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Brother with special needs keeps new Bills center Mitch Morse grounded

Brother with special needs keeps new Bills center Mitch Morse grounded

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AUSTIN, Texas – Mitch Morse watches as his father slowly and tenderly feeds Mitch's younger brother with a spoon. Mitch takes in the scene in silence while sitting on a kitchen stool.

This is one of many moments that are powerful reminders of the part of Mitch's life that began defining his purpose long before he established himself as one of the best centers in the NFL.

At 23, Robbie Morse is only four years younger than Mitch. Yet, as a result of brain injuries he suffered as an infant, he continues to require the same level of attention he received then. He needs to be fed, and diapered and cleaned after a bowel movement. He needs help getting dressed, getting around because of terrible spinal issues and with pretty much everything else most adults and even children tend to take for granted.

Classical music plays in the background from the television in the living room, because Robbie finds it soothing. Mozart is his favorite. That isn't something Robbie can express with words, because he's mostly nonverbal. He typically communicates by touch, hand signals and sounds. He can't say when he's feeling pain. He regularly suffers strokes. He takes a bevy of prescription medications and is seen by a pediatric neurologist who began treating him two decades ago.

Mitch might very well be the primary piece of the Buffalo Bills' extreme offseason makeover of their offense. He might very well have a burgeoning bank account thanks to his $44.5 million free-agent contract, including an $11 million signing bonus and $26-plus million in guaranteed money, the Bills gave him in March.

He might be looked upon to bring to Buffalo a little of that magic of which he was a key part on the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs.

But none of that changes the fact that he's Robbie's older brother.

He's an integral part of a tight network of love and support that Robbie has always received, dating back to their childhood when Mitch would sit on the couch and Robbie would put his feet on his lap and Mitch would rub them.

Three years ago, Mitch's parents Kevin and Catherine bought a "host" home for Robbie. It's about a 30-minute drive from their condo. A caregiver who has looked after Robbie for 20 years also lives in the home, which Kevin and Catherine visit at least once per week.

Mitch someday will grab the baton of guardianship when his parents no longer can fulfill that role.

"Catherine and I have saved and saved and saved to ensure that Robbie could be taken care of in the future," says Kevin, wearing a blue Bills hat. "But if Robbie lives to 70 or 80, I don’t know if our savings will be enough. But I know Mitch’s will. That’s why you can sleep at night. So, thank you, Buffalo Bills."

Part of the solution

Mitch and his wife, Caitlin, have their main residence in Kansas City and rent a condo in Hamburg. However, no distance is too great to keep Robbie from being a major presence in their universe.

“His brother grounds him in the reality of life," Kevin says. "Mitch has always been somebody who’s been part of the solution. I think it was a Brazilian philosopher who said that the blessing is very near the wound. And it is.

"The blessing that Robbie has brought to this family is beyond anything I can describe to you. And it starts with Mitch. He's not one time, not once in his life, been a problem, been an obstacle, been difficult, been anything that's caused us to do a moment of anything other than focus on Robbie."

If that meant leaving a store or any other public place sooner than planned because Robbie was having a meltdown, so be it. If that meant one parent taking a separate vacation with Mitch so the other could stay home with Robbie, so be it.

"There were some really tough days that molded us as people, molded us as a family, brought us tighter together," Mitch says. "And absolutely, there was no chance in hell I was going to be an extra burden on my family. That was the last thing I wanted to do.”

"Celebrity is fleeting," says Kevin. "And, because of his brother, celebrity is not going to be the thing the derails Mitch."

April 1, 1996. The sun was shining brightly when, in the sweltering heat of central Texas, the Morses' world suddenly came off the rails.

“It’s so horrifying, it’s hard to go back to," Kevin says.

It began with the phone ringing in Catherine Morse's office. The babysitter was calling to say that something was wrong with Robbie, who was four months old. He wasn't breathing. Catherine, then the in-house counsel for Samsung Austin Semiconductor, called her husband, an attorney with another firm. Mitch, who was four, was at day care.

When Catherine arrived at the house, an ambulance was in the driveway. She feared Robbie would die.

