State Your Case: Larry Morris is a linebacker who should be remembered
For an assortment of reasons there have been too many all-decade players never debated by the Hall’s selection committee for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Count among them a guy once known as “The Brahma Bull.’’
Larry Morris was one of five linebackers voted to the 1960s' all-decade team and the only one ever named the Most Valuable Player in an NFL Championship game and not enshrined in Canton (the Packers’ Ray Nitschke achieved both).
During much of his 11-year career, he was part of a trio of linebackers considered to be the best group the Bears ever fielded, with Hall-of-Famer Bill George sandwiched between 1950s' all-decade selection Joe Fortunato.
There has never been another team with three all-decade linebackers playing together who failed to have two of the three named as Hall-of-Fame finalists, but it seems Larry Morris has been lost in the long shadow of George and Fortunato, who was himself a perennial All-Pro selection.
Morris was a Georgia legend both as a star on a Decatur High School team that went 25-0 and won back-to-back Georgia state titles and as an All-American at Georgia Tech, where he started on the 1952 national championship team and captained the football and baseball teams his senior year before being drafted in 1955 with the seventh pick in the first round by the Los Angeles Rams.
After starting in 12 of the 19 games he played his first two seasons in Los Angeles, Morris became a full-time starter in 1957 until a knee injury ended his season after only six games. He sat out the 1958 season with a knee injury after the Rams tried to trade him to the Redskins and he refused to report.
The Bears acquired him the following year after Los Angeles again shipped him to Washington for Gene Brito. He was then immediately traded on to the Bears for a 1960 draft pick, and there he found his pro football home.
Morris started at right outside linebacker for the next seven years in Chicago, helping form a threesome of backers that led the Bears to become one of the stingiest defenses in NFL history in 1963. That season Chicago led the NFL in 11 of 19 defensive categories and was second in the other eight. It allowed only 144 points in 14 games, an average of 10.28 points per game.
That defense met its stiffest test when it faced the New York Giants at frozen Wrigley Field on Dec. 29, 1963 in the NFL championship game. The Giants had scored 446 points that season, while the Bears’ offense had struggled mightily to score, instead relying on its punishing defense to go 11-1-2.
No one dished out more punishment that frigid day than Morris.
In the signature game of his career, Morris twice sacked Y.A. Tittle, knocking him out of the game briefly with a left knee injury that impaired him the entire afternoon. The second sack led to an interception by Bennie McRae in the end zone late in the game to preserve what was a 14-10 lead.
But Morris’ biggest play came earlier, when he perfectly read a Tittle screen pass to running back Phil King with the Giants’ already leading 7-0. Morris picked off the pass and ran 61 yards to the Giants’ 6-yard line to set up Chicago’s tying touchdown.
“I was scared to death the first 30 yards that I was going to get caught and the second 30 that I wouldn’t get caught,’’ Morris said later. “I was tired.’’
His performance led Chicago Tribune football writer George Strickler to write, “Larry Morris, football’s most underrated linebacker, strangled the Giants’ vaunted attack and … harassed Tittle to distraction.’’
Always known as a heady player, Morris did more than that. Not only did he read that throw to King perfectly, he also bargained for the best possible outcome in the MVP voting that day.
In those days, the MVP award was a brand new Corvette given by SPORT magazine. Wanting to better his odds, before the game Morris tried to convince quarterback Billy Wade or tight end Mike Ditka to split the prize if either of them won it.
Both declined the offer, believing their chances of being named MVP greater than that of an outside linebacker.
Morris then approached George and defensive tackle Fred Williams with the same proposition, and both took him up on it. According to Morris, it was a good investment.
“It was worth about $3,000,” Morris once told long-time Tribune football writer Don Pierson in 1977, “so I sent Bill a check for $1,000 and Fred a check for $1,000. Bill sent it back and said, ‘No, it was just a joke.’ I didn’t hear from Fred until the next training camp. He said, ‘I made a little investment for us down in Hot Springs on the horses. We didn’t do so good.’”
Morris was one of the best blitzing linebackers of his day, benefitting from the aggressive schemes of defensive coordinator and future Hall-of-Fame coach George Allen and Clark Shaughnessy. Often those blitzes were made behind a looming screen set by 6-foot-8 Doug Atkins, a Hall-of-Fame defensive end who was Morris’ roommate for most of his time in Chicago.
In 1966, with his career winding down as he entered his 12th season, Morris forced Chicago to trade him to the expansion Atlanta Falcons. By then he had started a thriving real estate business in Atlanta and threatened to retire if not traded back to Georgia.
The Falcons gave up two draft picks for Morris, who played in 12 games that season before retiring at the end of the year.
Perhaps because of George, who was an eight-time All-Pro, and Fortunato, who was selected six times, Morris was named All-Pro only once, yet when it came time to select the 1960s' all-decade team there he was. Is that enough to gain entrance to Canton?
Perhaps not, but it should have been enough to get him into the debate long ago.