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The doctors couldn't say one way or another if Morgan would ever walk. "That was what was so difficult," recalls Morgan's mother, Joan.
Kerri Morgan thus went through life graduating from a wheelchair to a walker, on to crutches and a pair of canes. She endured fourteen years of therapy, marked by endless repetition of simple tasks. She hated every minute of it.
"They made me dress these stupid dolls, and button them up, and zip them up, and I'm like, 'I don't want to do that! Stop making me do that!' The dolls had little shoes, and I couldn't tie them, and it just pissed me off. And then it was time to go to school, and we had to practice things like getting on and off the bus. We must have practiced that a million times, figuring out strategies so I could go to school like everybody else."
When Morgan was five years old, the family moved from New York to a Ballwin subdivision. Kerri's older brother, Mike, made sure she was included in all the neighborhood kids' games. But first he figured out which non-running positions she could master.
"In football he made me the quarterback, and I could throw the ball better than most of the boys," she recalls. "We practiced over and over in our basement [before we went outside]. He'd suit me up in hockey equipment and start reaming pucks at me, and say, 'You better start catching them!' He was the first person to tell me if I was being a whiny baby, and then he'd give me a 'swirly.'" (Translation: He'd stick her head in the toilet bowl and flush.)
Morgan had no problem making friends. She was the vice president of her senior class at St. Joseph's Academy and of her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She also never let her disability hold her back. Like many college kids, for instance, she studied abroad. When she learned that London's underground rail system couldn't accommodate the motorized scooter she used then, she took taxis to meet up with friends.
Despite years of sampling different modified sports ice skating, horseback riding, swimming Morgan never really found an athletic niche to suit her ultra-competitive nature, inherited, she says, from her father.
"Growing up, playing Candy Land, he would never let my brother or me win. He'd cream us and then be like, 'I beat you!' My mom would be yelling at him, but he would argue back. He'd say: 'Life is competitive, and you have to work for things. You don't just get them.'"
Six years ago, walking with a pair of canes attached to her forearms, Morgan began to experience constant pain along her sides and back. She'd hobble home from work at Wash U. every day, pop some ibuprofen and go to bed. Finally, she saw a doctor.
"She told me my impaired gait was causing the problems, and if I didn't want to have any more pain I'd have to quit walking," Morgan recalls. "I definitely had issues with that."
Months later, the pain unbearable, Morgan broke down and bought a wheelchair. She didn't tell her parents until she visited at their new home in Southern California. "I thought it was viewed as: 'You're using a chair, you have more of a disability.' But my life is so much better. I probably should've tried it sooner than I did."
Not long after Morgan started using a chair full-time, she was skiing at Hidden Valley when a then-Rugby Ram, Neil Hayden, noticed her specifically, her nimble hands and recruited her to the team.
"I originally just did it because I was a workaholic at that point, and it would make me leave the office," Morgan says.
In addition to teaching, Morgan runs a research lab at Wash. U. and sits on the Missouri Assistive Technology Advisory Council. "She has worked through the night to get grants ready to go out," says David Gray, her boss. "I'll leave at two in the morning and come back at seven, and she hasn't left."
In the early days of Morgan's rugby career, her teammates rankled her, saying she was too small to play. This prompted her to study videos of the national team and push up parking garage ramps to stay fit. Soon her size became an asset: good for squeezing in and out of small holes on the court and yanking 360s to outsmart her defenders.
Every Saturday for a season she and teammate Kevin Brown left St. Louis at 4 a.m., drove to Memphis, practiced with the Tennessee TNT for five hours, then drove back home. As she puts it: "When you get bit by the rugby bug, you'll do just about anything."
On tournament days Kerri Morgan, #1, can often be found outside the gym for a pre-warm-up warm-up: circling laps in the parking lot, pushing up a nearby hill, pumping her head to the Metallica coming over her iPod. She does all of this to scare away the butterflies.
Tucker calls Morgan "Princess," in reference to her obsessive color-coordinating of her jersey, shorts and bandana. But Morgan is no priss. Classified a "3," she's the team's primary ball-handler and starts every game. This season she's broken a thumb, gotten walloped in the jaw and flipped.
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