Jordan Morris has the flu

With apologies to Gay Talese

(Seattle Sounders/Facebook)

Jordan Morris, holding a green juice in one hand and a sudoku in the other, stood between two dapper yet fading businessmen, who stood waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent much of the morning, except now in the boarding area at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport he seemed even more distant, staring out through the rolling suitcases and unhappy families. The two businessmen knew, as did Morris’ teammates who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of searing silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this final week of November, a week before the MLS Cup final.

Morris had been working on a season that he couldn’t wait to finish: he was tired of all the hoopla surrounding the whereabouts of his left foot; he was angry that a New York Times article, to be published in a couple days, was reportedly looking at his complicated dealings with Jurgen Klinsmann; he was worried about his starting role in a ninety-minute-long match against the Colorado Rapids, which would require that he run about with a body that at this particular moment, just a few nights before kickoff, was in a state of revolt. Morris was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most men would consider it fatal. But when it gets to Morris it can elevate him into a state of profound focus, determination, even excellence. Jordan Morris had the flu.

Morris with the flu is like Adrian Mutu without hard drugs, FIFA without corruption—only better. For the flu robs Morris of the unquantifiable liability, his mind, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a psychosomatic vitaminous injection within the dozens of people who work with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Morris with the flu can, in a small way, send vibrations through the sports world and beyond as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.

For Jordan Morris was now involved in many things involving many people —his Nike endorsements, his stash of gummy bears, his real-estate holdings—which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He seemed now to be also the embodiment the soccer playing man, perhaps the only one in America. In an age when the very young seem to be going abroad, tweeting and demanding change, Jordan Morris survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few domestic products to withstand the ravages of globalization.

But now, standing at this airport in Cascadia, Morris had the flu, and he continued to quietly sip his green juice and he seemed miles away in his private world, not even reacting when suddenly the television in the nearby bar switched to a highlight of a Morris goal from the first leg of Seattle’s playoff tie against Colorado.

It is a lovely goal that he had scored mere days ago, and it now inspired many day drinkers who had been sitting, tired of standing in security lines, to look up from their phones and stare at the screen. Morris’ strides, carefully measured, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple goal. It was like so many of his classics, a goal that evoked the loneliness of the striker, and when blended with the clipped grass and drumming and chanting, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the movements of this goal, and others like it, had put dozens in the mood, it was a goal to pump your fist to, doubtless many fists had been pumped to it all over America at night in hybrids, while the batteries ran down, in cottages by the lake, in brewpubs during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished roomsin all places where Morris’ goals could be watched; generations of American soccer fans would be the beneficiaries of such goals, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally resent him. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Seattle, out of range.

Cristian Roldan, one of Morris’ closest friends, was now picking up a copy of Better Housekeeping from the small newsstand across from their gate. Standing near the white courtesy phone was Brian Schmetzer, Morris’ manager, a jovial and somewhat dweeby man with a round face and receding hairline who would resemble a traveling insurance salesman were it not for the team scarves he wears. Also nearby was a big, broad-shouldered defender named Roman Torres who seemed always to be flexing his upper body as if in anticipation of a collision.

Roman Torres has appeared in several leagues across the Americas, displaying adequate talent as a defender, but in Seattle he is equally known for the role he played midway through the season, when he saved Morris from his stultifying lack of charisma. Since then Torres has been one of Morris’ constant companions and has been made a starter in Seattle’s lineup. Whenever he is among strangers with Morris he worries because he knows that Morris brings out the best and worst in people—some men will become aggressive, some women will become seductive, Leslie Jones will become enraptured, others will stand around skeptically appraising him, the American soccer scene will be somehow intoxicated by his mere presence, and maybe Morris himself, if feeling as badly as he was this morning, might do something interesting or impetuous, and then: headlines. So Roman Torres tries to anticipate danger and warn Morris in advance. He confesses to feeling very protective of Morris, admitting in a recent moment of self-revelation: “I’d slide tackle for him.”

