BEAVERTON, Ore. – "Obviously, a lot of people looking in at me and this decision will be like, ‘Wow, she’s really stupid.’”
A lot of people, however, don’t know about Thorns FC forward Meg Morris’s decision. Those that do tend to be close to her, and for them, there’s nothing obvious about Morris’s choice, let alone anything obviously stupid.
The risks, though, cannot be ignored. With almost no cartilage remaining in a hip that had to be surgically repaired nearly two years ago, the 25-year-old is facing significant long-term health issues, all of which she’s fully aware.
“At the end of the day, I have to have hip replacement within the next four or five years.”
From her tone, Morris could be talking about an eye exam, or getting two cavities filled on a Tuesday. She’s no more annoyed about her hip problem than having to go in for an annual checkup. Perhaps that’s nearly two years’ perspective in her tone.
This is a hip replacement, though, something that will permanently change her life, once it’s here. But for Morris, giving up soccer would also be a permanent change, one she’s not willing to make this soon.
“That’s a big decision,” she admits. “Some people might think I’m crazy, but I would be more mentally sick if I walked away from it, not felt OK about it.”
Morris’ saga began over a year and a half ago, shortly after a standout performance against Seattle Reign FC at Memorial Stadium cast her as one of Portland’s emerging talents. Two more appearances followed before an unfortunate step started an odyssey that’s lasted almost 21 months.
That injury was originally reported as a fractured hip. Somehow, Morris’ description is much more painful.
“Basically, what happened was I planted [my foot] and my hip subluxed, dislocated and punched out the back of my acetabulum,” she explains, describing the relationship between her hip and leg. The top of her leg, essentially had come out of its socket. “They had to reconnect it back to the joint.”
What remains would normally be a fully healthy hip, if not for joint’s lack of cartilage.
“Every impact – run, sprint, everything – is just bone on bone, so it’s pretty painful.”
None of that pain was evident on the Thorns’ first day of practice this preseason. When the team began training on Feb. 19, Morris appeared ahead of the group. Whereas many players may have come into camp needing time to reach full speed, Morris hit the ground running, at least in terms of her intensity.
Having only played 11 minutes in 2017, the University of North Carolina product came in intent on making a point. Morris was not only back, but she was back to earn a bigger part.
“I definitely wanted to come in and make and impact,” she says, “and I guess prove to myself as well as everybody else that I really worked hard this offseason.
“It was really hard to stay committed and determined, because I did have a couple of setbacks during the offseason, but I was definitely determined to be a completely different person coming back into camp. I wanted to show everybody the hard work that I put in during the offseason.”
Much of that work involved getting used to her new body. Morris is not only recovering from a major, invasive surgery but she’s also adjusting to the reality of her hip, and the chronicity she’ll have to deal with throughout the rest of her career. Her offseason was devoted to discovering just how far her body can go.
“It sucks,” Morris said, about that discovery process. “For my personality, I think it sucks for me, because I’m the type of person that always wants to go one hundred percent, and it’s definitely a learning thing for me.
“I have to know that I need a break, and I don’t really like breaks. I don’t like taking time off and letting my body relax. I’m always like go, go, go, and always one hundred percent.”
Many athletes would say the same thing coming off a major injury, but for Morris, they’re part of her identity. Morris doesn’t just play hard. She plays harder than everyone else, partly because she has to. Her speed, work ethic, relentlessness and spirt are her defining assets. They’re what allow her to compete in the NWSL. Without those things, she can’t be Meg Morris.
“I learned a lot about myself personally, and mentally,” she says, about her recovery. “I think I’ve become a lot stronger, because I have had to take a couple of steps back. Mentally, you want to go, but your body just isn’t ready.”
The way to move forward, Morris learned, is about finding a balance.
“I have altered my physicality maybe a little bit as far as like going after it every single day, because I can’t,” she confesses. “I still have the same mentality, where when I step on the field, I always want to give one hundred percent.
“It doesn’t matter. I may be in pain, but it doesn’t matter. That’s just what comes with it.”
It’s a philosophy that seems cavalier in the face of Morris’ situation, but from her point of view, she’s been here before. Microfracture surgery on her left knee. Reconstructive ankle surgery on her right. Rehab itself is nothing new to Meg Morris.
While, in the long-term, her hip injury is drastically different, the present is not. For the third time in her career, she’s coming back from a major procedure. That this procedure carries implications in four or five years is not part of her now.
“If this was my first serious injury, I think I would have a different mindset to it” she says. “But I just took it, and it is what it is.
“I knew from that moment -- where they were like this [hip condition] is what it is, this is how it’s going to be -- from that moment on I knew I had to get back on the field. It didn’t matter.”
That’s when the surgery came, one that’s left two plates and three screws in her pelvis. The rehab came next, a process that involved some of life’s basics.
“You never realize how much you use your hip until you can’t use it,” she laments, describing the process of teaching her body how to walk.
“For the first couple of months or weeks, you can’t go past 90 degrees. And there are other weird little things. You’re like, ‘I miss using my hip!’”
The rest of rehab felt familiar, though – doing the basics to return to full health. There is something about a hip, though, that’s different than a knee or ankle, especially when there’s chronicity involved. Your hip is part of your core, affecting everything below and around it. The balance, timing, and strength you need to rebuild influences almost everything in an athlete’s system. Do it wrong, and everything below the hip can be thrown off.
When Morris made a brief return in 2017, she wasn’t fully back. She still needed to learn how her new body worked. Since then, she’s been rehabbing in New Jersey, trying to find her former self.
“I worked with great trainers back home,” she says “They really got me prepared and strengthened all the muscles surrounding my hip. I feel a lot stronger, more confident. I’m pushing forward and getting back to the player I was before.”
That increase in confidence has allowed Morris to be ambitious about her 2018 season.
“My role is going to be very different this year as compared to last year,” she predicts. “Obviously, I didn’t get a lot of minutes [in 2017], and I had to play a different role. Hopefully, this year, my role is going to be more impactful on the field, rather than standing and watching.”
When Morris is on the field, her drive has been evident. Pressing defenders, challenging teammates with every run, Morris projects a tenaciousness she believes is infectious.
This is about more than a comeback, or just being a viable squad option. At her core, Morris believes her efforts push everyone around her.
“Your voice can only do so much,” she says, “but I feel like, for me, as a player, if I see somebody else working hard, that’s going to make me work that much harder.
“I feel like sometimes people work off people’s work rate. I try to work as hard as I can for my team, and I feel like sometimes people feed off that. I think it’s very important.”
It’s the same attitude that, briefly, earned Morris a place in the Thorns starting lineup two years ago. It’s one that every coach needs from the depth players in their squad, and it’s one which, on those long road trips in the middle of summer, you need in uniform, ready to come off the bench, intent on terrorizing opponents.
That’s the Meg Morris we remember from 2016, the same one the Thorns staff is seeing this preseason. In a star-studded squad, players like Morris can often go overlooked, but as evidenced in the sacrifice she’s making, her passion for soccer is unparalleled.
“At the end of the day, this was my choice to continue to play, deal with this level of pain with this injury. I could have walked away, but this is what I want to do.
“This is what I love. This is what I want to do.”