'He looked like a corpse'

Kevin Morse ran nearly three-quarters of a mile from work to the hospital, arriving just as the ambulance pulled in front of the emergency room entrance. Huffing and puffing in a sweat-soaked dress shirt, his tie askew, he thought Robbie was already dead. "He looked like a corpse," Kevin says.

Kevin never considered himself a religious man, until that moment when he first saw his baby connected to all sorts of wires and monitors. All Kevin could do then was pray as hard as he could for Robbie’s life.

An ophthalmologist's examination revealed that the bilateral subdural hematoma Robbie had suffered was consistent with symptoms of a baby who had been severely shaken. The sitter, who was about 20, later confessed to a police detective she shook Robbie when he wouldn't stop crying.

The news only deepened the agony, especially considering that Kevin and Catherine had found her through a nanny service they had vetted and the sitter had been on the job for a few weeks without incident.

But how Robbie ended up in the hospital mattered far less than their desperate hope of carrying him home alive.

“There's never been a moment that we've thought about any kind of retribution. Not one moment," Kevin says. "Every friend of mine would have told you, 'Well, I thought he would go over there and kill her. Literally.' But (that feeling) never came out, it just went away. This was just about Robbie and Mitch, and that was a complete waste of emotion. It was time to focus, and that's what we did.

"And, honestly, we've focused for 23 years."

As lawyers, Kevin and Catherine understood that even with a confession, the district attorney's office wouldn't have an easy time prosecuting with no eyewitness. The case was based on circumstantial evidence and the babysitter was a first-time offender.

Kevin and Catherine also didn't push for harsh punishment. In fact, they did quite the opposite, telling the prosecutor that sending the sitter to jail would only "ruin another life." As far as they were concerned, she was a good person who "was young and got frustrated." The babysitter, with whom they have had no contact since the incident, wound up reaching a plea deal and didn't serve any prison time.

“Every once in a while, we think of her," Kevin says. "But all you feel is kind of pity and sadness. But I also think maybe it kept her from ever shaking her own children. I have no idea if she had kids of her own, but hopefully she did and I guarantee you she would never shake another child."

"I don't know that I made a decision one day like, 'I'm not going to be angry,' " says Catherine. "I just felt profound compassion for the young woman who injured Robbie. I don't think she meant to. I just think she lost her composure, whatever. And when I think how difficult it must be for her to go through life, knowing that she did something to alter the course of someone else's life ... you just let go of it."

Mitch can remember a period, as an older teenager, when he couldn't let go. He didn't know who this babysitter was, but he was struggling to get past the endless nightmare she had created.

"You kind of go through the, ‘How the [bleep] can someone do this?’ " Mitch says. "But then you look back at what my parents did and you say, ‘How is that going to positively affect our lives in the future, holding grudges, attacking someone for doing this?’ And part of the moving on process is forgiveness. That's also easier said than done. But you can't undo what’s been done. You can be upset about it, but life moves on.”

'Treat him like a dude'

On this hot, sun-splashed afternoon in mid-July, Mitch and his wife join Kevin at Robbie's "host" home. It's a modest, nicely kept dwelling. A sign sits on the front porch. It says, "IN OUR HOME LET LOVE ABIDE AND BLESS ALL THOSE WHO STEP INSIDE."

Kevin, 59, gave up practicing law, which included a stretch as a county prosecutor long after Robbie's injury, after 30 years. He recently retired from a brief stint as a history teacher and football/track coach at St. Michael's, where Mitch went to high school. Catherine, 54, recently became a partner in a private law firm and keeps a busy schedule.

Even though Kevin and Catherine no longer live with Robbie, who is at an age where under different circumstances he likely would have been on his own, they always make time for him. Mitch acknowledges feeling guilty he doesn't see his brother more. With a career and other professional and personal obligations limiting trips home to once or twice per year, he tries to make the most of any opportunity he gets to spend with him.

“The parents are there to have very lovey-dovey feelings with my brother," Mitch says. "I'm here to just treat him like a dude, and he loves that. And each time you go over there, it’s a different interaction. Sometimes it’s very physical, in regards to hugging on him or kissing on him. And some days he's not into that, so it's just talking to him and observing, just being in the same room.

"When he sees me, he always kind of giggles and smiles for a bit, and then he's right into his regular routine, which always makes you happy.”