(Seattle Sounders/Facebook)

While this statement may seem outlandish, particularly when taken out of context, it nonetheless expresses a fierce fidelity that is quite common within Morris’ special circle. It is a characteristic that Morris, without admission, seems to prefer: Mellow Devotion or No Devotion At All. This is the Cascadian in Morris; he permits his friends, if they wish to remain that, none of the hard New Yorker’s edge. But if they remain mellow, then there is nothing Morris will not do in turn—Subaru repairs, personal kindnesses, encouragement when they’re down, adulation when they’re up. They are wise to remember, however, one thing. He is Jordan Morris. The Future of American Soccer—At Least Until Christian Pulisic Came Along. The Chosen One.

I had seen seem something of this Cascadian side of Morris last summer at Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, which was the only other time I’d gotten a close view of him prior to this morning in the airport. Dahlia Lounge, which is on 4th Ave near Westlake Park, is where Morris takes family friends when they visit Seattle, and there is a special dish—the rotisserie pekin duck—that he likes to order. When he is eating it, flanked by his closest friends, a rather strange ritualistic scene develops. That night dozens of people, some of them casual friends of Morris’, some mere acquaintances, some neither, walked into Dahlia’s and stared at the duck. They approached it like members of the clergy considering their neighbors’ wives. They had come to pay respect to its crispy skin. They were from New York, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Shanghai. They were old tourists, young students, former carnies, tired trumpet players, politicians, a boy with a cane. There was a middle-aged couple that had eaten the duck on their first date and had no idea who Morris was.

Some of Morris’ closest friends, all of whom are known to the waiters at Dahlia’s, managed to get in on the pekin duck action. But once they are hovering over the dish, they must watch the young striker carefully. His former teammate, Brandon Vincent, earned a dirty look for grabbing lustily at the juicy thigh. Julian, the striker’s brother, received a grateful nod for his delicate handling of the rendered breast. They checked his moves. They paid their respects. And as I watched this ritualistic scene, I got the impression that Jordan Morris was dwelling simultaneously in two worlds that were not contemporary.

On the one hand he is the striker — as he is when cutting in front of his relatives and soccer people who get to sit at the table; on the other, as when he is nodding or waving to strangers walking into the restaurant, he’s just a quiet kid.

Now Morris said a few perfunctory words to the businessmen. Then he turned away from the departure lounge and began to walk towards the Starbucks. One of Morris’ other teammates moved in to keep the businessmen company. Roman Torres, who had been standing in the corner talking to some other people, now followed Morris.

The room whistled with the steam of tortured soy milk. There were about a dozen travelers in the room, most of them middle-aged men who were still flipping through Blackberries. This Starbucks had among its regular clientele many middle managers, lifestyle bloggers, traveling salesmen, and motivational speakers, nearly all of them older than Morris or Torres and a fair bit less blasé about the season’s first flu. Many of the greying men, their hair disappearing faster than the signage for pumpkin spice lattes, wheezed and popped DayQuil like Tic Tacs.

It was obvious from the way Morris looked at these people in the Starbucks that they were not his style, but he leaned back against the display of Christmas mugs, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watching them wheeze the morning away. Morris, aching a bit from his flu, could not take his eyes off their packages of acetaminophen. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the largest bottle of pills, who was standing just in front of him, was Larry Ellison, an executive who had just closed a deal with Amazon to distribute pots and pans.

Finally Morris could not contain himself.

“Hey,” he murmured in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those extra strength?”

“No,” Ellison said.

“Long-lasting?”

“No.”

“Are they cold-and-flu?”

“Look, I dunno, man,” Ellison shot back, frowning at Morris, then turning away again.

Now the Starbucks was suddenly silent. Nobody moved. Then Morris moved away from the mug display and walked with that unassuming stride of his toward Ellison, the soft tap of Morris’ Nikes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Morris asked: “You expecting a storm?”

Larry Ellison moved a step to the side. “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”

“I don’t like the way you’re cowering from the flu,” Morris said.

“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison said, “but I medicate for my own needs.”

Now Roman Torres, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, “Come on, kid, I don’t want you in this room.”

“Hey,” Morris interrupted Torres, “can’t you see I’m talking to this guy?”

