Watch McMorris in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl at 6 PM PST on Jan. 4, on Fox Sports 1.
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Growing up, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei defensive tackle Malik McMorris’s mother – Lucy Guerrero Martinez -- knew everything. She used to ask her son, “Have I ever steered you wrong, soldier?”
“She always told me that,” says McMorris, now a Semper Fidelis All-American. “She never did steer me wrong. Looking back, she always came through with what she said. She was a woman of her word. She helped me out every day. She never did steer me wrong. She’s definitely steering me right.”
She’ll be steering him right, again, on Sunday night at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. Nearly a year ago – on Jan. 29, 2014 – Guerrero succumbed to breast cancer. In her memory, McMorris will continue his tradition of wearing a bright pink mouth guard, one more time, in a high school game. That memorial – that singular act – isn’t enough for McMorris, but it will have to do, for now.
“Definitely in college, I want to get into charity work,” he says. “I’ll be more on my own, and I’ll definitely get involved, for sure. I want to get involved in breast cancer and cancer in general.”
In October of his sophomore year, McMorris and his family received news that his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was just before the Monarchs’ rivalry game against Anaheim (Calif.) Servite.
“I didn’t ask too many questions when it happened,” says McMorris. “We all sat down, and my mom and dad told us, as a family. She said she was going to be OK, so I just trusted the word of the doctors and stuff like that.”
As Lucy got worse, her husband of 19 years – Patrick McMorris – changed shifts at work. Patrick – who had worked as a customs agent for the Department of Homeland Security at Los Angeles International Airport – changed to the graveyard shift. Midnight to 8 a.m.
“The bed in the room, we had to rearrange the whole room and whatnot. Then, they brought in the hospital bed,” says McMorris. “We had to move all the drawers and stuff like that, so my dad waited until I got home because he wasn’t strong enough to move stuff like that. I moved that all around, we put the stuff in the hallway, we moved the bed – we had to take it apart and move it, and then the hospital bed came in. It was a process. We had to tilt it, because our doors aren’t that big. Then, we sat next to each other, and I stayed awake pretty late every night, just to make sure everything was OK, just to take care of her.”
By December of 2013, Lucy had begun to bounce back, at least a bit. She had started to learn how to drive again. But, that respite was short-lived. “She relapsed towards the end of December. Then, it took a turn, big-time,” says McMorris.
By the night of January 29, she was gone. McMorris was not there. He was playing in a basketball game in Rancho Santa Margarita, because he knows that’s what his mother would have wanted.
“I had just come back from a basketball game (a 50-42 win at Santa Margarita), and my dad sat us down and told us,” McMorris says. “I had said my goodbyes the day before, just because, hospice care, it’s basically death in there. It was in Huntington Beach.
“My PE teacher from middle school, he told me that my mom, she laid down a path for me, my brothers and sister, my mom, she laid down a path for us to walk down, an amazing one. She definitely did, and I’m going to walk down that path and succeed, make it in life to where I want to be.”
McMorris went to school the next day.
“I just felt that she would have wanted me to go to school. I never missed a day of school in middle school, unless it was something important,” says McMorris. “Elementary school and middle school, I basically never missed a day of school, and going into high school, I never missed a day either. I missed a couple days this year for official visits and stuff like that, but I just like being at school. Being around my friends, making me laugh and having a good time, to this day, it helps me take my mind off of it. I just knew that everybody would be there for me, as opposed to being at home and wallowing.
“I kind of kept it to myself, to be honest. I told [now-California freshman wide receiver] Matthew Rockett. He was the first person I told, and he’s a big deal, so it got around school. People gave me words of support, and nobody really acted differently around me. Still, to this day, nobody does, which is good. I felt like I was still fitting in. Obviously, somebody very dear to me is gone now. She’s definitely still there with me, and I just keep doing what I’m doing, for her.”
Lucy -- a former discus thrower and mile-runner, herself – introduced her son to the art of throwing. His junior track season, he wrote her name on his track shoes. Along with his team CIF Southern Section and state team titles, McMorris finished fourth last year in the state shot put, with a personal best of 60’ 9 ½” – a personal record by more than a foot. In the state discus preliminaries, he hit 190’ 8” – another PR – and took fourth in the state meet with 182’ 11 ¼”.
“My mom passed away at the start of the year, but even before that, I wanted to do well in 2014, and win a state title -- because me and her talked about it all the time,” says McMorris. “And, I wanted to do well in football – because we talk about that all the time. It’s a goal that I strive for, in everything I do.
“When she passed away, it was definitely an extra boost for me, to do that – not necessarily extra pressure. I was more enthusiastic every time I was out there, practicing, because I know that I’m working for a goal that means something to me, and would have meant something big to her.”
McMorris was once again the Defensive MVP of the Trinity League, though he missed out on repeating his junior-season all-state honors. He had scholarship offers from Army, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Holy Cross.
“She taught me that school’s the No. 1 thing,” says McMorris. “Sports will get you into school. If I fail in the classroom, I’m not working up to the best of my ability. I know that I could do better than that. In anything I do, especially in the classroom, on the football field or just working out, I want to do the best I can. I don’t want to feel like I didn’t give it 110 percent in the classroom like I do on the football field.”
McMorris’s 3.7 GPA, his determination to go to school even with his mother’s death hanging over him, as well as a recent offer for a preferred walk-on opportunity with Rockett up in Berkeley, are no accident. Lucy was a lifelong educator.
“She worked all around Santa Ana Unified School District,” says McMorris. “She started off as a kindergarten teacher, at Heninger Elementary, and then she went to intermediate and middle schools and taught seventh or eighth grade. Then, she moved on to Middle College, which is a high school, and she was a history teacher there. After Middle College, she went to Santa Ana High School to start her assistant principal job there. She wanted to be a principal and run her own school. She spent a lot of time a lot of places, and did her job really well, that’s for sure. She had a lot of respect here in the city.”
In October – nearly the same week that, two years prior, he was told his mother had cancer – McMorris was informed that he would be an All-American, a Semper Fidelis All-American.
“I got the news two weeks before the Servite game,” McMorris says. “[Former teammates] Jonathan Lockett and Thomas Duarte, they went to it. I never had the opportunity to go watch the game. I had basketball games on the same day, so I never had a chance to watch it. But, I look back and look at the highlights and stuff, and I knew that Jonathan told me that it’s a great experience. It looks fun, it is fun, so far, and it’s up to par with what people told me about it.”
When he got the news, he could almost hear Lucy, singing the same old tune: She still hadn’t steered her little soldier wrong.
“She’s in my head and my heart. Before every game, I look to the sky. I know she’s got my back,” McMorris says. “I wear a pink mouthpiece, so at the game, I’m going to bring out the pink mouthpiece. I play for her.”