Stephen Morino’s shoulder and knee injuries had nearly ended his football career at the end of his college term. With a real shot at playing for a winning NFL team, his senior year was quickly becoming his worst on the field. Hot, muggy weather was now being replaced with a powerful downpour. As practice wore on, the lukewarm water ran down their jerseys, into their shoes, and into their helmets, finding its way into every nook and cranny in the team’s uniforms.
Nothing could be more dismal. Should the sun force its way through the clouds, temperatures would jump back into the 90’s. “Hut. Hike!” Her heard the ball snap back behind him, and Morino was off to the End Zone in hopes that they could score a practice ending “touchdown” and go home. As he turned back to look for the ball, it struck him hard in the temple, knocking him to the ground. “Heads up, Morono!” were the abusive words that accompanied the impact. Two men from defense jumped on top of him, putting their weight onto his rib cage. A sharp pain cut through feeling like a mini heart attack. Ribs must have broken, he thought.
“Morino, get over here!” It was the coach, and he was readying more harsh words
“Yeah,” Morino barely managed, exhausted and dazed from the impact.
“You’re the worst player I’ve ever seen in my life. If it weren’t for your late grandfather calling in favors, you’d be off the team by now.”
“But Coach, they’re not letting me…”
“Shut the hell up!” There was real anger in his words, now. There was no more act. All of the blame for the team’s recent string of losses were being placed on him, even as the rest of the players slacked off. By third quarter, teammates had given up, lost their leads, and taken on another morale-sapping defeat. “Back in line!”
One hundred percent hadn’t been enough. Morino gazed over at the cheerleaders, watching the team in dismay, waiting on their boyfriends. Not paying attention to the calls, the rain was masking his tears, but not the lump in his throat that prevented him from speaking.
Suddenly, the football struck him in the back of the head again. More defensive players tackled him. Practice was supposed to be done safely, but the others now seemed driven by a real desire to send him away injured. Despite starting the season with a herculean effort, less motivated players were finding it easier to scapegoat him.
Coming up off the ground without a helping hand, he watched the others turn away from him. “Morino, go run laps!” yelled the Defense Coach with volume but no emotion.
Returning to the locker room for a shower, there were no looks, no words, and no towels left in the towel bin. Blood ran down his leg unabated. No bandages were offered. There had been no warning for this. He had been their best player three years running. Even in extreme pain for his senior year, he had given more effort than anyone, run more yards, made more completions, and intercepted the ball more than any other offensive player.
With fans from both universities yelling in the background, Morino was now sidelined for the last five games of the season. Scouts would come and go, now only seeing him on the bench. He could see the cheerleaders and coaching staffs from the opposing teams staring in disbelief that Morino was repeatedly sidelined, leading to one shutout after another.
Yet, realizing that they were free to play without him, morale improved. With each passing loss, his teammates began to enjoy the game more. Despite angry fans and confused opponents, the coach and players were elated.
As he looked up at the lights, the concessioners, the referees, the reporters, and the occasional scout from national teams, he remembered the encouraging words of his grandfather, a veteran of Normandy: “When you can’t catch a break and the world’s against you, keep your chin up and take on the world.”
The graduation ceremony was unremarkable, except for a few uninspiring words delivered by the state’s former governor. “In America, we love the underdog–but we hate a loser. No matter what obstacles we face in life, no one in this country wants to look at someone who gave it their all and failed. No one wants to see the face that shows that the American system doesn’t work. No one wants to be reminded of what we really are… and so, no one will look at the man who gave his country everything he had, then had his country take away everything that he had ever worked for.”