CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mike Morton can sometimes be the bearer of bad news.
As a dentist during the week, when a patient has a cavity, it’s Morton’s job to inform them they need to get a needle in their mouth. As a football umpire on the weekends, it’s Morton job to throw a flag.
“Maybe not bad news, but news they don’t want to hear,” Morton says with a chuckle.
The former NFL linebacker who lives in Kannapolis has been doing both for the past 15 years — dentistry as a profession and officiating as a hobby.
But soon, his hobby will reach new heights. On May 2, the NFL called to tell give him the good news: He’ll be one of the newest officials for the 2022 season.
“It was not quite the same, but just as good as when I got the call from the Raiders saying, ‘Al Davis is on the line for you. They are going to draft you,’ ” Morton said. “It was pretty awesome.”
To get to this point, Morton participated in one of the NFL’s officiating programs and went through 15 years of training and officiating games at various levels to get noticed.
There were times when he thought that he’d never get the opportunity. But it has finally come.
When Morton steps on the field next season, he will be the first Super Bowl-winning player to officiate a game in the NFL.
“The process of becoming an official in the National Football League is a difficult one, requiring perseverance at all levels,” Walt Anderson, the NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating, said. “Mike displayed that kind of commitment to reach the NFL as a player, and now he has done it again as an official.
“His playing experience at the highest level of our sport gives him a unique perspective that will help him become a great game official.”
‘Never failed at anything’
To understand Morton’s drive, it’s important to understand his upbringing. His father, Mike Morton Sr., was a state trooper, and his mother, Phyllis Morton, worked in a doctor’s office for decades. They both live in Kannapolis, and not far from where their son’s dental practice now sits.
Growing up they taught Mike Jr. the importance of putting in the hard work early for a better life later.
Their motto was “four years of hard work for four years of a better life,” Morton Sr. said.
Those teachings rubbed off on their son. The most common traits used by friends and family to describe Mike Morton are “passionate” and “dedicated.” And Morton Sr. learned early on never to doubt him.
Whatever Morton did, whether that was learning to be a fighter pilot, playing baseball or football, or schoolwork, he did it to the best of his ability. He told his father around his junior year in high school at A.L. Brown about his desire to play Division I football someday.
At the time, Morton wasn’t a big recruit. But after his senior season, he made sure everyone knew his name. He finished that season with 224 tackles, his father said, and helped lead the school to its first state championship in 1989.
Coaches from across the country were soon calling.
But Morton didn’t go to school on an athletic scholarship. He was a 4.0 student, tops in his class, and earned a full ride on a Morehead Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships at the university, with a list of past recipients that includes Governor Roy Cooper, former ACC commissioner John Swofford and businesswoman Sallie Krawcheck, who was named by Forbes to its list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
“He’s never failed at anything,” Morton Sr. told The Charlotte Observer. “He just gets a hold of a bone and he just doesn’t turn it loose.”
The same thing goes for being an official.
Morton’s aspiration was to play in the NFL for 20 years and retire a rich man after playing linebacker for the Tar Heels under coach Mack Brown. But during his freshman season, after seeing Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor in a Chapel Hill mall one day, he said he called his dad that night.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to make sure to get a good degree, because if NFL linebackers are what Lawrence Taylor looks like walking by me, I’ll never play in the NFL,” he joked.
His backup plan was medical school, but football worked out in the temporary when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders in 1995 and played seven years in the league. In 1999, he won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.
A back injury cut his career short.
How he got into officiating
Morton first became interested in becoming an official 15 years ago when a former teammate and his best friend, Rob Holmberg, told him about an opportunity for former NFL players to get involved in officiating.
Morton, a volunteer assistant coach at A.L. Brown, and Holmberg had been looking for an opportunity to get back into football.
His father briefly did some high school football officiating when the younger Mike Morton was a child and encouraged him to try it. He said he was initially unsure about the idea; it’s not the most glamorous job, and fans can be harsh.
“I was like, ‘man all those guys did was call flags on me,’ ” he joked.
But in 2007, the NFL paid for Morton and Holmberg’s trip to Florida, where they attended the Tom Beard Clinic to learn about the process of becoming an NFL official.
“When we went on the field and they had us doing stuff, it clicked,” Morton said. “I’m like, ‘I like this.’ ”
He started working junior varsity high school football games in 2008 and worked his way up to college football from the MEAC to the ACC. He also spent time in the NFL’s Officials Developmental Program for a number of years, refereeing the USFL, one preseason NFL game and training camps, including in Spartanburg with the Carolina Panthers.
Meanwhile, around the time he was getting started in officiating, he was also starting dental school, as he searched for his second career. A former team doctor recommended it to him, and he enjoyed it.
So on weekdays, he’d be in school, and on weekends, he’d officiate games.
His wife, Alaina Morton, said her husband took the final dental exam the day after she had quadruplets, who are now 15.
He’s since opened his own practice in his hometown of Kannapolis, a place he loves to give back to. On a recent Friday after drilling and filling, he left the office to coaching baseball at Kannapolis Middle School.
“I am trying to live my life to the fullest,” Morton said when asked about his many activities. “I’m trying to be a positive role model.”
He’s doing that.
And soon, his kids will have something else to look up to when they see him as an umpire at an NFL game.
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