The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Morris was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom; at any rate, after a few more exchanges Larry Ellison left the Starbucks. By this time the word had gotten out to the rest of the team about the Morris-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club.

“I don’t want anyone around me succumbing to the flu,” Morris said.

The Sounders nodded and went back to waiting for their flight.

It was the morning after. It was the beginning of another nervous day for Morris’ agent, Jim Mahoney. Mahoney had a headache, and he was worried but not over the Morris-Ellison incident of the day before. At the time Mahoney had been trying to get his seat upgraded, and possibly he had not even been aware of the little drama. The whole thing had lasted only about three minutes. And three minutes after it was over, Jordan Morris had probably forgotten about it for the rest of his life — as Ellison will probably remember it for the rest of his life.

It was just as well that Mahoney had not been in the Starbucks; he had enough on his mind today. He was worried about Morris’ flu and worried about the New York Times article that, despite his objections, would discuss the youngster’s rapport with Klinsmann any day now. His Twitter timeline this morning was full of hints that any mention of his client in association with the German would not go well, and Mahoney’s phones were ringing without pause.

Now Mahoney quickly closed Tweetdeck. His secretary told him there was a very important call on the line. Mahoney picked it up, and his voice was even softer and more sincere than before. “Yes, Jordan,” he said. “Right…right…yes, Jordan….”

Soon the word spread like an emotional pandemic down through Morris’ colleagues, then fanned out through Soccer Twitter, then was heard across the nation on satellite radio and podcasts.

Jordan Morris was tired of all the talk, the gossip, the theory—tired of reading quotes about himself or hearing what people were saying about him all over Soccer Twitter. It had been a tedious couple days, he said, and now he just wanted to get away from the speculation, get out on the pitch, let off some steam.

On the eve of the match he stayed up all night and slept through most of the afternoon, though his highlights could be seen in the lobby of the hotel. Standing around the lobby and other hotels around Denver on this afternoon before the match were the usual characters: the rabid fans, the old champs, the soccer writers who knock the league all year but would never miss a playoff match, and also a young fan in a wrinkled Sounders jersey who was at the bell captain’s desk crying, “But I want to speak to Mr. Morris.”

“He’s not here,” the bell captain said.

“Won’t you put me through to his room?”

“There are no messages going through,” he said, and then the fan turned, unsteadily, seeming close to tears, and walked through the lobby into the streets of Denver, where most people had yet to hear of Jordan Morris.

Jordan Morris stepped onto the field of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the individual blades of grass collapsing like his immune system. He took one unsteady step, then another, straining to ensure none of his teammates noticed the depth of his illness.

Nevertheless, despite a tired voice, some deep emotion seeped into his singing during the national anthem. Briefly and for the first time in days, his vocal chords were the only parts of his body to vibrate. The crowd hummed in the background.

And then it was silent. He was running up and down the pitch, with solid limbs offering support for the first time in days. Morris’ head still pounded away, and in the biting cold, the heat of his fever radiated from behind his ample forehead. But he was calm—quiet but never still.

It happened in the 56th minute. Nelson Valdez, who had missed Morris’ Starbucks eruption, erupted through the middle of the pitch and knocked a ball into the youngster’s path. Morris, who had spent days fighting off the mere suggestion that he was sick, ran past markers without hesitation and chipped the ball over Zac MacMath. He collapsed. Officially, they’d say he fell over the keeper. Maybe that was it. Maybe he just needed a moment of rest.

Later they’d fess up. They would admit that Morris was tired and feverish and achey and flu-ridden. He played sick. It would be known as his Flu Game. When Jordan Morris wasn’t around, men like Mahoney would mention it in the same breath as Michael Jordan’s and chuckle. Larry Ellison, the man from the airport Starbucks, would hear the news and chuckle: he was part of something.

The flu proved less scary than the fear it had sent through Seattle and the American soccer world. Amidst all the worrying, Jordan Morris had found calm, an excuse for his feeble left foot, and a good reason to avoid the mental strain of overthinking. Jordan Morris had the flu and all was well in his world.

Do yourself and read Gay Talese’s original masterpiece here.