MORRELL MORSEL: Following the '58 season, accolades rained down on Morrell. He was named first-team fullback on both the all-conference and all-West Coast squads and was chosen to play in the Senior Bowl. In addition, Morrell was selected for the original Copper Bowl, a college all-star game in Phoenix.
Tragically, yes. An insidious heart disease known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy has stalked Chuck Morrell and his family for three generations, claiming five lives and forever haunting those left behind.
In hindsight, it's so clear. One moment, Chuck Morrell is racing for a touchdown, no one within 10 yards of him. The next, he's lying face down on the 10-yard line. "I just fell down. Never figured out why," Morrell remembers of the play in 1958 that has had him in the Cougar record books ever since. It was an 87-yard run from scrimmage against Pacific --- the longest run in Cougar history (later tied by Frank Madu in 1995). And it was cut short by a phantom tackler that Morrell and his family wouldn't discover for another 17 years.
But back then, it was merely an inexplicable end to a great play by a very talented ballplayer. In fact, Morrell's career at Washington State contained enough glory to keep the average Joe high-stepping for decades.
RUNNIN' TO PAYDIRT
As a Cougar fullback from 1956-58, he had a reputation as a tough-as-nails runner, earning the respect of vaunted opponents like Iowa's Alex
Karras and Idaho's Jerry Kramer, both future NFL all-pros.
And returning kickoffs was something he did with fearless abandon. Morrell's 83-yard touchdown return was the straw that broke the Bruins' back in WSC's 1958 upset over UCLA. The 38-20 victory ended a 17-year Cougar drought against the L.A. school. Morrell further wowed the Coliseum crowd that day when-still out of breath from his TD return-he sliced through the Bruin defense for a two-point conversion, his third deuce of the game.
His UCLA rivals were so impressed (or depressed) by his performance that Morrell was named to their 1958 all-opponent team. It was an award quietly coveted by all who lined up against the Blue and Gold. Each player selected was flown to Los Angeles and given the royal treatment at a banquet in their honor. But don't bother trying to imagine Bob Toledo's bunch giving Marcus Trufant a standing ovation; like many of college football's unique and storied traditions, UCLA no longer selects such a team.
College ball in the high '50s still meant the best players were on the field for 60 minutes, and Morrell made a name for himself as a defensive back and linebacker, as well. Offensive opponents kept a vigilant eye out for number 42, a punishing tackler who seemed to appear out of thin air.
"Back then, we didn't call a time-out for any strategic reasons," he told Cougfan.com. "We called time out to catch our breath."
Morrell's 1958 Cougar team is generally considered one of the five greatest to ever don the Crimson and Gray. Teammates included legendary Crimson Soldiers such as Gail Cogdill, Keith Lincoln, Marv Nelson, Donnie Ellingsen, Bill Steiger, Bobby Newman, and Don Ellersick.
Coached by passing guru Jim "Suds" Sutherland, the '58 Cougs went 7-3 and were invited to play in the Sugar Bowl. Under Pacific Coast Conference rules, acceptance hinged on unanimous consent from fellow PCC schools. Spiteful UCLA and USC voted no. Not wanting to rock the conference boat, WSC President E. Clement French sheepishly told Sugar Bowl officials no thanks. Ironically, PCC overlords voted eight months later to boot WSU, Oregon, Oregon State and Idaho out of the conference and reorganize as the Athletic Association of Western Universities. Thus, French's Sugar Bowl decision ranks as the most notorious "fumble" in Cougar football history. And it robbed the '58 squad of its rightful place in Cougar lore.
Following the '58 season, accolades rained down on Morrell. He was named first-team fullback on both the all-conference and all-West Coast squads and was chosen to play in the Senior Bowl along with Steiger. In addition, Morrell was selected for the original Copper Bowl, a college all-star game in Phoenix.
Despite his considerable feats on offense, which also included a two-TD performance in the Cougars' 34-12 drubbing of Nebraska in 1957, Morrell points to the other side of the ball when recalling his personal best as a Coug.
