IOWA CITY -- The term "student-athlete" is chancy. It's often a quick joke to the outside world, a snide oxymoron. On the other hand, colleges can cling to it with pretention and throw it around blindly.
The goal is to have "student-athlete" be applicable more often than not. And then you have the case of Iowa linebacker James Morris.
Go ahead, throw another "student" or "athlete" into the equation. With Morris, "student-athlete-athlete-student" is a synonym and it works.
The senior has a sterling resume on the playing field, going into the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) game today against Michigan (7-3, 3-3) with 374 career tackles (seventh on Iowa's all-time list). He leads Iowa with five sacks, is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and is No. 2 with nine tackles for loss.
Morris was named District VI academic all-America for the second year. He's one of 16 players in the nation to earn National Football Foundation National scholar-athlete award. He's one of 12 finalists for the 2013 Wuerffel Trophy (academics, leadership, athletics). He's one of nine semifinal candidates for Lott IMPACT Trophy (academics, leadership, athletics).
Morris, a Solon native, has won Big Ten defensive player of the week twice this season. He'll make his 40th career start today, his final game at Kinnick Stadium. This spring, he earned the Third House Scholar Award from the UI Department of Political Science.
So, yes, "athlete-student-athlete-student."
As you might imagine, Morris is an active, engaged mind. He isn't going to sit through an interview idly and wait for you to make your point. He's going to make his point, and he might correct your English on the way.
So, that being said, we're going to let Morris take it from here. Sometimes, you get out of the way.
During 2010 interview, before Morris embarked on his Iowa football career, he talked to The Gazette for the "athlete of the year" story. He said he was very much into politics (he turned out to be a political science major) and said "I'm not GOP, that's for sure. I'm probably half-socialist and half-capitalist."
Four years later . . .
"Trying to pigeonhole people as liberal or conservative, I'm more of a potpourri of views," he said. "I might appear conservative on some issues and maybe liberal on others. I'm probably more fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
"I'm not a Libertarian in the sense that you let the 'invisible hand' guide and all that stuff. I think there should be some legislation. James Madison had a quote, 'If men were angels, no government would be necessary.' I sort of subscribe to that a little bit, but I also think too many restrictions is a bad thing and people should be able to make choices and live they way they want to live as long as they're not hurting other peoples quality of life."
This is a regular Tuesday interview session inside Iowa's indoor practice facility. Morris isn't wearing a suit, prepping for a debate. He's in sweats and ready to have his ankles and thumb wrapped in athletic tape. This is as extemporaneous as it gets. This also is one day before his 22nd birthday. (He didn't mention that.)
"In political science, it's all we talk about," he said. "I'm in a class right now that's called 'Problems of Democracy.' It's really fascinating. The first half of the class we just asked how do you define democracy, what is a democracy? Then from there, what's the best way to make a decision? Those types of things.
"So, every day, you're confronted with things people tend not to think about a whole lot, at least if you're not taking those types of courses. So what might appear as 'wisdom' really is curriculum. Things that have been absorbed. I couldn't tell you a whole lot about biology or physics, unfortunately."
Morris talked about criticism during Big Ten media days in August. The topic came up this week. All the world is a stage and, oh yes, there are going to be critics.
"It was tough at first," he said. "You want everyone to like you. You're not trying to do anything but be the best you can be. People are going to take issues with that. Once you get it [criticism] a little bit, it sucks, but then you get older and you understand that people are going to think what they think. There's not much you can do to change it. All you can do is worry about what you're doing.
"Same thing for you guys. You might get an e-mail from someone who doesn't like your article. I think that's just the way of the world. You're putting yourself out there in a public forum. You're taking a risk. You're saying, 'hey, judge me' with the potential that maybe people like what you do and that makes you feel good. But there's always the risk that people aren't and you just take the good with the bad."
This is also where we can discuss the reactionary nature of following the Iowa Hawkeyes. Last season was rubble. Everyone is looking for a sign that Iowa has turned the corner. This is something that might happen incrementally. Iowa wasn't able to trade punches with the Big Ten's three best teams this season -- Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin -- but maybe next year it can. If football were a 10-month and not a 12-game sport, improvement might be easier to mark.
So, Morris' point here is temper things. One win or one loss probably doesn't push the banner too far either way.
"It seems like every week the state of the program changes," he said. "So, if we win a game, everyone is like, 'We're getting back to where we should be. We're going to be in a BCS game next year, we're building, we're building for a run.' It seems like when we lose, it's 'Oh, are we going to be starting another slide? Are we going to finish like we did last year?'
"I think jumping to conclusions in that way, you can't do that as a player. And we don't think like that, but we're constantly bombarded with questions of that nature. It's weird for me to try to answer them, because I never think like that.
"I know you guys get sick of hearing it, but, to me, the only way you can play well consistently is to really just focus on one week at a time. It's a cliche, but it's true. I sound like a parrot sitting up here saying, 'One week at a time, one week at a time,' but it's absolutely true. If you subscribe to anything else, I just think you run the risk of getting depressed because you're losing or you run the risk of getting big-headed or knocked or potentially sacrificing an achievement, a bowl game or whatever you could've had if you would've just maintained that 'one week at a time' focus.'
"I know you guys get sick of hearing it in week 11 or 12, but it's the truth."
How do you build that thick skin?
"It comes from coach [Kirk] Ferentz and you pick it up on your own if you're in tune with the game and you know football and you understand just how complex a team of 120 guys can be. You understand everyone has a role and everyone is contributing and everyone is on the same page. A lot of it comes from coach Ferentz. He's constantly preaching that and I think it's a good message."
Morris said he'll be fully engaged in the NFL pursuit after the season is over. He hopes for an NFL combine invite. He is planning on working out at Iowa five days a week. What about after that, after the football? It's tough to ask a student-athlete-athlete-student-student what he thinks he'll do in 10 years when he's just given an eloquent statement on why football players need to view their game through tunnel vision.
But hey, why not?
"I hope I can take some of the things I've learned in school and football and just apply them to everything," Morris said. "Whatever you're doing, work hard. Respect people. Treat people well. Situational knowledge, informational knowledge, I don't worry about that stuff. Shoot, with the internet, I can easily acquire it. If I want to be a day trader, I can go learn about that. If I want to be a doctor, I can go back to school. I have a scholarship [the NFF award was an $18,000 scholarship]."Who knows? I don't know. I've learned a lot of cool things in football, a lot of things I hope will help me down the line. Just looking at guys who've come through the program and what they're doing now, I don't even worry about it that much."