Stevenson senior Matt Morrissey wasn’t alive for his father’s nine-year NFL career and was only beginning to learn about sports as he acted as the Patriots’ ball boy on his brother’s high school football teams. And as the youngest of four kids, a young Matt watched in the stands as his two sisters dominated in basketball and volleyball, the latter of which his mother played in high school.
Growing up there wasn’t pressure on Matt to play the sports his entire family had, but in a household such as his he knew that at some point sports, namely football, would become an important part of his life.
“Seeing how my brother and dad loved the game so much, I kind of figured if I kept playing the game I was going to grow to love it as well,” Matt told CSNChicago.com. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Along the walls and shelves of the Morrissey household are memories of Jim Morrissey’s playing career. Matt’s father, an all-Big Ten linebacker at Michigan State and member of the 1985 Bears, has kept reminders of his successful days on the gridiron, which he rightfully displays proudly.
A photograph of him returning an interception 47 yards in Super Bowl XX, the 12th longest in NFL history. A collage of each one of his trading cards. His first and last NFL contracts, matted in a picture frame and given to him as a Father’s Day gift from his children. His framed No. 51 jersey -- he was the last Bear to wear it before it was retired in Dick Butkus' honor -- with pictures from his playing days. Numerous game balls and a replica Super Bowl trophy. The shoes teammate Mike Singletary wore in his last game at Soldier Field. They’re memories of a childhood dream that came to fruition thanks to his hard work and dedication, something he has passed on to his four children.
Jim grew up in Flint, Mich., sneaking onto the local golf course to play pick-up football with the kids from the neighborhood. Though basketball was his first love, he also admits he wasn’t very good on the hardwood and knew his only shot at playing sports in college was football. He began playing in 7th grade and eventually received a scholarship to attend Michigan State, a dream come true for the son of two Spartan graduates.
His 329 tackles rank 13th all-time in Michigan State history, an impressive accomplishment considering he didn’t start full-time until his junior season. His last two years in East Lansing he was named All-Big Ten, and as a senior he led a defense that helped the Spartans to a 5-4 record, the program’s first winning season in six years.
That effort led to the Chicago Bears selecting him in the 11th round of the 1985 NFL Draft, something he didn’t find out until around 1 a.m. the day after the draft because the Bears couldn't find a number to reach him at. After making the roster as a week-to-week special teams player, Jim, a childhood Lions fan, became part of perhaps the greatest team ever assembled.
“The Dan Hamptons, the Jim McMahons, Walter Payton, wow," he said. “It was just a dream come true. I did my best. I worked as hard as I possibly could. It was an amazing run.”
For the next nine seasons Jim carved out a role in Chicago, starting at outside linebacker for five seasons, made the playoffs three other years and finished his career in Green Bay in 1993.
But when Jim hung up his cleats for good, his playing days didn’t end. With four sports-driven children in the house, there was seldom a time that a basketball wasn’t bouncing in the driveway or a football wasn't being tossed around in the backyard. For Jim, sports had always been more his passion and enjoyment than his career, which made it second nature for him to play with his sons and daughters.
“It was easy for me to go outside and shoot baskets. It was easy for me to go in the yard and play catch with the football,” he said. “That’s what my dad did with me, and I felt like it was enjoyment for me, so why not do it? I loved spending time with them.”
That included Matt, who loved participating in the house-turned-sports complex in Lincolnshire. Playing with his sisters, Anna and Caitlin, outside in basketball or running pass patterns for his brother, Mike, sports were everywhere in the Morrissey household, and all four siblings made each other better.
“As I got older and could keep up with them. I would say basketball for the most part,” Matt said of the one sport all four Morrisseys played together most was, “and my sisters would still throw the football around with me and my brother. Both of those sports kept us together.”
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Mike eventually graduated from Stevenson to play football at Boston College, Anna received a basketball scholarship to Michigan State and Caitlin attended Indiana, leaving Matt to use what his older brother and sisters had taught him and apply it to the sports he was quickly picking up and learning to love.