"In the '58 game against the Huskies, we were holding on to a slim four-point lead," he recalled. "I was playing outside linebacker and stopped them on three separate third-and-short runs late in the game."
The Cougars defeated their arch-rivals 18-14 that day. Afterward, teammates and Dawgs alike pointed to Morrell's defensive heroics as the difference in the contest.
After college, Morrell played briefly with the Washington Redskins. In a questionable personnel decision, the 'Skins played him strictly as an outside linebacker. At 6-1, 195 pounds, his size was a detriment and Morrell left the nation's capital without ever getting a chance to show off his bread-and-butter: running the ball.
His Redskins roommates, each of whom got their walking papers before Morrell, were Tom Flores, later the head coach of the Raiders and Seahawks, and Bobby Beathard, the future general manager who reluctantly signed Ryan Leaf's paychecks for the San Diego Chargers.
Morrell decided to scrap his NFL career and went to work for Warner Brothers Studio. The Hollywood job was perfect for Morrell, who'd long planned on a career in acting and starred in an episode of TV's "Traffic Court" prior to his senior year in Pullman.
Morrell had also been active with the WSC theater department and one of his first appearances on stage proved to be a memorable one. During the spring of his junior year, he performed in a variety show at-of all places-Walla Walla State Penitentiary. To the troupes surprise, one particularly surly inmate yelled out, "Hey, Chuck! You better beat the Huskies next year!" Perhaps this best explains his standout defensive performance against the Dawgs that next season.
Morrell was also a published songwriter before leaving Pullman. Two of his songs were recorded by Phil Crosby, his Cougar teammate. The tunes even included a cameo by Phil's dad, the one and only Bing Crosby, who also oversaw their production.
Soon after joining Warner Brothers, Morrell signed with a talent agency and honed his acting in workshops alongside Terri Garr, Kevin Dobson, David Carradine, and Barbara Hershey, among others.
He even found time to squeeze in a little football, playing for the semi-pro Anaheim Rhinos. Just like the movie "The Longest Yard," the Morrell-led Rhinos once played a team of inmates inside the barbed wire of Chino State prison.
In all, Morrell appeared in ten movies, including 1973's "The Sting," starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and "Midway" starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda, in 1976.
But it was on the small screen where Morrell enjoyed his biggest and best roles, appearing in ten episodes of some of TV's greatest crime dramas.
One such role was on a 1973 episode of "Banacek" with George Peppard. The episode also featured legendary San Francisco 49er quarterback John Brodie, and all-time Wazzu great and Los Angeles Ram, Clancy Williams. (Morrell would later appear on film with another Cougar, Eric Johnson, in the 1976 film "Two Minute Warning.")
In the episode, Morrell plays a pro running back who's kidnapped during a game. Brodie, whose character masterminded the abduction, was perhaps seeking revenge against Morrell for intercepting him when the Cougars defeated Stanford in 1957.
Morrell played both sides of the camera as producer and costar of the 1987 cult-classic horror film, "Grotesque," starring Linda Blair. The film was re-released this year at the Cannes Film Festival. He'll soon be reunited with Blair, having just been signed to direct her in an upcoming TV project.
While never becoming a star, Morrell partook in the Hollywood nightlife with the best of 'em. From cocktail parties with Liz Taylor to bar hopping with David Carradine straight off the set of TV's "Kung-Fu," the former Coug regularly painted the town with a "who's who" of Hollywood royalty.
THE SILENT STALKER
Throw in a father's pride for his two grown children, Eric and Holly, and Morrell's life would certainly seem storybook. But behind the roar of stadium crowds and bright lights of Hollywood, his story is about far higher stakes than those on football fields and movie sets.
Overshadowing it all has been a series of tragedies inflicted by Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). The disease is characterized by an excessive thickening of the heart muscle and if gone undetected-as most cases do-can lead to heart failure. It is the number one cause of sudden death among young people, specifically athletes. We hear of HCM only when it strikes down a budding star like Loyola-Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers or the Boston Celtics' Reggie Lewis.