Mitch, who Catherine describes as "uncommonly kind," is keenly aware of respecting "Rob-bo's" routine. Any visit, even from a family member, can throw that off. For instance, when it's "Slurpee time," you simply leave him alone to his refreshment. "Or there's hell to pay," Mitch says with a smile.

'He's so innocent'

Robbie doesn't show the slightest awareness that his brother plays football for a living. His reaction to having Mia Spiller, Robbie's 53-year-old caregiver, excitedly point to Mitch's image on the screen during a game typically draws about about a five-second glance, and then, "Bye-bye, bye-bye," which is how Robbie dismisses something that doesn't interest him. Mitch finds himself almost envious of how his brother always stays in the moment, never burdened by anything from the past or what might happen.

As Kevin handles one of the eight or so daily feedings Robbie demands – which is hardly reflected by the roughly 130 pounds he carries on a 5-foot-10-inch frame – Spiller sits on a couch in the living room describing what life is like with a person she views as her own son.

"He understands everything you say," Spiller says. "He can hear us talking and he understands what we're saying. He just can't respond to you. And when he can't respond, sometimes he gets aggravated if it's something that he really wants. He's a grumpy, old man in a little boy's body."

The Morses found Spiller, who is wearing a blue No. 60 Bills jersey with "Morse" on the back, through a member of Catherine's family. She has a hard-luck story of her own. At 23, she said she suffered third-degree burns over 80% of her body from a space heater explosion that left her in a coma for 58 days.

"He's still a little, bitty baby in my eyes," Spiller says of Robbie. "You know, he's so innocent. He doesn't know anything about anything other than what time he wants his meals and that he wants to be clean. He takes about three baths a day. He's real particular about that. And he doesn't like a crowd. He wants to see what you're doing, but he doesn't want to get involved in it. He wants you to know he's there, but he doesn't want you to bother him."

'A gift, an angel'

A sticker on the back bumper of Spiller's car reads: "GOD BLESS THE WHOLE WORLD, NO EXCEPTIONS." Mitch calls her "a gift, an angel that's been given to the Morse family" and describes her as his "second mother." She never hesitated to give Mitch advice or provide the occasional nudge to clean his room. She sat in on meetings with social workers and even with college recruiters.

After he finishes eating, Robbie, wearing a blue Bills T-shirt and red shorts, heads over to the couch and lays down. The left side of his head rests on a pillow as he faces the TV still tuned to a classical music channel. Laughing, Spiller says, "I think every CD player in the house is broke because you have to keep rewinding, rewinding, so I decided to get it off the cable and not have to worry about it." She gently rubs his right leg as she speaks.

"Until he gets into bed at 9 and from 9 to midnight, he listens just to relax himself, with Mozart and Bach," Spiller says. "If he isn't in a deep sleep, he wakes up and, like clockwork, he says, 'Mia!' He wants the TV on."

Catherine believes that Spiller considers looking after Robbie something far more meaningful than a job.

"I think it's her life's work," Catherine says. "This is something that she knows is hard and she does it very well and she takes great pride in it. She keeps Robbie meticulously cared for. His nails are always trimmed. He's clean, he smells good. He has his hair cut every 10 days. And she worries about his receding hairline ... because Mitch lost his hair so early."

That's fitting, given that Mitch's linemates at the University of Missouri nicknamed him "Dad." It grew out of a variety of factors, beginning with those old-man slippers he wore seemingly everywhere. If things ever got a bit rowdy around a restaurant table, Mitch would be the one to say, "Pipe down! We're being too loud. We're going to get in trouble."

At the end of the first week of organized team activities, Bills coach Sean McDermott asked each of the newcomers to share a little something about themselves with their teammates. When it was Mitch's turn, a photo of Robbie appeared on a big screen. Mitch knew that most of the players had flights to catch for their break before the next round of workouts, so he provided an abbreviated summary of what happened to Robbie.

"I talked about how it molded me and shaped our family, but at the same time how it correlates to football," Mitch recalls. “One of the greatest things about a football team is that it's a cultural melting pot. I went through plights that other people on my team wouldn't understand. And there's definitely stuff that my teammates have gone through that I can’t even comprehend. And it molds all of us."

