Rugby Community Spotlight: Stewart Morris
Fifty years ago, Stewart Morris was introduced to rugby and he hasn't looked back since. After first taking the pitch at the University of Virginia his freshman year, Morris soon transferred to Rice University in Houston, Texas. At the time, there were only two rugby clubs in the state, but Morris knew there were enough athletes at the college to start their own team. Together with a friend from England, Morris began making posters and spreading the word. "We walked around and just talked to guys who looked like athletes. We didn't really have any support. No field, no money, no alumni, no history. Starting a club is tough," remembers Morris. But their experiment was successful, and much to Morris's surprise, 43 men showed up to their first practice. "Because we had a good coach and good athletes, we did quite well. Rice has a high level of scholastics, and we harnessed that. When we played teams who were bigger than us, we outsmarted them," says Morris. "We created something. It's a great memory. I'm blessed with that history."
After college, Morris's passion for the game continued to thrive, and he went on to play for several club teams including the Austin Blacks, Aspen RFC and Houston RFC. He was even featured on the seventh annual Aspen Ruggerfest's promotional poster in 1974!
Stewart Morris, featured on the Aspen Ruggerfest promotional poster, 1974.
Later, he played "old boy" rugby for Old Tin Can/Texas XXXs. Unfortunately, after a horse driving accident at the age of 45, Morris had to slow down on his playing, but that didn't stop him from being involved in the game. Morris took an active role on the Rice University rugby alumni board, helping the team to establish forward-thinking and sustainable funding practices. Beyond financial planning and contribution, the Morris family has also hosted a barbeque for the Rice club for the past 18 years, giving new players to the team the opportunity to be welcomed into the rugby family. Captains, coaches and the alumni board president all speak at the event, sharing the lessons they learned while playing for Rice. Morris explains, "Alumni get to talk about their experience with rugby, and that's where the younger players figure out that rugby is more than a game. You're here playing at Rice, but you're really forming lifetime relationships. You're involved in a great community. You think about where you're going in life, and you know rugby will be part of it. That's the most appreciated part of the event." Last year, the Morris family played host to more than 100 people at the event.
The Morris family not only supports the development of rugby locally, but they also show their pride for the national team by welcoming the Eagles into their home. "When the Eagles come to town in the past, we've hosted a barbeque at for them," says Morris. "Local supporters of USA Rugby and many members of Rugby Texas come out to join us. The focal point is the Eagles - it's a very relaxed environment. We have a friend who has a longhorn you can ride, we bring in armadillos, pigs, goats, chickens, horses...it's a lot of fun."
Prior to the USA v. Scotland match in 2014, USA Rugby players, staff and fans enjoyed a photo op with Rookie the Eagle and this giant longhorn at the Morris family home.
A Family Affair
While Stewart Morris's playing days are now behind him, he has passed the rugby torch to his son, Stewart Morris, Jr. III - also known as SM3. SM3 first started playing rugby at the age of six, and his father began coaching and refereeing for the local Katy Rugby Club youth teams. With SM3 now a sophomore at Baylor University, Morris is proud to support his son and the Baylor team on the pitch. His wife Joy and two daughters, Faith and Grace, travel to Waco to watch nearly every home match. Morris now enjoys supporting not his own alma mater's rugby club, but Baylor's, too.
Stewart Morris (SMJ, right) and son Stewart Morris (SM3, left) on the side of the Baylor rugby field, 2016. SM3 has followed in his father's footsteps, also playing #12.
Now in his 50th year of involvement with the game, Morris is excited to see what the future of American rugby has in store. One thing is for sure, he knows the future is bright. "Rugby is a game for players of all sizes," he explains. "You can be little or big and you can play. As long as you have skills, speed and knowledge of the game, a small team can play a big team and beat them." He also sees progress in both the safety of the game: "One of the great things - and USA Rugby has a lot to do with this - is the focus on safety. Rugby is viewed by parents quite often as a 'hooligan' game, as dangerous. But there are fewer concussions and neck injuries than in other sports. Part of this has to do with the tradition of being gentleman on the field. The success of rugby hinges on safety and on the character of the people playing." In addition, Morris is passionate about growing rugby at the youth level. "Youth rugby is really the future," he explains. "Learning to handle and move the ball is the most important part. It's the basic things that really make good rugby players. If we focus on youth rugby now, we'll see more experienced players by the time they get to college and beyond."
Of course, an integral part of moving the game forward is preserving its roots. Morris understands that promoting traditions is an important part of recruiting new players. To that end, he enjoys remaining actively involved with the Rice University rugby club, the club he started 49 years ago. In fact, he still gets together with "The Originals" - some of the former Rice players from the first four years of the club's existence - to share their passion for the game with current players. "We've made shirts, we attend matches together, and we play in the annual Alumni Match. Two years ago, four of The Originals were on the field at the same time playing against current players," he says. "Having alumni support the players is important. It strengthens the game because even though it's not completely institutionalized by the university, alumni can fill that space with support."