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Spokane Empire

John Blanchette: His family circle

Shock defensive lineman Frank Morton Jr. has taken a circuitous route from Louisiana to Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shock defensive lineman Frank Morton Jr. has taken a circuitous route from Louisiana to Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Family matters to Frank Morton Jr., who has a big one that seems to grow by the year.

“I think of family as people that have genuine love for you,” he said. “Doesn’t have to be blood.”

So he includes the 100-odd members of the Tulane University football team who bonded and persevered through a 2005 season made unforgettable by Hurricane Katrina, and the city which endured unspeakable sorrow in its wake. He proclaims to have “three great moms” – guardian angels he has acquired since losing his own mother to breast cancer on his fifth birthday.

And lately the extended family has come to include his teammates on the Spokane Shock – and the many supporters to whom the team has become more than a devotion.

“They show a lot of enthusiasm, as much as the players,” Morton said. “I feel like they’re a big part of us winning.”

All that winning has brought the Shock a victory away from a third ArenaCup appearance in their four years of existence, with af2’s most historically successful team, the Tulsa Talons, due in for a 7 p.m. showdown Saturday at the Spokane Arena.

Morton, the Shock’s salty 320-pound nose tackle, is a relatively late addition to the family, via some appropriately improbable turns. An injury to Jeff Van Orsow and Justin Warren’s move to linebacker when Lee Foliaki left the team opened a spot on the defensive line, but Morton wouldn’t have been in Spokane had he not ignored his agent’s advice to wait and work out in New Orleans in hopes of an invitation to an NFL training camp.

“I had the urge to play football,” Morton said. “I can’t sit and just watch it. It makes me miserable.”

And perhaps nothing tested that need to play quite like that 2005 season at Tulane, when Katrina clobbered the city and the Green Wave – an almost regrettable nickname under the circumstances – joined in the massive evacuation.

“It was a crazy, scary time,” said Morton, a sophomore at the time and the son of a retired General Motors worker from Decatur, Ga. “I had teammates who didn’t know where their families were. We got out eight hours before the storm hit, on I-10 going to Jackson, Miss. It took us 17 hours when it would normally take three.”

In Jackson, the football and women’s soccer teams were herded into a gymnasium, where they slept on air mattresses that night. Power was lost the next day, yet they worked out in the darkened gym and took cold showers. A fire alarm that night sent the group outside in the rain in their pajamas, and by the next day they were on the road again – to Dallas, where they would stay for three weeks. Then came another move to Ruston, La., where they would spend fall semester attending classes at Louisiana Tech before their own campus finally reopened in January.

But that was only part of the odyssey. Tulane played in 11 stadiums that fall – “home” games being staged in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Mobile, anywhere a field was available within a bus ride from Ruston.

Morton remembers the experience as “humbling – learning that whatever you love can be taken from you in one instant.” But he also felt inspired, at least during those early days.

“I’d be seeing teammates pushing through, despite not knowing about their families, if their friends were OK,” Morton said. “It made me want to play harder, to show them that they weren’t wasting their time being here.”

And he was moved by the way Tulane athletes were embraced at all their stops – Jackson, Dallas, Ruston – just as he’d been taken in when he arrived in New Orleans. There he found more a second home at Plum Street Snoballs (“the best thing known to man”), a snow cone shack run by Donna Black, who noticed Morton stopping in every day to cool off and eventually put him to work. And he found a big supporter in Barbara Borries, president of a Tulane booster club “who looked after me for four years.

“I talk to them both every day,” he said. “I tell people I have three great moms – my stepmother Mary, Donna and Barb. Donna gave me a home when I was training in New Orleans (after college), just wanting to help me. And Barb helped me with my plane ticket up here, which was huge. Without them, I’d be back in Atlanta doing something 9-to-5 and not doing what I love.”

Which is football, in a family way. It’s what matters to Frank Morton Jr.