Always treating others well

This much about Mitch has always been clear to his mother: He has an amazing capacity to treat others well. At age 2, while in daycare at a Montessori school, he made friends with a classmate named Patricia. On the few days when it was cold, Mitch would always get Patricia her coat before the class went outside for recess.

"And then one day, Patricia wasn't feeling well and Mitch didn't go outside," Catherine says. "He stayed by Patricia because she was laying on the mat, waiting for her parents to come pick her up.

"When he was in kindergarten, there was a little girl who had Down syndrome. Her name was Alden, and Mitch was her protector. She wouldn't know it was time to come in from recess, and Mitch would go get her."

Robbie's plight has long served as motivation for Mitch. In high school, he wanted to perform well enough to earn a scholarship so his parents wouldn't have the additional burden of paying for his college education. At Mizzou, he wanted to perform well enough so he could play in the NFL and make enough money to help see to it that Robbie would have a lifetime of security.

“Like any person's job, it's tough some days to get up and get after it," Mitch says. "You just think, ‘How the hell am I going to get through today?’ Or, ‘How the hell am I going to get started?’ There are external motivators, which are money, coaches yelling at you to hustle up.

"At the same time, when you're driving to work, some days you have to find that intrinsic motivation, which also can be money, which is definitely something that was in the back of my mind. How do you provide for your brother?"

He did well enough after the Chiefs made him a second-round draft pick in 2015, something his fellow Missouri linemen acknowledged on social media with comments such as, "Dad Got Drafted!" But that was a rookie contract.

After the 2018 season, Mitch got his chance to hit it big. And he did, with a deal that made him the highest-paid center in the league.

"With this title," Mitch says, "it's definitely a point where you are held to a higher standard on the football field. But that's OK."

'We already have a child'

Mitch and Caitlin met at Missouri, when he was a freshman and she was a standout senior on the women's volleyball team. They dated through college and Mitch's first three seasons in Kansas City. They were married in June 2018.

When Mitch finally made his proposal, he offered Catie a possible way out that she ignored.

“I said, ‘Listen, before you say yes, we already have a child, my brother,' " Mitch recalls. That didn't mean he opposed the couple having kids of their own. Starting a family is their shared plan.

Mitch just wanted to paint as clear a picture as possible of their future.

"My parents are very proud of taking care of him, it’s their duty," he says. "But one day that's going to be bequeathed to me, and I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a challenge. The demands that (go with having) a special needs child become exponentially greater when they become older. But providing for my brother, just having financial stability regardless of what happens, that's a big thing."

He and Caitlin had been dating for about a year when she met Robbie for the first time. Her favorite memory actually came before they were face to face.

"I was getting ready for the day and once I finished, I open the blinds and I see Mitch sprinting down the street, pushing Robbie in his wheelchair," Caitlin says. "And they're both just laughing hysterically."

Feeling the pressure

Being the leader on a line that is being reconstructed makes the challenge that much greater.

New Bills O-line coach Bobby Johnson has conveyed that message to Mitch repeatedly during the offseason this way: "You're different. You're special. You're the quarterback of the offensive line. Your job is to get everybody going in the right direction, and you've got to be calm, cool and collected. To me, you're like the puppet master. And you just pull the right strings."

Mitch openly acknowledges there's considerable pressure on him and the rest of the line – which could have five new starters from among the six free agents the Bills signed and second-round draft pick Cody Ford – to find cohesion and chemistry as quickly as possible.

"I think it's one of the most unique things that's ever happened around the league in a while, an overhaul of the offensive line room with guys who have also been there before," Mitch says. "You're trying to find your offensive identity, trying to find how Coach Johnson wants to run his drills, how we're identifying stuff. And so we're all kind of learning this new system together, because there's nuances from the year before. So training camp will be big in regards to cohesiveness and figuring everything out."

The entire season will be even larger as fans and others see just how well, or even whether, he has what it takes to live up to his massive contract. Mitch gets that, too.

"What are you going to do with it?" he says. "Are you going to back it up? That's something that I'm always worried about. Am I going to live up to the expectation? I don't want to let people down."

It's been that way for 23 years. No sense in changing now.

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