It sometimes takes the worst of circumstances to bring out the best in people. When Mitch Morse, now 27, was only 4, his younger brother Robbie, only 4 months old at the time, suffered an injury that resulted in permanent brain damage and the need for continual special care.

As the older Morse grew up, he formed the habit of anticipating what his younger brother would need. This selflessness transferred well to the football field, as the 6-foot, 6-inch Austin, Texas, native focused, not on individual achievements, but on being the best teammate he could be. This philosophy allowed him to enjoy the team sport and perform well at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy and at the University of Missouri.

After his collegiate career ended, Morse was chosen in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He was named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s All-Rookie team, and, over the next three seasons in Kansas City, he cemented a reputation as a top offensive lineman. The Buffalo Bills were so impressed that, earlier this year, they made him the highest-paid center in the league.

Mitch Morse recently spoke of life’s ups and downs in the context of his Catholic faith, in anticipation of the Bills taking on Devlin Hodges’ Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday.

 

You grew up in Austin, Texas, at a time in which the Cowboys did very well, including three Super Bowl wins, so I assume you were a Cowboys fan.

When I was growing up, the only football team my family cared about was the University of Texas Longhorns. We were not into pro football at all, and I had no desire to be a pro player. This might seem incredible to some people, but the very first pro game I went to was the very first one I played in.

From the time I was little, I played football for the fun involved. I didn’t look too far ahead and just wanted to be the best teammate I could be. The further I progressed, the more the game became like a job that is taken seriously. That seriousness really began to set in during my senior year in college, when pro scouts started to take notice of me.

 

What have been the biggest surprises of pro football?

When I first started playing professionally, I was intimidated by the whole thing. I remember walking into the locker room for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and the self-imposed “Morse code” of only speaking when spoken to, etc. I was out of my element, but have since learned what to expect — at least to a degree.

I’ve anticipated certain things that did not come through, so I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Things change in the NFL so quickly that you can’t take anything for granted. Leads in a game or in the division standings are most visible, but there are so many other things subject to change.

There’s a continual need to work rather than trying to operate on autopilot. That coasting might get you by at lower levels, but not here, so while we’ve had a great season so far, I’ve learned not to take it for granted that we’ll be at that same level without much further effort.

My football philosophy today has similarities to what it was years ago, but it’s been refined a bit. To play well and be the best teammate I can be, it’s necessary not to look far up the road, but to simply play well one day — and even one moment — at a time. The future is not here yet, so it cannot be controlled, and in any event, there are only some things that can be controlled here and now. I just try to work those things as best I can and trust in God, that the results will be what they should be.

Have you always been able to connect faith and football?

I went to Catholic grade school and high school, so we always associated the faith with football or other sports. At St. Michael’s we would have a pregame chapel service, then a team meal, and then the game that night. It was never a matter of sports alone; there was always a faith background or faith themes running through sports.

Even at Missouri, a secular school, we would pray as a team before games. With the Chiefs, we had a priest, Father Richard Rocha — a college football coach before ordination — offer Mass for Catholic players and coaches on the weekend. That group included Harrison Butker, who also went to daily Mass and even two Masses on the same day when he could.

Now, with the Bills, we have a similar setup as we did with the Chiefs, so there’s always been a Catholic theme to my football experience, even when the organization I play for is not an essentially religious one.

 

Was there a particularly tough time your faith got you through?

I was probably too young to remember it in those terms, but when I was 4 years old, my 4-month-old brother was shaken by a babysitter, which caused brain swelling. Subdural hematoma is a technical term referring to bleeding on the brain, but “shaken-baby syndrome” is the general, commonly-known term for what happened.

My brother can process information well, but has challenges with verbal communication and other things most of us take for granted, so he needs to be under constant supervision.

Obviously no one in our family would have chosen such a painful and unfortunate thing voluntarily, yet it has been not only a difficulty but a blessing. I think it’s made me more empathetic and less self-centered. I got into the habit of thinking what my brother would need, and then into what my “brother” in a general sense needs. It’s a spirit of service to others, which gives meaning to life.

 

How did the trauma affect your parents?

My father converted to the Catholic faith and became heavily involved in RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] for years afterward. He helped out at the classes and went to the Easter vigils where new members were formally received into the Church.

Through the grace of God, both my father and mother were able to accept what happened, forgive the babysitter and focus on what we needed to do going forward. The damage was already done, and there was no way to go back and make it better. It would have been counterproductive to remain angry long afterward, so we’ve made the best of it, and that has brought us closer to God and to each other.

 

If you can make the best of that, you can make the best of anything.

My parents’ response to the event has shaped how I see things. I just try to make the best of how things are, even when they aren’t ideal. A small example of that is during Mass. Most of the time, it seems like the Gospel reading and sermon are directed right at me. They hit home, and I can take them and use them in life. However, when the sermon is not terribly engaging, I still try to find something — no matter how small — about it or the Gospel reading that I can apply to some aspect of life.

That’s what I do in football, too. All those unexpected things we talked about already can stop you in your tracks or they can be occasions of great plays. You have to stay on your toes, respond as well as you can, and then let the chips fall where they may.

 

Prayer must be vital to preserving a good mindset.

When things go well, there’s always a temptation not to pray. It might seem like God is not needed and everything will be okay without him. That’s the benefit of crosses in our lives: We receive the grace to see that we are not okay on our own. We need God’s help to live well and be truly at peace.

It’s indispensable to ask God for things, especially the strength to do what he wants us to do. On the other hand, prayer is not just about asking for things — as helpful as they might be — but also thanking and praising God. Sometimes it might be easier to thank or praise a human being, but God is worthy of all thanks and praise, so we should recognize him accordingly.

 

Do you have a patron saint?

I’m from Austin, Texas, so I like St. Augustine of Canterbury, also known as St. Austin. My hometown was not named after him, but nonetheless, I like that similarity. I also like having the same last name as St. Henry Morse. We’re not related to him — or even to Samuel Morse of Morse code fame — but we’re still connected in a way.

St. Henry lived in the very late 1500s and into the 1600s. He was a Protestant but converted and became a priest at a time when that was illegal in England. He’s one of the many martyrs there who were killed for being Catholic.

The English martyrs and all the others from around the world completely gave themselves up for God. That’s an inspiring ideal of sacrifice we can use in less spectacular ways at work or at home.

My wife, Caitlin, and I are happily making many sacrifices for the sake of our first child, due in February. She’s really doing all the heavy lifting, so to speak, but maybe my biggest sacrifice is letting go of my own ideas so she can be as prepared as possible for the birth.

We don’t know if our baby is a boy or girl; and, at first, I wasn’t sold on not finding out. Now I take it as an adventure and am anticipating the birth all the more. In the meantime, the Hail Mary takes on new meaning because I can see more clearly how Mary was a living tabernacle, full of grace, the Mother who gave flesh to our Savior.

It reminds me of the rosary blessed by St. John Paul II that we have at home. It was given to us by Father Rocha as a wedding present, and it is all the more meaningful now that we’re approaching Christmas and then the birth of our own child.

 

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle His book, Fit for Heaven (available from Dynamic Catholic), 

contains numerous Catholic sports interviews, most of which

have appeared in the Register.