By Bill Foley
By the fall of 1987, the football career of the great Brian Morris had come to an end.
People who lived near “The Cinders” baseball field in Butte, however, would have not known that.
The name Brian Morris often echoed down the streets and alleys of the old Butte neighborhood near what is now called St. James Healthcare. It most often came from the voice of Butte Central Junior High coach Jack Hogart.
Hogart was offering his instructions to seventh-grade players who were putting on pads for the first time and practicing on the outfield of the old ballpark.
“Keep those feet moving,” Hogart would yell to his running backs. “Just like Brian Morris.”
If it was not Jack Hogart, then it was his brother, Mike, or his assistant Shawn “Tank” Moloughney, all recent former high school football players, bringing up the legendary Maroon.
“Keep those legs churning … just like Brian Morris.”
“Hit hard … just like Brian Morris.”
“Play football just like Brian Morris.”
Of course, not too many people from the Mining City could ever play football quite like Brian Morris. The 6-foot-4, 205 pound running back for the Maroons was definitely in a class all by himself.
In the fall of 1981, Morris, a running back one writer compared to a moose, ran over and ran through the competition to lead the Maroons to the Class A state championship game.
He carried the ball 266 times for 1,640 yards and 21 touchdowns. The yards and carries are school records that could very well live forever.
Morris, who was voted All-State in football in four positions in 1981, was a three-year letter winner in basketball, and a state champion in the 110- and 300-metere hurdles.
He spent five years on the football team at Stanford University, studied at the University of Oxford and is currently the Chief United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Montana in Great Falls.
The former Associate Justice of the Montana Supreme Court clerked for United States Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.
Before that, though, Morris made his name as an unstoppable force on the gridiron.
“He’d try to run a bus over, for god’s sake,” Hogart said this week. “He’d be in the middle of the pile and you’d see those legs moving. He was tough to bring down.”
Morris’ football career at Butte Central could not have gotten off to a worse start.
“I broke my arm third play of my first game of freshman year,” Morris said. “We were down in Livingston, and I missed my whole freshman year. Missing that season set me back a year.”
Morris got his got back on the football field as a sophomore, and his legend began during his junior campaign. That is when Morris earned All-State honors on both sides of the ball.
He started at safety and tight end in the Butte High-Butte Central game, and lined up as Y back, flanker and slot throughout the season.
He was already on the radar of some big schools before the start of his senior season, attending an invitation-only camp at Nebraska in the summer.
And that was before he played his best position.
During the 1980 season, Jim McGree got the bulk of carries as BC’s tailback. Morris played just about everything else, other than offensive line and cornerback.
Those were in the days when younger players waited behind older players. Three-year letter winners were extremely rare. Four-year lettermen were nonexistent.
McGree put up big numbers that year, so Morris did not mind moving around the offense.
“He was a great player,” Morris said of McGree. “In my days, it was more wait your turn.”
Morris’ turn will never be forgotten.
That senior season started with a heartbreaker. A Larry Peterson interception in overtime gave Butte High an 18-12 win in what might be the greatest Butte High-Butte Central game of all time.
Morris ran 23 times for 94 yards and scored both of BC’s touchdowns in the loss to the eventual Class AA state champion Bulldogs.
Senior quarterback Don Douglas, who went on to sign with Nebraska, led the Bulldogs in that game. The Bulldog roster also included Butte Sports Hall of Famers Kelly Davis at flanker and Ron Collins at defensive end.
“That’s what is remarkable about that season is they won state and we should have won state,” Morris said of the Bulldogs. “They’ve got Donny Douglas, who goes to Nebraska, And Nebraska then was like Alabama is now. They’ve got Kelly Davis, who was the hurdles champ and goes to the Cats (Montana State), and Ron Collins.”
Playing in the Montana East-West Shrine Game in August of 1982 is when Morris started to build a friendship with some of his former rivals.
“At the Shrine Game, a third of us were Butte High and Central players,” he said. “That is when Morris said he started forming friendships with his formal rivals.”
Butte High and Butte Central players were not as close as they are today. That was the year Butte Central’s bonfire was started early — allegedly by a couple of Bulldogs.