It didn’t take long for him to do just that. He began playing football in third grade and, led by his father, won a Libertyville football league championship in sixth grade — their team was, fittingly, the Bears.
And though, like his father, his first love was basketball — Matt started last year on a Stevenson team that lost to Simeon in the state championship; Matt took on the task of guarding All-American Jabari Parker in that game — his accomplishments in football, combined with the legacy he was beginning to understand his father and brother had left, gravitated him toward the sport.
As the accolades poured in and the trophies piled up, the dedication and drive he learned from his parents and siblings only strengthened as he entered high school. All that has culminated in this, his senior season at Stevenson, where Matt’s role as the veteran leader and go-to player is easily seen.
“He’s one of hardest, if not the hardest worker on the team,” head coach Bill McNamara said. “He leads by example; he talks to the players and he helps them and he teaches them. It’s like having another coach as a player. He’s an incredible football player, he’s a great student; he’s really the complete package.”
Through four games Morrissey has tallied more than 30 tackles and two interceptions on defense and grabbed a team-high 277 receiving yards and four touchdowns on offense. Perhaps it’s because of his father’s and brother’s playing days, or the fact that he played linebacker through his sophomore season, but Matt’s instincts to play at the line of scrimmage as an aggressive run-stopper, while still having the athleticism to defend against the pass has made him one of the top defenders in the state.
“I think Matt’s really good at reacting. I think he’s a natural reactor. I think he picks up plays, he sees things before a lot of kids see it,” his father said. “I just think he has very good instincts and very good hands, so it’s fun to watch.”
Matt’s skill set on the field has made opponents take notice, and his maturity and leadership off it is surely seen by his family, coaches and peers. But they weren’t the only ones, as Division-I colleges also began taking notice of the “complete package” last season.
Matt’s recruitment picked up steam as a junior, fielding serious interest and scholarship offers from close to a dozen schools. Over the summer he narrowed his list down to Illinois, Michigan State, Syracuse and Boston College, leaving a difficult decision not many recruits are put in.
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But just as Jim did when Matt first began to pick up sports and make it his passion, the Michigan State alum — and his mother, Amy, a fellow Spartan — took a step back and allowed his son to find what was right for him. The same went for Mike, who has since graduated from Boston College.
“It wasn’t going to be my choice; it wasn’t going to be his mom’s choice. It had to be his choice,” Jim said. “And we didn’t put any pressure on him. We wanted him to make his own choice because it’s going to be him on the football field, it’s going to be him in the classroom. He’s going to have to do the work and do the things to get better on and off the field.”
After debating the pros and cons of each school with his unbiased family, Matt ultimately chose to follow in his parents’ and sister’s footsteps and join the Spartan family.
“I just feel very blessed to have these guys be so great to me and let me go through the options and make the best decision for me,” Matt said. “In the end Michigan State was the best decision for me, and I couldn’t be more excited to be a Spartan.”
Matt admitted the competitive juices flow through the Morrissey household on a daily basis, whether it be a simple game of basketball in the driveway or board games during the holidays — Mrs. Morrissey, Matt admits, reigns supreme in that category. But part of what makes Matt special is his ability to keep his pressure-filled life in perspective. Football helped shape his father’s life, his older siblings took on their respective sports with a true passion, and he has made a promise to himself to get better every day.
But at the core of it all, in between the lights and cameras, the trips to Michigan State and the knowledge of his bright future in green and white, Matt also makes sure to step back and take each day as it comes.
“(Football is) a lot of my life. It’s not all of my life,” he said. “It’s such a team game. It’s just all your buddies that you’ve grown up with, and laying it all on the line is unbelievable with one of your best friends next to you. Football is fun, but it also teaches you so much about life: just staying determined and always working hard and bringing that work ethic. And I think football will help me later in life. It’s a great blessing to play this game, and I’m happy to play it every day.”