Currently a free agent in the National Football League, offensive guard D.J. Morrell of Norwalk made an appearance the morning of Super Bowl 50 at Wilton Congregational Church during the “Children’s Church” Sunday program on Feb. 7.
To a throng of jersey-wearing children and their families, he talked about what it takes to play professionally — about the challenges he faced growing up and how he met them. His remarks, however, weren’t just for budding athletes. “If you have a dream, don’t ignore it,” Morrell said.
An All-State and All-FCIAC selection his senior year at Norwalk High School, Morrell spent two seasons at Dean Junior College in Massachusetts before being recruited by Old Dominion University to play on the Monarchs.
He started all 25 games he ever played in a Monarch uniform, helping the team’s offense to lead the nation in scoring offense, total offense and passing yards in 2012.
By the time Morrell graduated from Old Dominion — with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science — he was on the scouting radar of NFL recruiters. Preparing for the combine and his pro day would present another set of challenges.
Growing up, Morrell had wrestled with Pop Warner weight limits and other things, but his real struggle was more personal. “I had a situation growing up where my brother, he had a heart transplant, and he was also paralyzed in a car accident,” Morrell said.
Morrell’s personal struggle doubled as a powerful source of drive when he needed it most — while getting ready for showcases that would determine his future as an athlete.
“That was my mental motivation to get out of bed every day for training at 5, 6 in the morning, pushing the limits, knowing that I’m getting a shot — that God gave me the ability, the size, the athleticism, and the talent to be successful.”
Morrell entered the NFL undrafted in 2014 after inking a deal with the Detroit Lions. “I then got released because of injuries and picked up by the Buffalo Bills,” he said, “and I loved it out there, getting to play against the best defensive line in football at the time.”
“I did a lot of community work [in Buffalo] also,” Morrell added, “charity work — I just love being around people, trying to help out, and trying to spread the word how hard work really pays off, and if you have a dream, definitely don’t ignore it.”
His contract waived by the Bills in August, Morrell, 24, is currently a free agent, training and getting ready for the next round of deals and, he hopes, the next NFL season.
After telling his story, Morrell was given a football signed by children in the Children’s Church program. “As a special thank-you, the kids have signed a football to present to you, D.J.,” said Candice Dolberry, director of children and family ministries at Wilton Congregational.
“We know that you normally sign footballs for other people to have, but we wanted to sign one for you, to say thank you for coming today.”
Dolberry then opened up the room for questions, and one child asked Morrell how many hours of practice NFL athletes put in on a given day. “Well, it’s a lot,” he answered. “We practice anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours a day. Plus, we’ve got meetings, film study, weight room training, and all that stuff.”
Morrell fielded questions from some inquisitive adults as well, who were more interested in knowing what year he graduated from high school, or what defensive linemen now in the NFL he had the most fun blocking in college.
“It’s great to get to come out here and talk to the kids,” Morrell told The Bulletin. “I love helping to teach how hard work always pays off. It’s good for them to be able to look up to somebody as a figure and see that their dream can always happen. Never let go of that. The sky’s the limit.”
Dolberry, who runs the Children’s Church Sunday program, told The Bulletin the Wilton Congregational Church is “gearing up for the sports season.”
“Wilton is such a sports-driven community,” Dolberry said. “We’ve been trying to connect sports with the church, and I thought this would be a prime opportunity to do that.” Morrell’s visit, she said, followed a Wilton Congregational Children’s Church series on worship as it can pertain to athletic competition.
“We did lessons called ‘The Bible Bowl’ and ‘Playing for God’s Team,’ where we discussed what to do when faced with obstacles in sports. We related everything back to a Bible story or passage, and gave the children tools to not be afraid, even when the odds are stacked against them,” Dolberry said.
“We also did a whole series on gifts, about how each child has different gifts, and how, on a team, these gifts have to work together,” she added.