By Jim Moyes
I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked by the news of Earl Morrall’s death.
He had been ill for quite some time, and it wasn’t unexpected.
Yet I was still stunned to learn that our proud community had lost perhaps its greatest sports ambassador.
Tributes of Morrall have rolled in from all across the country, and most deservedly so. His magnificent career in the National Football League is well documented.
But for those of us who grew up in the Muskegon area back in the 1950s, we remember Earl for more than his NFL heroics.
What a prep career he experienced at Muskegon High!
I was on hand to witness Earl Morrall star as the Muskegon Big Red quarterback one time, and ironically it was the last time Morrall would ever taste prep defeat, a loss to the Muskegon Heights Tigers in the final game of his junior season.
As a young gym rat, I was in awe when Earl and his Big Red basketball team made a crosstown journey over to North Muskegon for a basketball scrimmage against my hometown Norsemen. Even in grade school, I was already convinced I was watching a man who was clearly going to be a superstar.
My first live look at the talented Morrall was not a happy one, however. I watched in dismay as Earl’s suicide squeeze bunt in the ninth inning brought in the winning run from third base as Muskegon edged a North Muskegon baseball team, coached by my father, Paul Moyes, in Earl’s sophomore season back in 1950.
It would be the last time that I ever rooted against the popular Morrall.
I had the great honor to interview Earl a number of times during my many years in radio broadcasting. We rarely talked about his career in the NFL – for the most part, we would just reminisce about his time spent in his hometown of Muskegon.
Until he became ill in recent years, his ability to recall those wonderful, long ago high school years was uncanny. Although he played in hundreds of football games in the spotlight of the prestigious NFL, I was always amazed at how fondly he remembered playing for the Big Reds more than 60 years ago.
I always likened Morrall with a fictitious character created by the author Clair Bee back in the late 1940’s – Chip Hilton.
Chip Hilton, to me, was actually Earl Morrall in disguise – a rare three-sport superstar who came from humble beginnings and never let his success go to his head.
Very few people outside of our own Muskegon area realize how good Morrall was as a baseball player, not only at Muskegon High, but also Michigan State University.
I was in correspondence yesterday with Bob Reising, a teammate of Earl’s on the 1954 Spartans, the only MSU team to advance to the College World Series.
“Earl was about as modest and even-tempered as an athlete could be,” said Reising. “I never once saw or even heard that he lost his composure or temper at Michigan State. This despite his uncommon multi-sports talents and many successes.
“He may well have been the ideal American college athlete. He was handsome, earned good grades, he was the multi-sport star with obvious professional promise … and always was a perfect gentleman,” added Reising, who is now retired and living in Conway, Ark.
The following Reising comment, I believe, depicts Earl perfectly: “Everyone liked him, too. How could anyone not like him—what was there to dislike?”
The 60-year reunion of that ’54 MSU baseball team will be held in East Lansing May 9-11, but now it will be a bittersweet experience with the passing of the team’s beloved shortstop.
Morrall wasn’t too shabby on the basketball court, either. As a high scoring forward on the Big Red basketball team, Muskegon made it all the way to the Class A regional finals in his senior season.
Although Earl was clearly the team leader, he would always praise his talented teammates who would remain very close to Earl over the years.
But Morrall’s greatest triumphs came on the football field. Michigan State has suited up a number of great quarterbacks over the decades, but only Earl was a first-team All-American performer at MSU.
As one who cared only about winning, and little about padding his statistics, Earl still finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1955.
The San Francisco 49rs selected Morrall as the second pick in the entire 1956 draft, the beginning of a prestigious 21-year pro career.
How excited I was when Earl was traded from Pittsburgh to Detroit back in 1958 for longtime Lion icon Bobby Layne.
And how upset I was when the Lions traded Earl to the New York Giants in 1965.
Earl had many great games with the Lions, but there was one moment that I will long remember.
A packed house at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium went into hysterics as legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas delivered an apparent winning touchdown pass to receiver Lenny Moore with just 15 seconds left to play.
The Lions had 10 seconds left on the clock with no timeouts remaining when Morrall calmly called the play in the huddle. Instead of throwing a Hail Mary pass as far as he could, Morrall delivered a pass to his tight end, Jim Gibbons, over the middle.
I can still vividly recall viewing that game on a grainy 21-inch black and white TV screen at Ronan Hall on the campus of Central Michigan University. We all went berserk when Gibbons broke a tackle and went into the end zone as the Lions captured their most incredulous win in their storied franchise history.
I have never understood why Earl has been snubbed by Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There are a number of great relief pitchers in the baseball Hall of Fame, and Mariano Rivera will soon be joining them.
Morrall came off the bench in relief of Unitas to lead the Colts to a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl berth in 1969.
Two years later, he relieved Unitas in the Super Bowl and took the Colts to the championship. He remains the only quarterback to come off the bench and lead his team to a come-from-behind victory in the Super Bowl.
In 1972, he came off the bench early in the season for the Miami Dolphins, in relief the injured Bob Griese. He led the team to 11 straight wins, including a Super Bowl victory, and the only undefeated season in NFL history.
Morrall has to go down as the greatest backup quarterback the game has ever known – and was pretty darn good as a starter, too. How can the Hall of Fame voters continue to ignore his incredible feats?
I – and a lot of other people – think the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award should be renamed after Morrall, who won the award himself in 1972.
As one who has delved in sports trivia, I have often heard brain-teasers like: “Who is the only player to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series?” or “Who is the only player to play in the Rose Bowl and a World Series?”
But here’s a real tough one: Who is the only athlete to have played in a Rose Bowl, Super Bowl, Pro Bowl and a College World Series?
If you answered Earl Morrall, you are correct.
Hall of Fame coach Don Shula perhaps said it best with his recent quote of his veteran quarterback.
“He was someone who was as good a person as he was a player,” said Shula, who coached Morrall in both Baltimore and Miami. “All Earl ever did for me was win games, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench.
“I’ve always said John Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino are in the Hall of Fame, and Earl is in my own personal Hall of Fame.”
The same goes for me. Earl Morrall will always be in my Hall of Fame, not only as a great athlete, but also as a great man. Thanks for all the great memories Earl.
Great article and tribute by my dad for the Great Earl Morrall – my prayers go out to the family….
Great article Jim!!!! He did not live that far south of us in FL,,altho we are Snowbirds. My type of athlete,,,same attitude toward the game and life as the great hockey star Gordie Howe whom I heard speak years ago in Muskegon… thanks for sharing….(you ole Norseman) :)
Great article about a great man!
Thanks for the memories — Earl grew up on Emerson, near my grandparents. Lee David lived right next door to them. I worked at Misco with Nick Lirones and met Bob Fairfield through family marriage. That Big Red team will not (and should never be) forgotten. Earl Morrall was the epitome of high school athletic class and carried it through his life and career………..
Beautiful tribute of a beautiful man – inside and out.
Beautiful aticle on Earl Morrall, Jim. I remember how your mom, dear Sara, always thought so much of him. What an outstanding writer you are, my dear nephew. xoxo