It’s an annoyance, the Mercer Island native will allow. Another complication in a year that could have used fewer of them, for sure. And yet in some ways, what might seem like a drawback has actually aided in his leap to the professional level.
Jordan Morris can’t escape, no matter how much he’d sometimes like to.
Reminders are incessant. Every five minutes, from early in the morning until late at night, the Sounders rookie feels an all-too-familiar buzz in his pocket.
Every five minutes, the glucose monitor on his hip sends a blood-sugar update to his phone. Every five minutes, he receives yet another reminder of the affliction he’s dealt with since he was a boy.
Morris, the front-runner for Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year award, has type-1 diabetes.
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It’s an annoyance, the Mercer Island native will allow. Another complication in a year that could have used fewer of them, for sure.
And yet in some ways, what might on the outside look like a drawback has actually in some ways aided in his leap from Stanford to the Sounders. With sports science as advanced as it has ever been, some rookies struggle with the grind. They push back against the idea of treating their bodies like finely-tuned machines.
But for as long as he can remember, Morris hasn’t had a choice.
Morris isn’t looking for sympathy. He’s long since learned how to live with the disease he was diagnosed with at the age of 9.
He used to be afraid of needles. He got over that quickly.
“Diabetes has made me who I am today,” Morris said. “It’s just part of life. I’m lucky to be where I am, and there’s so much worse that can happen.”
He comes from a medical family. His dad, Michael, is the Sounders’ team doctor. His mom, Leslie, is a nurse, and she’s the one who noticed the symptoms in her growing son – how thirsty he always was, the lost weight, the occasional shakiness.
Leslie, “the last person I’d ever think would want me to get a tattoo,” Jordan says, is also the one that suggested the ink on his right forearm a few years ago. It functions in lieu of the bracelets diabetics normally wear, a permanent reminder of just how serious his condition can be without constant vigilance.
The bracelet – and his tattoo – is for first responders should he have an episode, fainting unexpectedly or going into shock.
Even an always-look-on-the-bright-side optimist like Morris admits that sometimes, he’d rather not deal with all this. Sometimes he would like to go on a junk-food binge, would rather not prick his finger for the umpteenth time that week to check his insulin levels.
His rookie season has been complicated enough, you know? From the momentous hype with which he arrived in Seattle as the Great Homegrown Hope to his early-season struggles, this campaign has been atypical in more ways than one.
“The only reason it gets annoying is that I’m just always thinking about it,” Morris said. “There are so many things I’d rather be focusing on. But I’ve realized that it’s just part of my life. God gave it to me for a reason, to go out and inspire younger diabetics.”
Dave Tenney and the Sounders sports science staff have been studying the so-called rookie wall for a couple of seasons now – what causes the phenomenon, how to combat it.
Players used to much shorter collegiate campaigns tend to break down, like clockwork, two-thirds of the way through MLS’ marathon regular season.
Second-year midfielder Cristian Roldan is a good example. Last year, his first out of the University of Washington, Roldan ran out of steam down the stretch, with the metrics Tenney and company use to measure physical output falling off around August. This season, having adjusted to the grind, Roldan hit his stride around the same time he started to struggle in 2015.
The key, Tenney says, is knowing when to dial it back. Give younger guys an extra day off here and there. The grind is mental as much as it is physical, so they’ve strongly encouraged Morris and Roldan to attend weekly yoga sessions.
“Sometimes there’s this stigma that young guys can take more,” Tenney said. “In actuality, if you look at how they treat players overseas, the 20-year-old might be the most injury prone, because he doesn’t have that base of years behind him.”
Morris, like his good friend Roldan before him, saw his fitness data start to dip as the year progressed. Tenney, though, offers an explanation outside the standard wear-and-tear expected of a first-year player.
“My opinion is that he’s just more efficient with his movement,” Tenney said of Morris, learning the game, better picking moments in which to run behind opposing defenses. “His running loads have dropped a little bit, but I actually think he’s a more effective player.”
Despite having basically played straight through from Stanford’s national-title run last fall through his trial with Germany’s Werder Bremen and the U.S. national team’s January camp, all the way through his rookie season with the Sounders, Morris insists that he’s feeling fine ahead of the final regular-season push.
He’s managed to handle the additional work load, Tenney said, because he has such a good read on himself. Morris knows when he needs a day off, when he needs to step away from the game for a beat.
“I’ve had a couple of other athletes who are diabetics, and each one of them has an unbelievable sense of their body, because they have to from when they’re a kid,” Tenney said. “Whatever Jordan says, I trust him, because I know what he’s been through and that he’s learned to listen to his body better than the average (21)-year-old.”
Morris eats the same breakfast before every practice, honed through years of trial and error: Peanut butter on toast, featuring protein from the former and a helpful dose of carbohydrates via the latter. Even then, he pricks his finger before every training session to make sure his levels are right.
Diabetes is unlikely to affect his longevity as an athlete – but it can certainly impact how he performs on any given day.
“For me, it’s more of a day-to-day kind of thing, rather than a wear-and-tear thing as the season goes on,” Morris said.
Match days – and their lead-up – are even more meticulous.
“It’s not just simply, ‘I need to make sure I sleep well the night before to make sure I’m fresh for the game,’” said Chris Cornish, head of the club’s sports medical staff. “You also need to think constantly about when you’re eating, where you’re eating.”
Keep an eye on Morris when the team breaks its huddle just before kickoff. Sometimes, just to make sure, he does a last-minute check of his blood-sugar levels before jogging onto the field to join his teammates.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a drawback because Jordan can play to the best of his ability with this,” Cornish said. “You just have to have a mindset to constantly be aware, to always be safe, to feel your best so that you can play your best.”
Dealing with diabetes can be an annoyance, yes, and yet another complication in a rookie year full of them.
Yet Jordan Morris doesn’t have any choice. And few would argue that he hasn’t made the best of it.