By Don Lund
Growing up in Solon, which is about 15 miles from Iowa City, it didn’t take long for James Morris to become a Hawkeye fan.
“The first game I ever went to was Akron,” said James, who was 11 at the time.
He picked a good year to start following the Hawkeyes as the Akron Zips was the first game in 2002 and Iowa rolled, 57-21.
That was the year that Brad Banks, Dallas Clark, Nate Kaeding and crew led the Hawks to an 11-2 record, including 8-0 in the Big Ten and a co-Big Ten championship with Ohio State.
“I remember there used to be trees in the Kinnick lot (on the west side of the stadium) and I remember playing catch with my brother. I remember the band and all that stuff,” said James. “Just being an Iowa kid, you know you’re an Iowa fan and you don’t even really know why.”
James committed to the Hawkeye football team as a sophomore in high school.
Before he became a Hawk, he helped the Solon Spartans make a three-year run in football that finished with three state titles and three undefeated seasons.
Solon made it to the title game when James was a freshman but they lost to Central Lyon.
That would be James’ last loss in high school.
“I played junior varsity (JV) the first three games and I think the fourth game of the year I did a half of junior varsity and a half of varsity,” said James about his freshman year. He played linebacker and wide receiver for the varsity.
“I was practicing half-practices with the JV and half practices with the varsity and I did that for two weeks,” James recalled.
“One day I asked coach Miller, ‘Coach, what do you want me to do today?’” said James. “He must have been having a bad day or something because he yelled at me, ‘what do you want, to be on varsity?”
“I said ‘yeah’,” said James with a laugh. “I might have been 13 at the time so that’s crazy, but I ended up playing varsity the rest of the year.”
James played on the scout team as a running back and had to earn his time to play with the varsity.
Kevin Miller, who has coached the Solon Spartans for the last 13 years, knew early on that he had a good one in James.
“He attended one of our youth camps as a sixth grader,” said coach Miller. “It was very apparent at the time that he had some special skills. He also attended as a seventh and eighth grader. We just knew, collectively as a staff, that he had what it was going to take to be a good football player.”
James had a breakout year as a sophomore, rushing for 1,900 yards and scoring 32 touchdowns. The Spartans went undefeated and won their first of three consecutive state championships.
“His sophomore year, he just took off and was a special player that just dominated the game on both sides of the football,” said coach Miller. “Actually James and Colin Sleeper (who also played at Iowa) were supposed to be our two backs. Colin went down with a thumb injury in our very first game, so James became our workhorse and everything we did went directly through him.”
James was named first team all-state that year.
When James was a junior, he rushed for 2,100 yards, scored 38 touchdowns, was named first team all-state, Gatorade Player of the Year and the Spartans won their second straight title.
In his senior year, James racked up 2,247 yards, scored 40 touchdowns and was named on the elite first team all-state. For the second straight year, James was the Gatorade Player of the Year.
James even had to play quarterback that season as the starter, Wes Sleeper, went down with an injury.
“That was a ton of fun,” said James, who threw seven touchdown passes that year. “I loved playing quarterback. It was a little different than playing running back. I was quarterback in seventh grade. I was probably a better running back than quarterback.”
Both James and coach Miller said that the Spartans had a lot of really good players during that run and having three Division I players including James, Colin Sleeper and Matt Morrison sure helped. Matt was the quarterback when James was a junior and went to UNI on a basketball scholarship.
James becomes a Hawkeye
When James first came to Iowa as a freshman during two-a-days he had some moments of anxiety.
“I remember not knowing what the heck I was doing,” said James of the start of the 2010 season. “Everyone out there was so much bigger. I was the second biggest guy on my high school team and I was a running back. It was a wakeup call.”
James was one of the best running backs to come out of Iowa and I always wondered how he became a linebacker.
“In high school I pretty much knew I was going to be a linebacker,” said James. “I felt like I had pretty good knowledge of what my skill sets were and linebacker was the best choice for me.”
James got that wakeup call and played as a true freshman on special teams until the fifth game against Penn State. He came off the bench and had seven tackles and a pass breakup in a 24-3 win.
Three games later he got his first start against Michigan State, which was ranked fifth in the nation.
“That was one of the longest weeks of my life,” said James on the week of the Spartan game. “I remember that week very vividly. Just stressing out, thinking way more than I should. Feeling I had to be everything to everybody rather than just going out and trying to do your job. My parents were really helpful and we won the game. I had better perspective after that.”
James would go on to start six games that season and was named first team freshman All-American and on the Big Ten Conference all-freshman team.
As a sophomore and junior, James was academic All-Big Ten as well as honorable mention All-Big Ten.
His junior year, he was a permanent team captain and won the Hayden Fry “Extra Heartbeat” award on defense.
This season, James has taken his game to a new level. He has been voted the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week twice. Also, James was named one of the recipients of the NFF National Scholar-Athlete Award.
He has also been named a finalist for the 2013 Wuerffel Trophy.
The trophy is presented each year to the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with outstanding academic and athletic achievement.
The Hawkeyes will be going to a bowl game this year after missing out last year.
This will be the third one for James in his four seasons of playing for Iowa. He is 1-1 in bowl games.
James ranks seventh in career tackles with 374.
This year he leads the Hawkeyes in sacks with five, shares the team lead in tackles for loss (10) and interceptions (3).
“James works extremely hard on the practice field,” said head coach Kirk Ferentz. “He’s unbelievable in terms of his preparation away from the field, away from the building. He’s a great leader, just a great role model to be on the football team. Scary smart student on top of it. Yet he’s a normal guy. I think that’s why he’s able to be a leader.”
James should get a good chance to play in the NFL. He said he can’t see his life without football, maybe a coach at some level. He plans on going to law school after a shot in the NFL.
James Morris is a winner. He has succeeded in the classroom and on the field.
It will be fun to see what the next chapter is in his life.