“After years of hating each other, we’re like ‘Hey, he’s a nice guy,’” Morris said.
In Week 2 of the 1981 campaign, Morris started putting up the video game numbers, running 36 times for 169 yards in a win at Ronan.
He ran 30 times for 189 yards in a win at Deer Lodge, before rushing for 228 yards and two TDs on 34 carries against Stevensville.
He rushed for 232 yards and four more touchdowns at Dillon. That included an 83-yard touchdown run.
“I can still remember the play,” said Don Peoples Jr., who was BC’s quarterback then. “We ran a toss sweep to him. Once he got to the perimeter, he was gone.”
After running for 159 yards and two touchdowns against Hamilton, Morris only got four carries — for two touchdowns — in a rout of Browning.
Then, Morris had a game for the ages, running for 293 yards and three touchdowns to lead BC to a 34-19 win over Whitefish. That included a 77-yard score.
“With that line he had, there were times when he wouldn’t get hit for 10 yards, then he would drag the defenders,” Hogart said.
That line was made up of starting seniors Tim Norbeck, Kevin Dennehy, Emmett Murphy, Kelly Dennehy and Ed Randall. Norbeck and Kelly Dennehy were named All-State that season.
Carlo Canty, an All-State fullback, was also a key blocker for Morris in coach Ron Lehnerz’s power offense.
Canty, however, tore up his knee in the win over Whitefish. He could only watch as the Maroons fell 12-7 to Miles City in the championship game at what was then called East Jr. High Stadium.
“I think if you have Carlo in the championship game, I think it’s a different story,” Norbeck said.
Morris racked up just 15 yards on 19 carries. He did score BC’s lone touchdown in the game.
“They were stacked to take me out of that game,” Morris said. “Carlo was our fullback and we were missing him. They kept giving it to me, and it had its limits, I guess.”
More than 38 years later, though, the Maroons still look back on that season fondly.
“It was just a special time in my life,” Peoples said. “Those guys who played football are the guys who still call my best friends. We just had a great group of guys. Brian was certainly one of our leaders. We lifted weights hard. We worked hard in the season.”
Along with Norbeck, Murphy and Canty, Morris was a team captain for the 1981 Maroons.
The Maroons went 3-5 in 1980. That marked BC’s first losing season since 1966. A year later, the Maroons more than redeemed themselves.
They had fun on the field, and the media had fun with them.
Newspaper and radio accounts of the Maroons in 1981 often drew comparisons to “Morris the Cat,” who became famous in the 1970s for 9Lives cat food commercials.
Radio play-by-play man Jim Kello called Morris “The Big Cat.” He called Peoples “the Duck,” a reference to Donald Duck.
“It was often ‘The Duck hands to the Cat,’” Peoples said with a laugh. “People driving through town would wonder ‘What the heck is that?’”
“We had a lot of fun that year,” Morris added. “It was a great way to finish high school.”
Tackling a moose
Have you ever tried tackling a moose?
That is how Missoulian writer Rial Cummings descried what the Ronan Chiefs faced when Morris ran over them for a 17-7 win on Sept. 11, 1981.
At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Morris seemed larger than life to opponents.
Here is a take from Cummings, who was clearly enamored with Morris, in the Sept. 12 paper that year:
“Morris showed no fancy footwork, no blazing bursts of speed. He was the tallest player on the field, however, and heavier than all but one of Ronan’s defenders.
“One Chief’s fan had the temerity to describe Morris’ running style as similar to a moose.
“Try and tackle a moose sometime.”
That story still makes Morris laugh.
“Apparently I ran with all the grace of a moose,” Morris said.
Morris was not only bigger than the Ronan players. He was bigger than most of the Maroons, too. He outweighed all of his offensive lineman.
“In the 80s that was an exceptionally big athlete,” Peoples said.
BC fans, however, will challenge Cummings’ assertion that Morris’ speed. So, too, would college scouts.
“You think of his size back then, 6-4, 205 or so. That was like an offensive lineman back then,” Norbeck said. “Then he was there with that speed and size. That’s why those (NCAA Division I) school were trying to get him.
