Morgan McDuffee: A Young Man Who Simply Glowed
By Peter Lasagna
When the phone rang at 4:50 a.m. on Sunday, March 3, I didn’t answer. It had to be a wrong number. When it rang again five minutes later, the fear that all coaches hide just below the surface flooded in.
I picked up the receiver and waited. The stunned senior on the other end slowly spoke the words that changed our lives: “Coach. Morgan is dead.”
Morgan McDuffee ’02 came to meet the new coach during the first week of classes in September 2000. His disarming smile seemed to arrive in my Merrill Gym office five seconds before the rest of him. The year before, just one season since transferring to Bates from Ohio Wesleyan, he had inspired such confidence in his new teammates that they elected him a junior tri-captain.
That first day, and every day since, he impressed me as the man you wanted as a best friend, son, brother, captain, and son-in-law. He lived to serve the needs of all.
His loyalty was never calculated: Morgan did not leave Ohio Wesleyan to move to a more prestigious lacrosse program. An economics major, Morgan simply believed this small, intimate Maine school would allow him to explore the world, expand his personal horizons, and launch his future. He was especially proud of the A in his senior thesis, which he completed during the fall semester. Bitterly ironic, that academic achievement would allow him to be honored with the first posthumous bachelor’s degree in Bates history.
Morgan the athlete was not blessed with explosive quickness. He had to squat, clean, and sprint for every additional half step.
His friend, roommate, and fellow 2001 captain Aaron Sells ’01 traveled back to Bates from Boston. He shared a McDuffee story with Morgan’s teammates. “He wanted the younger guys to see him winning every sprint, every long run. He gave you an example of what he was willing to do to get better.” Sells stopped and chuckled. “He might not be able to walk that night. We might need to bring his dinner to the couch. But when you saw him on the field, you watched your captain finish first. It meant everything to him.”
The evening after his death, Morgan’s teammates sat in my living room. I asked the players if they felt different from when we had first gathered as a team at noon. “I’ve been thinking about how hard Morgan has been working,” said Ben Clements ’04. “Every time I saw him he had just run, just lifted, or was looking for a wall to throw against.”
Ben then paused, and I could tell he was seeing Morgan’s red cheeks and satisfied smile. Ben remembered all the e-mails announcing captain’s practices and asking people to meet “tomorrow at 4 p.m. for a little jaunt.”
“It makes me want to work harder,” Ben continued. “We all have a chance to be more like him.” For the first time since 5 a.m., I saw a glimmer of light.
At the wake and funeral, and later at the memorial service at Bates, hundreds of friends gathered from throughout the country. Pictures culled from every source and stage of life proved that even the most subtle photographer could not find that lovely face without a smile. Words evoked a man of loyalty and love. President Harward said, “Morgan was loved by his friends and family, who knew him as a leader and peacemaker. What Morgan did was to try and help his friends. Wouldn’t we all like to think we would act so selflessly?”
His stepfather made us laugh telling of 11-year-old Morgan’s advice to his cursing father, who was planted face-first at the edge of a 40-foot glacier. “Dad,” said Morgan, repeating the lesson his father imparted to his son on every trying ski adventure, “you have to flip yourself around and get up. You will never learn if I do it for you.”
God, it felt good to laugh again.
The week after his death was filled with laughter, tears, rage, and hope. The Bates community tightened during the dark hour. Letters of sorrow from Lewiston elementary school students, e-mails from strangers, and calls from colleagues helped lift us out of hell and remind us that we were not alone.
A West Point cadet helped us start to heal. He wrote of his own decision to pursue a career filled with danger, and his doubts and fears of a life too short. “You have a whole team of brothers who will never forget Morgan. You now have a family who will never forget how precious life is.”
I am staggered that I could love someone this much in a year and a half. This is the power of his spirit and goodness, and the blessing of a man who simply glowed.
This essay by Peter Lasagna, head coach of men’s lacrosse, originally appeared in Inside Lacrosse magazine.
A Lifetime Lost
Last summer, when Morgan McDuffee lived in Portland with his girlfriend, Suzanna Andrew, he would mow the lawn before everyone got home from work. In the winter, he got up at 7 on many mornings to help his neighbor push his car up the icy driveway.
Andrew remembered the day McDuffee taught her to ski. An expert on the slopes, he kept his promise never to leave her side. “I had an entire lifetime to look forward to with Morgan,” she says.
As a child, McDuffee was awarded dozens of trophies for skiing, swimming, and football. His mother, Lisa Freeman, was proud of every single one. But she didn’t put them on display.
She wanted her son to stay humble.
Freeman always knew McDuffee would grow up to be an honest, loving man, but it wasn’t until shortly before he died that she realized how grown-up he had become.
McDuffee was on his way to Australia to visit Andrew, who was studying there for a semester. During the early-morning drive to the airport, he told his mom how much he adored Andrew. He told her he wanted to marry her one day and have a big family.
While in Australia, McDuffee kept a journal for his mom. He wrote in it every night.
Freeman didn’t get the journal until after McDuffee died. She can’t bring herself to open it. “I don’t have the strength,” she says. “Maybe someday.”
Excerpted from “An Entire Lifetime Lost,” Lewiston Sun-Journal, May 24, 2002, by staff writer Lisa Chmelecki. Reprinted with permission.
‘What Do You Want Me to Do?’
He was a coach’s dream. Here it was only January, with lacrosse season still a full month away, and there Morgan McDuffee stood in the doorway of Peter Lasagna’s cubbyhole office announcing, “Hey Coach, I’m back! What do you want me to do?”
“I told him the guys could use some indoor practices and it might be a good idea to organize some lifting groups,” Lasagna said, wringing a smile out of the now painful memory. “And you know what? Fifteen minutes later, he’s back in my office saying, ‘OK, Coach! I’ve got the gym scheduled for a captain’s practice and the lifting groups are all set…now what?'”
Walk anywhere on the campus of Bates College and you’ll hear only kind words about Morgan McDuffee. Linger long enough and you’ll see tears of utter disbelief that this young man of 22, his life waiting for him like an expectant puppy, could suddenly be dead because he tried to prevent his younger teammates from getting beaten to a pulp during an early-morning brawl on Main Street.
Soon, Lasagna will guide his team, step by step, back to the playing field. He’ll caution them against battling ghosts because “we weren’t perfect when Morgan was with us and we’re not perfect now. And that’s OK. That’s real.” But the void is also real. Who will hold down the defense? Who will fill that spot in the middle of the warm-up circle, where the team leader barks out the stretches before each half?
“We’re going to still have him listed as captain for the rest of the season. And we want his name in the program for each game…” Lasagna said, forcing out the words until his throat closed up and he could only look at the floor and cry. Finally, he added, “…and we’ll figure out how to get us all stretched.”
What this veteran coach can’t figure out — not now, maybe not ever — is why this kid? Why now?
“He glowed,” Lasagna said quietly. “He just glowed.”
Excerpted from “Its Leader Gone, Bates Team Left to Fill the Void,” Portland Press Herald, March 6, 2002, by columnist Bill Nemitz. Reprinted with permission.
The initial news of, and the Bates community’s reaction to, the death of Morgan McDuffee ’02 of Newburyport, Mass., can be read at http://www.bates.edu/x23057.xml