Ki­ick, Mor­ris form bond be­yond foot­ball

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - Dave Hyde

The old run­ning back is late for the hol­i­day show at the as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity, and by the time he finds his front-row seat, the trivia ques­tions have started. A res­i­dent on the makeshift stage, Oleta Krauss, says from her wheel­chair, “I’m 101 years old. Who knows how to write ‘101’ in Ro­man nu­mer­als?”

As the au­di­ence of few dozen friends and fam­ily con­sid­ers the ques­tion, the old run­ning back, Mer­cury Mor­ris, says, “Just in time.”

His former Mi­ami Dol­phins team­mate, Jim Ki­ick, is up next. Ki­ick, 72, is seated be­side Krauss and of­fers Mor­ris a wan smile. This event was planned

long ago, and Mor­ris and his long-time girl­friend, Deb­bie Ronca, visit Ki­ick reg­u­larly at the Wilton Manors fa­cil­ity, In­de­pen­dence Hall. But Ki­ick called Mor­ris early that morn­ing to con­firm.

“Are you com­ing tonight?” he asked.

“I’m com­ing,’’ Mor­ris, 71, said.

A few min­utes later, Ki­ick called again. “Are you com­ing tonight?” he asked.

Mor­ris con­firmed again he was com­ing. An hour later, Ki­ick called again to check. And then again. And again. He called 12 times that day. Each time, Mor­ris lis­tened like it was the first call from his long­time friend, and said he was com­ing, often with a kicker like, “… and I’m go­ing to bust your chops all night.”

Now Ki­ick is handed the mi­cro­phone, and he reads a ques­tion from an in­dex card ask­ing for the Dol­phins op­po­nent in The Long­est Game, an epic play­off game on Christ­mas Day in 1971 that was de­cided by kicker Garo Yepremian, their late team­mate.

No one an­swers. New Eng­land, some­one fi­nally mum­bles, draw­ing con­tem­po­rary chuck­les.

“You don’t know, Merc?” said the home’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, Lori Musto.

Mor­ris smiles. “Kansas City.”

Forty-seven years after that win­ning kick sig­naled the magic-car­pet ride go­ing up on their Su­per Bowl Dol­phins, the two run­ning backs who shared a po­si­tion and com­peted against each other now lock eyes and smile.

“You’re right, Kansas City,’’ Ki­ick says.

The movie script would have the years melt away in their smiles, and the screen freeze at that fa­mous game: the black kid from Pitts­burgh whose feet moved as fast as his mouth still does, and the white kid from New Jer­sey with the soft­spo­ken streak of a rebel.

But this stopped be­ing that movie script a while ago. Ev­ery­thing changes. Time sol­diers on. A few min­utes later over a chili din­ner for the hol­i­day event, Mor­ris is skip­ping through their sto­ries like a stone on the wa­ter: A touch­down Ki­ick scored in a Cleve­land play­off game where Mor­ris was first off the bench to hug him … a bas­ket­ball team they played on for a decade after foot­ball … a pregame coin flip where they served as cer­e­mo­nial cap­tains be­fore a 2006 Dol­phins game.

“Heads,’’ New Eng­land cap­tain Mike Vra­bel called. It landed tails.

“You can’t even get that right,” Mor­ris told him.

Ki­ick, who has sat mo­tion­less through Mor­ris’ talk, says, “Where are my ear plugs?’’

Mor­ris chuck­les. “That’s his fa­vorite line.”

Ki­ick smiles. “Where are my ear plugs?”

Mor­ris de­tected a change in Ki­ick on an Alaska trip in 2014 to meet former team­mate Larry Csonka for an NFL Films’ show called, “The Per­fect Back­field.” Ki­ick called him from the air­port park­ing garage be­fore their flight.

“I can’t find my car,’’ he said.

“You just got out of it,’’ Mor­ris said.

Ki­ick still couldn’t find it. His fam­ily knew some­thing was wrong, too. Mem­ory prob­lems. Re­peat­ing him­self. Disor­ga­ni­za­tion from a man ruled by or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ki­ick moved in with his son, Austin, now 29. But Austin was on a trip to Colorado vis­it­ing his ten­nis-play­ing sis­ter, Al­lie, when his fa­ther called to say his an­kle was swelling.