“He had breakaway speed, he was good with the stiff arm, always high knees,” Norbeck said. “And, as Hogie said, he never stopped moving his legs. He could do a lot of things.”
As big as he was, Morris probably seemed even larger to defensive backs.
“He really had a burst,” Peoples said. “He was so strong. He was really hard to tackle. He had outstanding speed.”
Hogart was a year behind Morris. At 5-8, 152 pounds, he was also Morris’ much, much smaller back up. He said it appeared Morris was running over people for fun.
“We’d be watching the film and say, ‘Jesus Brian, run around that guy,’” Hogart said. “He’d run right through him. He was a horse.”
That running style fit right into what Lehnerz was trying to do. The Maroons were simply going to line up and beat the man across from them.
“With our personnel we feel we can come at people,” Lehnerz told Cummings after the Ronan game. “Basic football is our game.”
Peoples, who has been the head coach of the Maroons since 1989, said the game of football has changed since 1981.
“It was really smash-mouth football in those days,” Peoples said. “It’s really different than they are now.”
Central only attempted three passes in the 1981 loss to Butte High.
“I think we only attempted 15 passes all year,” Morris said. “On passing situations, we would run a sweep.”
Morris grew up a fan of the Maroons. His parents, John and Joann Morris, told him at a young age that he would attend Butte Central.
That was fine with Morris, who at the age of 6 or 7 discovered Butte Central great Buddy Walsh. Walsh was an All-State star for the Maroons in 1969 and 1970.
Walsh rushed for 1,354 yards to lead the Maroons to the 1969 title. That was a school record until Morris had the big game in Whitefish in 1981.
“Buddy, he was a star,” Morris said. “You ever see a picture of him in the BC annual in his wrestling uniform? He looked like a gladiator. I was a huge Buddy Walsh fan as a kid.”
Walsh, who was inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame in 2001, went on to play football at the University of Montana and Montana Tech. He signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys, but a knee injury ended his pro career before it began.
Morris did not realize he broke Walsh’s school record at the time. He did not even realize until this week that he holds the single-season high school record for Butte, not just Butte Central.
Jay LeProwse had a season for the ages for Butte High in 1997. His 1,607 yards, however, fell 33 short of Morris.
Kyle Harrington is the closest a Butte Central runner has come to Morris. Harrington put up 1,491 yards as a junior in 2014, helping lead BC to the state title game.
Butte Central’s official stats show that Morris ran the ball 236 times. A recent review of the BC box scores from that season, however, show that the record book shorted him 30 carriers.
In 2003, Morris was inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.
‘We were running mine dumps’
As they say, you cannot coach 6-4. Morris’ overall size and strength, though, did not come to him by accident.
Peoples, who lived next door to Morris, said his classmate had a work ethic that was off the charts.
“We used to run that hill,” Peoples said. “They used to call it the ‘Hillcrest Hill.’ Then we got in trouble by the Anaconda Company.”
The “Hillcrest Hill” is a steep mine dump in the area East of the McQueen Club. Now it covered in grass. In 1981, it was often the site of trespassers on dirt bikes, and, occasionally, Butte Central football players.
“You didn’t have any camps or weight rooms,” Peoples said. “That was one of the goals was you had to make it from the bottom to the top without stopping.”
Randall, Norbeck, Peoples and fellow senior Bob Bennie trained on that hill during the summer of 1981.
When asked if running up the hill was similar to the training put in by Walter Payton, Morris laughed.
“He wasn’t using a mine dump,” Morris said. “That had a unique, Butte flare to it.”
Running up the mine dump apparently paid off.
“I was 200 (pounds) my senior year, and that is what a big lineman was in those days,” Morris said. “The weight lifting wasn’t as sophisticated as it is these days. We were running mine dumps.”
The training also probably helped Morris in track, where he won the 110- and 300-meter hurdles at the Class A State meet in Missoula, helping the Maroons capture their first and only team state boys’ title.
Butte High’s boys and BC’s girls also won a title that weekend at Dornblaser Field.
