When Jay Morrison learned he would never play football again because of a severe nerve injury, he thought about “Friday Night Lights.”
A player in that movie hears similar news and reacts with fury toward his doctor. But while Jay admits he felt angry, he didn’t let it show.
He knew, as much as he loved football, there were other things to worry about. Like whether his injury – which left him at the time without the ability to raise his right arm – would affect him long-term.
“I started to think about life,” Jay says. “I started to think about real stuff. Like, dang, am I going to be able to hold my kid one day if I have a child? I started to think about stuff like that, and I was like, ‘Scratch football – I need to be able to function in society. Am I going to be able to provide for myself?’
“I started to think about that, and that’s where it really started getting real.”
Jay never did make it back to the field, but eight years after the final hit of his football career, he’s in a better place.
“We take the smallest things for granted,” he says. “And we should be thankful basically every day we wake up because there’s so many things we’re able to do, and we don’t need to think about.”
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‘It Was Like Two Trucks Colliding’
When Jay was growing up, his uncle gave him a choice: He would either buy Jay a new video game system or pay for him to play in an indoor football league.
Jay chose football. He loved to play.
By Jay’s junior season at Baldwin High School, he was a playmaking free safety who was already receiving Division I college interest. Pete Wagner, a Baldwin coaching assistant, compared his playing style to Pro Football Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.
Then came a late-season game against Woodland Hills High School, when everything changed.
A Woodland Hills running back broke through a hole at the line of scrimmage and picked up speed. Jay came up to fill the hole and make the tackle to prevent a big play – even though the running back was several inches taller and more than 50 pounds heavier.
“It was just a mental challenge,” Jay says. “I was used to doing that, so it was just like another day in the office.”
Jay went in for a perfect form tackle, wanting to hit the running back low and wrap him up. But as the two players met, the running back dipped his head, bracing for contact.
“It was like two trucks colliding,” says Wagner, who was coaching with other assistants in the press box. “You could hear the pop. You could hear it in the press box, and the stadium just went quiet.”
Normally a high-energy player who celebrated big hits, this time Jay dropped to the ground and stayed down. The hit temporarily knocked him out.
“It was just a very eerie feeling in terms of the silence in the stadium and the type of kid Jay is and was as a football player and a person,” Wagner says. “Everyone’s heart just kind of collapsed.”
When Jay came to, he was confused to see his head coach on the field, along with trainers from both teams. He realized something was wrong when he couldn’t raise his right arm.
“It wasn’t really fear,” Jay says of his reaction. “I was just wondering what was happening: ‘What are they doing on the field? What is going on? Why am I sore? Why can’t I move my arm?'”
Jay was taken by ambulance to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed with an injury to his brachial plexus, a network of nerves that connects the spinal cord to muscles in the arm and controls movement and feeling.
Brachial plexus injuries can occur in traumas like motor vehicle accidents, falls, and contact sports. When the running back lowered his head before the hit, his helmet caught Jay in the neck, between his helmet and shoulder pads, severing the nerve. It left him with partial paralysis in his arm.
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‘Being Better and Becoming My Best’
Jay’s injury left him unable to lift his right arm. He couldn’t write – or brush his teeth – with his right hand. He took multiple buses from his home in Baldwin to get to occupational and physical therapy sessions, first at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh’s South Side and later at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville.
Two months after his injury, he underwent surgery to repair the nerve and restore function. He also received the “earth-shattering” news that he had played the final down of his football career.
“I was just torn up,” he says. “I started getting (college) interest, and I was doing all the right things, and it just went south. That was like hell on earth, basically.
“I would have been OK with it if I was down and out for a year, maybe even two. I would have probably bounced back still. But to not be able to play anymore? You pour your blood, sweat, and tears into the game. You love it. From a young age, I knew what I wanted to do. For it to end like that it was like, ‘Aw, man.'”
The news began to sink in over time, as Jay began telling interested college coaches that he wouldn’t be playing again. He realized he needed to focus on other aspects of his life. He kept going to rehab, and he learned to make his left hand more powerful. He learned to write with his left hand and became better playing basketball left-handed.
“I’m a competitor, so my psyche is geared towards basically proving people wrong, just being better and becoming my best,” Jay says.
The process matured him, too. He says he became less focused on smaller, high school worries and more focused on the big picture. Because he couldn’t play football anymore, he took up coaching, volunteering at Baldwin and at Sto-Rox High School.
Jay graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2020 and is now working in finance technology. He says he’s watched the clip of his hit many times over the years, but not recently. He wouldn’t change anything about his approach on the play or the hit itself, which Wagner said was a perfect form tackle.
Jay still doesn’t have full use of his right arm, but he’s back to writing right-handed – which he does as therapy. He’s kept up training – mostly core workouts, but some weightlifting, too.
Losing football didn’t take away his competitiveness. He still wants to get better.
“We can’t be hung up on failure,” Jay says. “You’ve got to get over stuff quick. You can’t be afraid of that. You don’t want to get caught in slumps. So basically, you need to just take pride in the day-to-day wins, the small stuff.”
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks No. 8 on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. All 10 of our specialties rank nationally. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.