COLUMBIA — Mitch Morse is used to being the center of attention. He spends his fall Saturdays snapping the football to the quarterback before each Missouri offensive play, and this spring he was named the Tigers’ most improved lineman.
But on Saturday afternoon, the redshirt junior offensive lineman didn't walk into the gymnasium at the MU Student Recreation Complex to be an athlete. Instead, Morse was there to help give other athletes their opportunity to shine.
Morse, along with five other members of the Missouri football team, served as volunteer spotters at the powerlifting event of the Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games. Morse said he feels called to help those with intellectual disabilities. It's something he's done all his life.
When Morse was a youngster, his 6-month-old brother Robbie suffered a traumatic brain injury so severe that the family feared he would not survive. But, said Morse, “he pulled through, and he's been the angel of my life."
Robbie, now 17, has an intellectual disability because of the brain injury. Before every Missouri football game, Morse writes his brother’s name on the white athletic tape with which he wraps his wrists. The first thing Morse sees when he opens his wallet is a photograph of his brother. The source of Morse’s motivation is never far away.
Because of his brother’s disability, Morse said his upbringing was “different.” He takes responsibility for helping make sure Robbie’s special needs are met.
“It's a different dynamic with the family, it really is, and it's helped me look on the brighter side of things,” he said.
Morse’s devotion to helping Robbie led him to volunteer for four years at the Special Olympics in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Now, Morse is in his third year as a volunteer at the Missouri Special Olympics in Columbia.
The cause also hits home for his coach, Gary Pinkel, who was at Friday’s opening ceremonies and the competition on Saturday. Pinkel's sister is affected by hereditary spastic paraplegia, which causes stiffness in limbs and now requires her to use a wheelchair. Because of that, watching his players give back has added meaning for Pinkel.
"I understand where he's coming from," Pinkel said of Morse. "For him, it's something he doesn't have to think twice about because he wants to help these kids because of his family experiences."
Saturday was the first day off after a long week of weight training for Morse and his teammates. Still, they returned to the gym, this time for a different reason.
During the powerlifting event, the players surrounded the bench, loading the bar with the correct amount of weight for each of the 20 athletes and serving as spotters. Morse congratulated each athlete with a fist bump or pat on the back.
"You really learn you're blessed with being able to function correctly and have a normal life," Morse said. "It feels great to be able to help out and to see how excited these kids get with the opportunity to show off their skills."
His teammates feel the same way about working with Morse.
"We all get inspired by Mitch," offensive lineman Max Copeland said. "You can tell, around this setting, he definitely wants to be a part of it and really get it going. It's fun to watch. I feel lucky to get to be a part of it."