The Dahlberg Invitational was something to see that year. It pit two of the all-time athletes in Mining City history against each other in the 110-metere hurdles, and everybody wanted to watch.
Kelly Davis of Butte High was the reigning Class AA champion, and Morris was gunning for him during an incredible hurdles season of his own.
When he lined up with Davis, Morris knocked a half second off his best time. It was not good enough.
“The only guy who beat me in the hurdles that year was Kelly Davis,” Morris said. “I ran a 14.4 and he ran a 14.1. I couldn’t run any faster.”
The time of 14.1 seconds was better than the Montana record Davis put up at State in 1981. A year earlier, and Morris’ time would have been the fastest the state ever saw. And it was good for second place.
Davis no longer holds the state record, which has to be set at the state meet, but his time of 13.92 seconds posted during a Butte High dual meet that season is the fastest ever recorded by a Montana high school athlete, according to the Montana High School Association records.
In February of 1982, Morris signed to play football at Stanford. He chose Stanford or California, among other schools.
At BC, Morris was always listed at 6-4. He was 6-3 at Stanford, though the truth is probably right in between.
Morris, who was listed at 221 pounds by his senior year with Stanford in 1986, often played in the same backfield as the 6-3, 226-pound Brad Muster, who was drafted in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
Stanford coach Jack Elway would often get the two backs mixed up. So, instead of trying to remember their names, Elway would yell, “Butte, get in there.”
“My nickname throughout college and to this day with my Stanford friends is ‘Butte,” Morris said. “I’m proud to have it.”
Elway, the father of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, knew Butte, too. The elder Elway coached at the University of Montana from 1976 through 1971.
The younger Elway left Stanford for the Denver Broncos after the 1982 season. His dad took over the Stanford program in 1984, during Morris’ sophomore season.
In 1985, Butte Native Sonny Lubick joined the Stanford staff to coach defensive backs.
“He’s got a very thick Butte accent,” Morris said, before imitating Lubick’s voice with a few Butte sayings. “My defensive backs friends were ‘What is that accent? You don’t talk like that.”’
Morris redshirted his freshman season in 1982, and he dressed during home games. That was the first year when players could redshirt in the NCAA when it was not for medical or academic issues.
From 1983 through 1986, Morris played in 45 games for Stanford. Only a few of them were on television in Butte.
His numbers were not video game numbers like with the Maroons in 1981. Actually, he carried the ball more than twice as much in the one season at BC than he did in his career with Stanford.
For Stanford, Morris ran for 504 yards and six touchdowns on 127 carries. Five of those scores came in 1985. He also caught 69 passes for 344 yards.
In 1985, Morris caught 12 passes in a 34-9 home loss to UCLA.
That mark is still just two off the Stanford single-game record of 14 set by Eric Cross (1972), Vincent White (1982), Muster (1985) and Jim Price (1989). Among the players he is tied with at 12 is James Lofton (1977), who went on to play for the Packers, Bills and Raiders in the NFL.
“That’s pretty good company,” Morris said.
All 12 of those passes came from John Paye, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and spent two seasons behind Joe Montana and Steve Young.
“He was a good player,” Morris said of Paye. “He separated his shoulder his junior year. He kind of suffered through his whole senior year. He started as a freshman in football and basketball and Stanford. That’s how good of an athlete he was.”
Paye’s career eventually ended when he could never fully recover from that injury from college.
“I did meet Steve Young through him a couple of times,” Morris said.
Morris, who caught 10 passes at San Diego State the week before his 12-catch performance, credits the year playing multiple offensive positions at Central for that versatility.
“I was lucky to get to play a lot of spots,” Morris said. “That helped me when I got to college.”
Morris likes to joke that his old pal and neighbor robbed him of touchdowns in high school.
“Donny Peoples has a lot of my touchdowns,” he said with a laugh. “We’d get inside the 1-yard line and he’d sneak it in.”
In college, Muster definitely took some of those TD from Morris. That was OK with Morris, who a team-first guy from the start, and Muster was an All-American.
