Finally, Mitch Morse is back on the field, in full uniform, preparing to play a game.
There were times when the Buffalo Bills’ center questioned when, and even if, he would get to this place.
“At one point, I think I had practiced like four or five times since I’ve been in Buffalo,” Morse told reporters with a sheepish smile Monday.
The Bills had just finished their first full workout in earnest in advance of Sunday’s regular-season opener against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
“It’s a blessing, to be honest,” Morse said. “The game of football is full of just tremendous highs and tremendous lows. And, unfortunately, injuries are some of the lowest parts of this game. And it takes a whole village to get you out of those lows, whether it be the (medical) staff here, which did an unbelievable job of giving me every tool and resource available, friends and family and teammates.”
Morse spoke publicly for the first time since entering concussion protocol on July 31. He suffered what he described as a “freak” injury on July 27, during the first practice in pads of training camp at St. John Fisher College.
“Both me and the defender were falling,” Morse said. “I was kind of rolling out of it and the ground propelled [the defender’s] knee into the side of my head. I told him, ‘Man, it was just one of those weird, freak, once-in-a-career hits you take.’ And that’s when you kind of come into the, ‘Why the hell is this happening to me?’ But you can only control what you can control, and that’s the toughest thing. It’s easier said than done.”
The Bills announced during the team’s preseason-finale against Minnesota on Thursday that Morse was cleared to return to action. None of the starters played against the Vikings, and although Morse was in the locker room after the game, he preferred to wait until Monday, following three days of no media access, to address reporters.
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His absence on the field had put a cloud over otherwise wide-spread optimism about the Bills’ fortunes for this season. Morse was the team’s top free-agent acquisition, signing a four-year, $44.5 million contract that until recently made him the NFL’s top player at his position.
“People say you can only control what you can control, and you kind of want to smack them for it,” he said, “but cliches are around for a reason. It’s the truth and when you kind of cope with that, and kind of come to reality with that, that’s the truth. All you can do is take care of yourself, and that’s what we were able to do.”
This was Morse’s fourth documented concussion since he entered the NFL in 2015 as a second-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. The previous three occurred when he was with the Chiefs. His first two happened during his rookie season, and Morse said they could have been avoided, because he wasn’t wearing a mouthpiece and his helmet was not up to the NFL’s current standards for sufficient protection.
Still, early in his career, he couldn’t help but grapple with concern he might be prone to the type of injury that has been known to prematurely force players into retirement and is the focal point of most discussions about player safety and long-term health worries.
“It’s one of those things that you wonder, ‘Why is this (happening) to me? Am I damaged goods? What’s happening?'” Morse said. “And then you get past that and you realize that you’re not. A few of these are just happenstance and you just got kind of the short end of the straw and that you’re not putting yourself in extra harm. I think that was huge.”
Morse said experts have told him not to worry if he suffers additional concussions.
“In the back of your mind, you always wonder,” Morse said. “But every single one (of the experts) I talked to said that, ‘The outside perception of these things is kind of far off in regards to the fact that if you take care of yourself and do precautionary, prevention stuff, if this does happen a few more times, it’s fine, you’ll be fine in the future. Just take care of yourself. It’s just one of those things.’
“No one can a hundred percent guarantee you anything. The hay’s in the barn at this point, also, but the truth of the matter is that football is also a different game in regards to that. I can only speak for myself, and I feel very confident that I’m going to be just fine in the future. We’ve done all the tests you can do, every single one, and every one was just tip-top and all the specialists said I’m going to be just fine.”
His fellow linemen were glad to have him back on the field, although Morse has been with them in meetings and on the sidelines. Rookie Cody Ford has leaned heavily on the center’s guidance.
“Technically, he never left,” Ford said. “I mean, it does feel good for him to actually be out there taking reps with us and things like that. But it’s not like we had to kind of welcome him back into the (meeting) room. He was always there and always supporting us and leading us along the way.”
Ford considers Morse a great source for what it takes to be a professional, with a steady stream of advice such as seeking to get “one percent better” in a particular aspect of his game each day. “And then little things like identifying blitzes or even coverages and stuff like that,” the rookie said.
Morse followed his own advice Monday. Although there isn’t much time to get ready to play a game that counts, he had some transitioning to do to go from spectator to participant.
“There’s definitely rust,” Morse said. “As a player, you always feel like there’s something you need to work on. Maybe that’s just amplified now that I’ve been out for a bit, but you’re always trying to find a competitive edge.
“At this point, it really is about getting to game speed and I feel like we’ve been able to do that, whether it’s repetitions in walk-through or everything except live drills. When you lose the physical reps, it’s imperative to take care of the mental reps. Because it doesn’t matter when you’re healthy, if you don’t know what’s going on out there, you’re still going to move in slow motion and wonder if I’m still concussed.”
Coach Sean McDermott was glad to have his center back on the field. But he seemed reluctant to show all that much enthusiasm over his return.
“I feel good about Mitch,” McDermott said. “I feel good about the other members of the offensive line as well. He’s one piece of that group. It’s an important group to our success.
“As you’ve seen, we’ve had people move around up front and that’s been good for us. I think it’s developed some resiliency and some toughness.”
On the other hand, Morse couldn’t help but be effusive about the chance to practice.
“Oh, man, I just love this game, I really do,” he said. “People say don’t let stuff define you. I define myself as a football player. Not completely, but I love it. And it’s something that I’m really glad to be able to play and continue to play, and, hopefully, do it for the foreseeable future here in Buffalo.”