Inside two classrooms at Gilbert High School, two intercoms buzzed the two brothers, Kelsey and Cory. They left their bags behind and began their journey to the principal's office, starting on two different routes. The wings intersected and the two brothers saw each other, saw that the other had also been summoned, and they each knew something wasn't right. Granny, Kelsey thought.
The brothers got to the principal's office, where they saw their mother, Beverly, sobbing, accompanied by their pastor.
Granny, Kelsey thought again, his mind racing.
Beverly turned to the two brothers, Kelsey — Kels, for short — and Cory, and gurgled, "I don't know how to tell you …"
The specter came to Kels, a 16-year-old boy's worst nightmare, wrapped its fingers around his heart and squeezed. It was Dad.
"I just knew," a now grown-up Kels Morrissey says, married and employed and six-foot-five, just like the father he remembers.
They'd later be told Phil Morrissey, 52, had died of a heart attack in Pocahantas, Iowa, while on the clock for Iowa Pork. A haze overcame Kels, who thought to go back to the classroom for his belongings. Younger brother Cory, a freshman, left his backpack behind in what he remembers to be shop class. Someone else could bring it for him.
Later that day, his family behind at the house he could no longer recognize, Cory went to the weight room at Gilbert and began pumping iron. This was his regimen, and he couldn't miss a rep. This was the true beginning, the first day, of the rest of his life.
Five years later, on Dec. 15, 2013, Mike Green, Iowa State's director of athletics communications, approached defensive ends coach Curtis Bray at the season awards banquet, held at The Plex in Ames. Green, an 18-year veteran of Cyclones communications, was impressed with the junior campaign Cory Morrissey had put together for Iowa State, but was more struck by his tale. Morrissey grew up an Iowa State fan and felt compelled by the memory of his father to wear the cardinal and gold, and went the JUCO route to earn a Cyclones scholarship when they didn't bite after a distinguished prep career at Gilbert.
The day Iowa State offered Cory a scholarship, he committed.
Green had his story, he just needed a quote or two from Bray.
“I have recruited kids who have definitely wanted to be at a certain school, but I don’t know if I have recruited a kid who took the course he did just to be able to make it to that school,” Bray told Green. “He had a goal in mind and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Exactly one month later, on Jan. 15, Curtis Bray died after suffering a pulmonary embolism at Iowa State's football complex. Morrissey and the players in his position group saw the ambulance outside the complex and thought someone was dehydrated. In the locker room, they were told the ambulance was for Bray, but no further details were provided. Shocked and stunned, hoping for the best, Morrissey and his mates got in a lift. Morrissey returned to the home he rented in North Ames, and the team-wide text message had come by then.
"Surreal," he says. "It wasn't, 'This is happening again.' It was, 'Why is this happening?' Why is this happening?'"
Phil Morrissey was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1956, and it was on what was then known as the Morrissey farm, a mile south of campus off Highway 30, where he fell in love with the pigs. Phil participated in Future Farmers of America and 4-H, a few times bringing his swine to the Iowa State Fair.
"He was a huge hog guy," Kels says, noting Phil came full circle, being a truck driver for Iowa Pork the last job he ever had.
A job search took Phil to Southern California, where he met Beverly Wilkerson. They married in 1991 and had two boys, Kelsey and Cory, who loved the Los Angeles lifestyle. The big city, the beaches, the weather. When Kels was in sixth and Cory in fifth grade, Phil moved the family back to Central Iowa. His mother was developing Alzheimer's disease. They found a home and refashioned the basement, so Granny could live with them.
The anecdote is well-told now, but Cory's story is nothing without it. Phil would take his sons — mostly Cory, sometimes Kels — to Iowa State football games at Jack Trice Stadium. They'd sit on the top level of the east side of the stadium, watching whatever team the Cyclones put on the field that year, be it a 2-10, a 7-5, a 3-9 squad.
"He always loved the Cyclones, no matter the win-loss record," Kels says of Phil. "He was always proud of them."
One year, one game, Phil pointed onto the field and said to Cory, "I want to see you playing out there." This is what fathers arbitrarily say to young sons, to motivate them and to prod them in some certain direction. A father can tell his sixth-grade son, who pitched six innings of perfection, that he's the next Roger Clemens. A father can tell the same son, who's the starting quarterback for the seventh-grade 'B' team, that he could be the next Drew Brees, who was once a B-teamer, too. All these athletic prophesies can dissipate by the 9th grade, but then the father simply tells his son he'll one day have a byline in Sports Illustrated and be the best there ever was.
This is what fathers and sons do. They like to dream big, together. And Cory took it as gospel.
