practices, every day – even the tests Jicha gives him during their visits, like drawing the numbers on the face of a clock. On the day we were there, Guy included all 12 – although not necessarily on the exact edges of the circle. Still, a “win.”
Dr. Jicha says Morriss has retained insight into what’s wrong with him, often a rarity in Alzheimer’s patients, who cling to denial. “As a great athlete, he takes on his disease in that fashion,” he said. “He works at it. He practices and that’s incredibly good for his brain.”
Guy remembers. He recalls what it was like to be an elite athlete, one of the best in the world, in a sport where you can make yourself a little better, every day. Lift more weight. Run more sprints. Spend more time with the playbook. That’s another cause of frustration.
“I’ve always been a great football player, a coach,” he says. “It’s not that way now…”
No, it’s not. And it never will be again. But for now, he has Jackie. And their Boyle County farm, where they raise horses. Between them, they have five daughters and four grandchildren.
“He’s doing well overall,” Dr. Jicah says. “He certainly has developed some difficulties with aspects of his life, and yet he’s enjoying each day, taking advantage of what he has. To be working on that farm, to have his horses… to be able to help Guy really maximize the years of his life, to make them great years in his retirement, is something we owe him and everyone else suffering from a disease like this.”
There is still joy left in his life, although it is tinged with sadness, shared by his family.
“We’ve all kind of accepted it,” Morriss says. “Everybody knows what we’re dealing with. The prognosis of beating it is not gonna be there for me.”
So now, everyone knows. You know. If you see the coach at Kroger, or at a UK football game this fall (he still loves to go – “I get to heckle,” he says with a grin) and you’ve known him in the past, he might not remember you. But that doesn’t mean he’s taken for granted the good times he and his wife had at UK.
“We fell in love with the city of Lexington,” he says. “It was a great feeling for us to be adopted by the people of Kentucky.”
I was one of the journalists who crossed his path when Guy was coaching here, first as an assistant under Hal Mumme and then as the head man. I worked with him on his weekly TV projects, traveled with the team as a part of the radio network and was one of the gaggle of reporters firing questions at him each day after practice.
I’m not sure why he and Jackie chose me to tell their story, although she has always been incredibly kind and friendly. In fact, back in my single days she once tried to fix me up with a friend of hers, but that’s a different story.
This one – this heartbreaking story they chose me to tell, was the toughest I’ve ever been asked to share. I can only hope I did it justice. Guy Morriss deserves that.