But HCM usually leaves its victims on the little league baseball field or the junior-high gym floor; long before these youngsters have ever had a shot at adulthood, let alone fame. We tend to cast these tragedies aside, force the awfulness from our consciousness and forget the loss of these young lives long before the flowers along their gravesides have wilted.
Morrell's legacy of loss began after a day of football practice in 1956 when Sutherland called aside Chuck and his twin, Gary, himself a Cougar end, to deliver the heartbreaking news. Their 3 year-old half-sister Michelle had died in her sleep. Her young heart had simply stopped beating.
Morrell's mother, Virginia, would die of heart failure five years later at age 54. In 1975, Gary's son, Kyle, 12, collapsed and was left comatose from a heart seizure. He died two weeks later.
The entire family then was examined. Four were diagnosed with HCM. Chuck, Gary, and two more of Gary's children, Desiree and Mitchell, had unknowingly - - like Kyle -- been stalked by this deadly gene their entire lives.
With knowledge came medications. But the medical profession's understanding of this disease was still in the infant stage. Mitchell, 14, died less than a year later. Desiree suffered a heart seizure in 1978, also at the age of 14, but survived and today is a grown woman and mother. Unfortunately, her son Tyler inherited the gene but was implanted with a device designed to essentially jump-start his heart should a seizure occur and today lives the same active life as any other 14-year-old.
Gary, however, died as a result of HCM in 1991. His wife, Anita, was on duty as an emergency room nurse when Gary was brought to the hospital, just as she'd been six years earlier when her son Kyle was rushed in.
"He should have gotten a heart transplant," Morrell, himself a recipient of a new heart in 1995, said. "But losing his two boys stripped a portion of Gary's will to fight the disease."
FROM "TD TWIN"
TO HCM NEMESIS
Chuck and Gary shared that closeness unique to twins, and than some. The Morrell twins grew up having never met their natural father and spent a period of their youth in a California orphanage. Known as the famous "Touchdown Twins" at Downey High and Long Beach City College, the boys were each other's only constant in an endlessly nomadic childhood.
A chance meeting with the original Hurlin' Hawaiian, Cougar quarterback Swinton "Bunny" Aldrich, led the twins on a recruiting visit to the wheat fields of the Palouse. Once there, Sutherland convinced them to rebuff scholarship offers from UCLA and USC and become Cougars.
After WSU, Gary gained national prominence in the broadcasting field. He was a reporter for KIRO-TV in Seattle and the voice of the old Seattle Totems hockey club before moving on to do color and play-by-play for Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins radio broadcasts. He also hosted a nationally aired sports talk show on Enterprise Radio-the original incarnation of the sports entity ESPN.
The relationship between Chuck Morrell and HCM did not end with Gary's death, nor with his own heart transplant. It intensified.
He immersed himself into the world of HCM and, in the process, has become one of the nation's leading advocates for those diagnosed with the disease, as well as for the grieving families who've lost a loved one to it. Not a week goes by without someone recently diagnosed with HCM contacting him for advice.
"I try not to frighten them," Morrell said. "But this disease is so unpredictable, I have to give them a sense of urgency. For some of these youngsters, tomorrow may be too late."
But Morrell has plans to battle the disease on a much larger scale. And since there is no known cure for HCM, awareness is his only weapon.
He's utilizing his Hollywood experience to film a documentary on HCM entitled "No Warning." Leading heart specialists throughout the world have offered their unconditional support and assistance to Morrell and the project has already caught the eye of cable and PBS stations. Though getting the $200 to 300,000 needed to produce the film is proving to be a challenge of epic proportions.
The difficulty in obtaining financial backing for the project discourages Morrell, but hasn't slowed him down. He's faced tougher challenges in his life-a childhood full of uncertainties, the cutthroat world of Hollywood, and far too many family funerals-yet somehow has always endured.
Besides, this challenge is personal for Morrell. He doesn't need to look at old family photos to remember that.