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  • Max OlsonESPN Staff Writer Close
    • Covers the Big 12
    • Joined ESPN in 2012
    • Graduate of the University of Nebraska

Tony Morales hasn’t settled on an official title for his rare status. He has heard “super senior,” which makes sense. One Texas Tech assistant is calling him “Doc” now since he’ll have a chance at his doctorate. Coach Kliff Kingsbury says “Old Man” might be fair these days.

There’s no real term for a player entering his seventh year of eligibility, or for one who sits out the first four years of his college career due to injuries. Most players in his position call it quits after multiple season-ending injuries. Morales is not like most.

The Red Raiders’ 23-year-old offensive lineman has now been listed as a senior on the team’s roster for three consecutive years. The fact he’s still on that roster is a testament to his dedication after a brutal four-season setback.

“It’s been stressful. It’s not an easy thing to do,” Morales said. “A lot of people would’ve taken a medical [hardship]. But the way I look at it is, as long as I have eligibility, why not try? It’s a blessing to play college football. As long as I had eligibility, I was always going to try.”

He arrived in Lubbock in 2011 with a lot of hype, as a U.S. Army All-American and one of Tech’s highest-rated signees under then-coach Tommy Tuberville. At 17, Tony enrolled with his twin brother Alfredo, a fellow offensive lineman. Tony was sure he would play as a freshman.

His misfortunes, however, began before he ever played a game. First there was the torn labrum in his right shoulder, which forced him to redshirt in 2011. During fall camp in 2012, issues with his left knee ended up shutting him down for the season.

Morales rallied and made it through spring ball in 2013, believing he was ready to become a starter. Another torn labrum, this time in his left shoulder during fall camp, killed those plans and he spent another year on the bench.

“I felt like I wasn’t part of the team because I was out rehabbing, I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t going through offseason workouts,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel like it gave me a different perspective to be on the outside looking in.”

At that point, any college football player would start to wonder if it’s just not meant to be. Morales kept going. He made it through spring ball in 2014. He moved to center in August that year and thought he was putting together a great fall camp. And then he got rolled up one day in practice and suffered a torn ACL in his right knee.

Another season-ending injury. Another round of grueling rehab sessions. He still had never played in an actual game. Why keep going?

“The fourth one kind of hit home,” Morales said. “After my fourth one, it took a while to decide to come back. That’s four years of constantly getting up at 6 a.m. for rehab.”

His brother helped convince him to keep trying. Alfredo, who still lives with Tony, ended up becoming a 38-game starter at Texas Tech. He’s now teaching biology and coaching tight ends and offensive linemen at Lubbock Estacado High School.

“He was always in my corner, always there pushing me,” Tony said. “He’d always get up with me when I went to rehab and go in and do extra work.”

Alfredo could tell the injuries took a toll at times. He said Tony would sometimes lock himself in his room and just watch TV. After the torn ACL, there were days he’d have to sit in bed for eight hours. Alfredo would come home from practice and play video games or go over game film with Tony.

“I can’t imagine going through that four times,” Alfredo said. “He wanted to stick with it, and I admire him for that.”

Their work ethic comes from their parents, Alfredo and Belen Morales, who came to Texas from Mexico and do not speak English. Their father has worked at the same Arlington restaurant since he was a teenager. Their mother has been working a factory packaging job for a decade. The boys watched them get up for work at 5 a.m. and get home at 10 p.m.

“Being the first ones in our family to graduate from high school and the first ones to graduate from college, it’s a special feeling,” Alfredo said. “Knowing my parents really came from nothing, the fact we’re able to do what we do, I take a lot of pride in that.”

In 2015, Tony finally stayed healthy and the brothers finally got to play on the same field again. They started six games together as the Red Raiders’ offensive guards. Then the NCAA granted Tony two more seasons of eligibility, to make up for the lost years. Last season, he started every game at center. His knees and shoulders haven’t caused any problems, either.

“I wanted to give him a chance to show what he could be and show he could come back,” Kingsbury said. “If he was willing to stick it out, I was willing to see what we could do. To his credit, he’s worked his tail off and rehabbed his tail off and started a bunch of games last year.”

Tony already got his degree from Texas Tech, though he wasn’t proud of his grades during his undergrad years. He was too distracted at times by his injuries. He’s focused now. He’ll finish his master’s in educational leadership this summer, a few months after Alfredo gets his this spring. Tony isn’t sure whether he’ll go for another master’s or a doctorate this fall.

For now, he has focused on fighting for his starting spot under new offensive line coach Brandon Jones. Paul Stawarz got the No. 1 center reps to start spring practice and freshman Dawson Deaton will work there too. After what Tony has been through, proving himself all over again is no problem. He does know, when he’s done playing, he wants to become an offensive line coach. All the extra years of watching practices and film ought to help.

But guess what? He could still apply for one more season of eligibility. It’s possible the NCAA could let him play in 2018. That would give him four full seasons to make up for the four he lost.

Tony says he hasn’t given that idea much thought. Better to live one year at a time.

“I try not to look ahead,” he said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.”

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