Austin had to pro­vide play-by-play direc­tions as his fa­ther drove to the hos­pi­tal on streets they’d lived for years. After en­ter­ing the hos­pi­tal, of­fi­cials re­fused to let Ki­ick leave by him­self. So Ki­ick moved to In­de­pen­dence Hall, where on this night the hol­i­day event in­volves a raf­fled Dol­phins foot­ball and play­ing cards of Ki­ick and Mor­ris.

“See this card?” Mor­ris says, hold­ing up a bearded Ki­ick from the early 1970s. “Look at him. [Coach Don] Shula had this rule, ‘If you don’t have hair on top of your head, you can have it on the bot­tom.’ Oth­er­wise,

you couldn’t [have a beard]. But Jim shaved a lit­tle slit on his chin and told Shula it was all side­burns.”

“It was side­burns,’’ Ki­ick says.

Ki­ick’s liv­ing room in the fa­cil­ity has dozens of pic­tures from his play­ing days, the bet­ter to re­mem­ber his life. There’s an­other pic­ture, one of a mus­cled Ki­ick and Mor­ris get­ting an eight-track tape deck out of a car, that Mor­ris keeps close.

“That’s who we are then, and that’s who we are now,’’ he says. “Same team­mates. Our friend­ship, our ca­ma­raderie, that’s part of me. It’s tough watch­ing him grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rate, but we’re go­ing through this to­gether.

“We made a great run­ning back to­gether — 1,597 yards and 18 touch­downs in the un­de­feated sea­son. We had a bond then, and we have that same bond to­day. It was all about the team in

those days.”

His voice grows softer, “It’s still about team.”

So Mor­ris makes the trek from his home in Home­stead to Ki­ick in Wilton Manors ev­ery few weeks. He takes Ki­ick to John Of­fer­dahl’s an­nual grill-off char­ity event. They eat at Jer­sey Mike’s, a sub shop the Jer­sey kid in Ki­ick likes. Often, they just sit to­gether and talk.

The ro­man­tic story would in­volve that full

team stay­ing to­gether. Sev­eral team­mates and Dol­phins alums came to Ki­ick’s birth­day party in Au­gust. No one ex­cept Mor­ris and an­other reg­u­lar, former team se­cu­rity di­rec­tor Stu We­in­stein, have vis­ited since. One team­mate had a lo­cal au­to­graph show set up with Ki­ick be­fore back­ing out when the money wasn’t deemed enough.

“You know what you don’t get to take with you?” Mor­ris told the team­mate. “What?” “Ev­ery­thing.” Ki­ick’s story is a grow­ing one as the pos­si­ble toll of foot­ball and age align. Just on that Dol­phins team, Nick Buon­i­conti, Tim Fo­ley, Hu­bert Ginn and Ki­ick are suf­fer­ing from men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Austin Ki­ick says the MRIs and CT scans show dark spots on his fa­ther’s brain from con­cus­sions, lead­ing to chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy.

That’s a ques­tion of science.

Mor­ris asks a ques­tion of hu­man­ity.

“Did you see what he did when I came in late to the show?” he says.

Mor­ris goes through the scene of him tak­ing his seat, of look­ing at Ki­ick, of trad­ing smiles. Then Mor­ris no­ticed Ki­ick do some­thing telling. He tapped his wrist where a watch would be. This tells Mor­ris his good friend is still there.

“That’s what Shula did when we were late,’’ Mor­ris said.

He laughs after all these years in a way the movie script should in­clude, the real script, the one that erases the happy end­ing for the real-life one.

“Jim was up there, call­ing me out like Shula would.”

“That’s who we are then, and that’s who we are now. Same team­mates. Our friend­ship, our ca­ma­raderie, that’s part of me. It’s tough watch­ing him grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rate, but we’re go­ing through this to­gether. Mer­cury Mor­ris, former Dol­phin’s run­ning back

JOHN MCCALL/SUN SEN­TINEL

Trad­ing cards fea­ture former Mi­ami Dol­phins run­ning backs Jim Ki­ick (left) and Mer­cury Mor­ris (right). Both were team­mates on the 1972 Mi­ami Dol­phins team, the only NFL team to win the Su­per Bowl with a per­fect sea­son.

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