"[Dad] had athletic potential, too, and there were a lot of regrets," Cory says. "It was a different age and he didn't go to college. He decided to farm instead. He kind of lived his life vicariously through me, to help me not make the same mistakes he made in his path. Ever since I was little he always stressed to me and my brother — dedication, dedication, dedication. You have to put in the work to get where you want to be.
"It was something when he was alive — talking to me about what he wanted me to do. But when he died, it became so much more real."
Kels has never cried about his father's death since the day of. He wishes he could and points to his chest, saying, "I keep everything in, no matter what." He's read up on the subject online, of burrowing emotions and the perils that might come, or on the inadvertent inability to show emotion. He thought the tears would flow on his wedding day in June, the absence of his father magnified, but they didn't.
Their mother, Beverly, believed her support system would be stronger in Los Angeles. After Cory graduated from Gilbert, she moved back to California. Beverly returned to Ames in early 2014, in anticipation of Kels' wedding and Cory's final season with the Cyclones. Her support system was in Iowa, all along, she's realized.
The motivation that overcame Cory after his father's death brought with it a fierce streak of anger, begat perhaps by resentment toward the world. Quiet by nature, he'd keep everything in, just like Kels, with the exception of scary, expletive-fill outbursts.
"Rants he doesn't mean," Kels says.
Cory doesn't say "sorry." In the aftermath of his eruptions, he'll nudge the victim toward the phone or the iPod or the speakers, and a song with the lyrics "I'm sorry" will be playing.
Football is Morrissey's release. He played both ways at Gilbert High. Iowa State certainly took notice, but wanted him to walk on. For a time, he was committed to Northern Iowa. He withdrew his verbal pledge around Christmastime, coming back to reality: Northern Iowa was not the end goal. The Cyclones used the scholarship Morrissey was hoping to earn in the 2011 class on Devin Lemke, who left the program this offseason after playing in seven career games, on special teams.
Phil's creed sent Cory to Council Bluffs, where he earned honorable mention all-conference for Scott Strohmeier's Iowa Western JUCO program. The Cyclones offered on one of Cory's trips to Ames in November of 2011, and he committed on the spot, as Bray described to Green. Not too much time had passed, and Oregon defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro was in the football offices at Iowa Western, telling Morrissey he'd be a Duck if he agreed to renounce his ISU pledge and commit, right then and there.
Cory politely declined.
"Alabama could've called and Cory still would've gone to Iowa State," Kels says.
The day Bray died, Kels and Beverly spoke on the phone. They were worried about Cory. His outbursts had become less frequent and they attributed that to his relationship with Bray, a father figure. Everything was going so well for him, but now the world was going to cave in on him, again. Cory needed their help, they figured, or he'd relapse.
Instead, Morrissey has been a rock. ISU coach Paul Rhoads asked Morrissey to speak at Bray's funeral in Pittsburgh. Morrissey put a "bunch of ideas together," on the bus to the airport and typed the speech up the night before. He's got a new best friend in Colden Charles Bray, one of two young children Bray left behind.
"I try to talk to him about things, six-year-old things," Morrissey says. "Fortunately, I was 14 (when Phil died) and I wasn't six. I definitely want to be a part of his life and help him get through things once he's old enough to understand what happened, or what's gonna happen."
Morrissey decided to change his uniform number to 58 for this year, the number Bray wore at Pitt. He's become a nutrition freak, helping Kels to finally shed much of the 75 pounds he put on his freshman year of college. He's been patient with the rest of the defensive ends, who are all young and inexperienced.
"You don't find a better young man than Cory Morrissey," says ends coach Stan Eggen, who replaced Bray. "I'd take a hundred of him. He's a team player, a team man … he does a tremendous job of being a leader to our group and the team."
Morrissey got his first ever tattoo this offseason, thanks to the persuasion of ISU linebacker Jevohn Miller. On Morrissey's right bicep, which bulges like a silo, there's a cross, with the initials P.M. at the top and C.B. at the bottom, angel wings coming out the side. "John 3:16" is inscribed in the intersection of the cross, the popular verse often recited in Sunday School. The King James version reads: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believith in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The Cyclones are looking to bounce back from a 3-9 campaign and Morrissey, one of three captains is, literally, the face of the team. For most of the spring and summer, a billboard stood near the intersection of Highway 235 (eastbound) and I-35, the same image as the one that appears on Iowa State's posters: Morrissey in his cardinal helmet, his eyes shielded by a darkened visor, mirroring the reflection of young children pointing toward him. Morrissey jokes he's "watching over Gotham." Not too many miles to the east are the state fairgrounds, where Phil so many summers ago took his swine.