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August 18, 2012
There's a new face in the middle of Missouri's offensive line. He's the caretaker of the football, given the responsibility of safely getting the leather ball seven-yards back to James Franklin. He's the caretaker of Missouri's quarterback, tasked with blocking 300-plus pound defensive tackles -- the SEC's trademark -- and making sure Franklin stays upright, making sure Missouri's running backs have room to roam up the middle.
Center Mitch Morse is up for the task. For his entire life, he's had a much more important person to protect.
Am I my brother's keeper?
Morse's life changed completely on April 1, 1996.
Morse's younger brother, Robbie, suffered a traumatic brain injury while under the care of a babysitter on that date.
Mitch was four years old. Robbie was four months.
Catherine Morse recites the date quickly and assertively when asked about the event, sounding like she's telling a friend about her son's birthday. In retrospect, it's a date equally important, as it changed the complexity of Robbie's life.
Robbie became severely mentally and physically disabled because of that incident, about which the family does not go into great detail.
"I think [Mitch] knew something bad happened," Catherine Morse said. "But I don't think he fully comprehended what that meant, at that age. That his brother would be as disabled as he is."
The mother looks back at the moment, and how it affected her oldest son. She makes sure to say repeatedly that this isn't a sad story -- and, in talking with the family, it's clear they truly believe that. Out of the tragedy, the family adapted to a new life with Robbie at the center.
Mitch Morse said he had to mature at an early age, and his mother agrees with that statement.
"Mitch is an extremely compassionate person," Catherine Morse said. "Always has been. He's very sensitive about Robbie's needs. I think to some extent, when you're a kid and get to adulthood and start to process things, it seems normal for you. 'That's my life, that's my brother.' I don't think he ever thought, 'Wow, that's really extraodinary.'
"But his whole lifestyle was dictated with Robbie's special needs, so it had a profound impact on Mitch."
As Mitch grew older, it became apparent that athletics would be a major part of his life. He went from a back-up quarterback to a starting lineman for St. Michael's Academy in Austin, Texas. After growing to 6-foot-6, 285-pounds, Morse received a scholarship offer from Missouri and committed quickly.
All the while, his younger brother would never be able to see him play.
"He's progressed through the years, but he has a hard time walking," Mitch said. "You have to have a visual on him at all times. I mean, he can roam around the house some, but you have to be with him all throughout the day."
"It's not that he couldn't go," Catherine Morse said. "He's easily agitated. We just try to keep him in a very strict routine, and it's not something he could comprehend."
Now, Robbie has a full-time care provider that's been with him for the last 13 years. Catherine said the family is blessed in being able to afford that, and a big help was Mitch's full scholarship to Missouri. Because of the care provider, Catherine and husband Kevin will be able to see almost all of Missouri's games this fall, with the exception of the away game against South Carolina.
Whenever Mitch returns home though, the reaction by Robbie is the same.
"There's always a big smile on his face," Catherine Morse said. "He's thinking, 'Hey, I remember this guy!'"
I am my brother's keeper
Mitch Morse's sense of responsibility was born out of Robbie's disability. Throughout his life -- even at a young age -- Mitch would do what he could to help his parents in taking care of his brother.
"You don't have a normal childhood, compared to other people," Mitch Morse said. "It's normal for me, but you have to make sacrifices to take care of your brother.
"You haven't lived until you have to put a 16-year old on the toilet. It's like having a little kid around all the time. He's great, but you learn to be humble and patient. It's a virtue to be around him. It helps a lot."
Catherine Morse said Mitch would watch Robbie if she or her husband had to run errands. He would help feed Robbie when he was young. Robbie is "ambulatory but non-verbal," Catherine Morse said, and although he can feed himself now, Mitch still helps to cut Robbie's food when he's home.
The family is open to talk about Robbie. Instead of a sensitive subject, the family wants to exalt Robbie and explain exactly how much he means to them. Mitch explained that it isn't a one-way street with his brother. For all the help that Mitch provided growing up, Robbie has returned the favor ten-fold.
"Without a doubt, he's my biggest inspiration," Mitch said.
"It's a hard subject to talk about," Kevin Morse said in an e-mail. "But it certainly helped Mitch develop into the kind of young man that makes his parents proud."
There's no hesitation in Morse's voice during a conversation about Robbie. But, it's clear the separation has taken a toll. Maybe it's the August heat or the residual effects of a nearly three-hour practice, but Morse gets teary eyed when he reflects on his baby brother. Part of that comes with the juxtaposition of the brothers.
"It's a tale of two sons," Catherine Morse said. "There's one son, this super-human son that plays college football. And there's Robbie, who's physically dependent on us for everything."
"You go and play this football game," Mitch Morse said, pausing. "And you get all this praise. But when you go home, he doesn't care. He just wants the company. It's different ends of the spectrum. I get to go home and just be the older brother. When you're at school, you're the football player."
It's tough for Morse to think about what could have been, had Robbie not suffered the severe trauma. But, he believes his brother would have been a better athlete than he.
"It stunted his growth," Mitch Morse said. "His hands are still ginormous. He was supposed to be 6-8, 6-9, but he's barely six-feet."
Mitch Morse doesn't want to get pushed around on the offensive line. But, when he's with Robbie, that's okay.
"He's kind of the boss," Mitch said, smiling. "He knows he can get whatever he wants, but he's still gracious about it in his own ways."
The two brothers developed a tender expression of their love for each other. When Mitch goes home, his biggest task is to rub Robbie's feet. Mitch said it's not therapeutic and doesn't serve any medical purpose. But Robbie loves it. Catherine recalled a recent time when Mitch returned to Austin, bringing a few teammates with him. As soon as he walked in the door, Robbie propped up his feet, smiling at his brother.
"I think the guys were like, 'Wow, look at that,'" Catherine Morse said. "It was pretty funny."
Those hands don't show any hint of Morse's Other Life, his life as the "super-human" football player. On the field, he uses them to grip the football, to punch and throw defensive linemen while blocking, tools of destruction. Off the field, they're tools of endearment.
"He doesn't know I'm a football player," Morse said. "He just knows me as the foot rubber."
In high school, long before dreams of college football were realized, long before Missouri became his new home, Mitch Morse would honor his brother in a small way. Before every game, Morse would write, "Always With Me -- Robbie Morse" on the tape that covered both wrists.
Morse hasn't done that at Missouri, as he hasn't seen much playing time in his two previous seasons on campus. Now, he's the starter at center, hoping to anchor an offensive line that faces its biggest challenge in the SEC. Robbie won't be able to see his brother play, or understand the challenge ahead this season.
But, during some games, pay attention if the TV cameras catch Mitch Morse in a close-up. The writing on the wrists will return, he said. Written in pen or marker, that ink will be more than just a motto.
It represents the blood that unites two brothers.