“Brad Muster would run a 4.5, and I would run a 4.6,” Morris said, referring to their time in the 40-yard dash. “He was always just a little ahead of me. He was always just a little taller, a little faster.”
Muster, also knew a little something about the Mining City.
“His dad and uncle played at Anaconda Central,” Morris said of Muster. “He was fun to watch and play with. Just think about if his family stayed in Anaconda. We might have gone to the same high school.”
At Butte Central, Morris was a part of teams that went 3-5 his first three seasons — subvarsity as a freshman and sophomore and varsity as a senior.
At Stanford, he also part of losing teams. Stanford went 5-6 in 1982, John Elway’s senior season. They slipped to 1-10 in 1983, went 5-6 in 1984 before going 4-7 in 1985.
In 1986, Stanford started winning.
The Cardinal opened with a 31-20 win at Texas. Then, Stanford beat San Jose State, Oregon State and San Diego State.
“We were 4-0, beat Texas to start the season in Austin,” Morris said. “That was a really high point. Texas was a perennial power and we went down there and put it to them pretty good.”
Losses to Washington, USC and California — all Top 20 teams — ended the Stanford dreams of playing in the Rose Bowl.
The Cardinal, though, finished the regular season at 8-3 and qualified for the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
First, though, Stanford played Arizona in the “Coca-Cola Bowl” in Tokyo, Japan. The game, the finale of the regular season, was scheduled for Tucson, Arizona. Both schools, however, agreed to travel 10,000 miles for some extra money.
“They fly over both teams and both bands on a big 747 together,” Morris said. “It was like landing on Mars. There’s 20 million people and you can’t read a thing.
“We spent a week in Tokyo and played in front of a huge crowd in Olympic Stadium,” he added. “They had a cheerleader squad hold up signs. You’d have a big roar on a 2-yard gain. Then someone would break off a big run and it was silence.”
One highlight of the week was that he got to meet a fellow Montanan. Former Sen. Mike Mansfield was then the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
“So, I got a picture of me shaking hands with Mike Mansfield,” Morris said.
The Cardinal also beat Arizona 29-24.
In the Gator Bowl, Stanford fell 27-21. The Tigers jumped out to a 27-0 lead. Stanford battled back with three Muster touchdowns — one running and two receiving — in the second half, but it was too little.
Morris carried three times for 12 yards in his final college game, which was two days after Christmas in 1986.
Morris, 56, will go down as one of the all-time great Maroons, whether it is on the football field, the track or in the classroom.
He was the president and valedictorian of the Class of 1982. He went to Boys State between his junior and senior years. He never got a B until he went to Stanford.
“He’s just a great guy, too,” Peoples said. “He’s a real humble kind of person. He was just big and strong and fast. He had it all, really.”
Joe McClafferty played basketball with Morris before signing to play hoops for Kelvin Sampson at Montana Tech.
“Brian was not only a great athlete but was a great teammate and maybe the best person I ever met,” McClafferty said. “He was also the best physics tutor. It was like he already went to high school.”
Morris turned those smarts into a highly successful law career. In 2004, Morris was elected an Associate Justice of the Montana Supreme Court. He served in that capacity until, at the suggestion of Sen. Max Baucus, Morris was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the United States District Court for the District of Montana.
The nomination won approval by a United States Senate vote of 75-20 on Dec. 12, 2013. Morris became Chief Judge in March of this year.
Morris and his wife, Cherche Prezeau, have three sons and one daughter. Their son Max played one season of football at the University of Montana.
His years on the bench have produced some landmark decisions. None were bigger than Morris’ 2014 ruling to strike down Montana’s gay marriage ban.
That ruling followed a lawsuit by Butte native Angie Rolando and her partner Tonya.
“Calling Tonya my partner, my significant other, my girlfriend, my perpetual fiancée, has never done justice to our relationship,” Rolando, a 1995 Butte High graduate, said after the ruling. “Now I can look forward to the day when I can introduce Tonya as my wife.
“Love won today.”
The couple went shopping for wedding rings later that day, proving that Morris’ legacy will definitely stretch well beyond those echoes of Butte’s old Cinders neighborhood.1 comment