Morgan fulfilling his brotherly duty

Editor’s note: This story will run in Sunday’s print edition of The Bloomington Herald-Times.

Lynn Morgan sat in her bunker and started to scream.

It was nearing midnight Arabia Standard Time on that August night in 2010, and back in Missouri — a world away from her assignment in Iraq — her baby was in trouble.

An E-8 master sergeant in the U.S. Army, Morgan had just returned from her post and settled into her nighttime routine. She opened her email and found a string of panicked messages from her middle son, Juwan, alerting her to the horror at home:

“Mama, Dee’s been in an accident.”

“Mama, we don’t know if he made it.”

“Mama, he’s not OK.”

“Mama, call me.”

“Call me.”

De’Ante “Dee” Fields, Morgan’s oldest son, had indeed been in a terrible car wreck earlier that day on a remote highway in the heart of Missouri. Fields had just returned home from Biloxi, Miss., where he had completed Airmen in Training for the Air Force National Guard, and was on his way to pick up a friend at Whiteman Air Force Base.

He never completed that mission.

Outside Sedalia, Mo., roughly 20 miles from Whiteman, Fields rolled his car off a highway as he tried to avoid an animal in the road. Off the highway and onto an embankment, Fields’ car flipped several times. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

As the car violently tumbled, Fields’ head scraped the ground, grazing chunks of skin off his face and forcing an eye out of its socket. Trailing motorists stopped at the grisly scene and called 911.

Hours later in Iraq, all Lynn Morgan had were the startled messages sent electronically from Missouri. She draped herself in full armor, grabbed her weapon and hurried to another bunker where she could place an emergency call to home.

Morgan’s husband, Darren, was en route to the hospital, where a nurse took her call. Fields had been relatively lucky, she learned. His limbs were intact and none of his bones were broken. But his complexion was tattered. His face was badly injured and permanently scarred. Cosmetic surgery was needed, as was a procedure on his ailing elbow.

But what a relief, what a miracle. What a cruel reminder of the fragility of life.

The episode shook the family. It also determined the formative years of a young Juwan Morgan.
As Fields recovered at home, bruised and bandaged, Morgan tended to his brother’s wounds — the physical kinds and the mental ones, too. Rattled by his scars, Fields hardly left the house after his accident. Outside of school, Juwan didn’t leave either.

Born eight years apart, and shuttled between bases across the globe during their military upbringing, the brothers were close. The accident brought them closer.

Because basketball was Fields’ passion, it became Juwan’s, too. And after a teenage growth spurt made it clear that Juwan could have a future in the game, the blossoming basketball prospect made his brother a promise.

“Dee,” Juwan told him, “I’ll play for you.”

Years later, the Indiana senior has kept that oath.

“Juwan has a passion for basketball, but I think what drives Juwan is his older brother,” Lynn Morgan said. “The passion and the drive came from watching Dee and looking at Dee and knowing that Dee didn’t get on the court like he used to, because he was limited. Juwan and Dee, I believe they made a commitment between each other that, ‘I know you can’t do it, but I’ll do it for you.'”

Today, Morgan is a 6-foot-8 All-Big Ten forward with NBA dreams. He’s a senior captain and arguably the most important player on an IU team pushing for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.

More than anything, Juwan Morgan is a man of his word.

As Indiana closes the regular season today with a Senior Day showdown against Rutgers, Morgan will once again aim to be the difference between victory and defeat for the Hoosiers. And, for the 124th time in an Indiana uniform, he’ll dedicate his performance to his brother, Dee.

“Juwan has told me many a time that he plays for me, and he’s doing this for me, or doing this with me in mind,” Fields said.

That’s because Juwan was raised to recognize an all-important truth: you never leave a battle buddy behind.

Born on April 17, 1997, in an American hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, Juwan was raised in a loving, but rigid, military household. There were moves to Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Campbell along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Fort Knox in Kentucky, Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and also a brief stay in South Korea.

The moves weren’t conducive to an active social life, even for a youngster. So Juwan kept close to home and followed his brother.
“Moving around, I knew regardless of where we were at, he would be there,” Juwan said. “It was a built-in best friend. I didn’t have to really worry about making new friends. I knew wherever we moved to, Dee was gonna be there. I didn’t really take the time to make any other friends that I would have to leave soon.”

Fields played both football and basketball in middle school. So Juwan did the same. As the oldest child in the household, Fields also wanted his space as he grew into his teenage years. Juwan refused to oblige.

“We’d be running suicides on the court, and he was right there with us doing suicides,” Fields said. “We’d be doing stairs on the football field, and he was right there doing stairs on the football field. It wasn’t just him being there. It was him being involved. He had his own jersey, or T-shirt, all that. He wasn’t just there. He was involved.”

Back at home, Fields took on a paternalistic role with Juwan and their younger brother, Jaren, and younger sister, Asia. With mom and dad working and juggling deployments, Fields operated, at times, as the head of the home.

He would channel his mother, the drill sergeant, and march into their bedrooms and flip the children out of bed. For Fields, that often meant waking an hour or so before his siblings, showering and getting himself prepared for the day before he started hitting light switches and waking the kids. He’d make sure each of them made it to the bus stop and got to school on time, then continue his own day from there.

After the accident, that routine changed. It led to a role reversal between big and little brother, with Juwan embracing more of the household duties and becoming Fields’ caretaker.

“I kind of just filled in,” Morgan said. “Whatever he needed, like if he needed a bandage changed, I went and got them from wherever they were. If my little brother needed something for school, we had a convenient mart down the street, so it wasn’t too far of a walk. I would go get it. Dee was usually the one to get us up, but I kind of just started doing it on my own. I think it forced me to grow up early.”

That was true, both in Juwan’s actions, and his empathy. After school, he’d lounge with his brother, and sometimes they’d play games.

Other times, they’d just sit there.

“I was on bed rest for a good couple of months,” Fields said. “It was a mental breakdown for me, personally. I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t want to be seen. I didn’t want to go outside. Juwan took that and helped me recover mentally. Sometimes, we’d have broad conversations, like what’s going on with school, friends, girls, sports.

“Then, over time, he would see the mental breakdown I was having. He would ask me questions about my insecurities, how I felt about my face — stuff that you wouldn’t expect. But I was more than grateful for it to be coming from my younger brother. It was heartwarming to know that, man, you’re here for me.”

Fields felt buoyed by his brother’s warmth in those days after the accident. Today, he feels that love more than ever.

He has more Indiana gear than he knows what to do with. Often, he’s stopped and asked if he attends Indiana, or even if he plays there.

Fields doesn’t, but he’s quick to note that his brother does.

And for a final time inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Sunday afternoon, Juwan Morgan will live his oath in full, taking the court for tipoff and carrying his brother with him.

“He’s such a protector,” Lynn Morgan said. “Dee is so strong and he lets Juwan know, ‘I’m OK. I’m strong. I can handle it.’ But Juwan says, ‘Dee, it’s OK. I got you. I got you, Dee.'”

That’s their agreement, one they acknowledge each day. At the end of every text message between them, Fields closes the dialogue with three words: brothers in arms.

It’s their mantra — their commitment to one another — and a reminder that, no matter the moment, they have each other.

“Through thick and thin, I got you and you got me,” Fields said. “That’s all that matters.”

7 comments

  1. It’s funny how I always get something in my eye when reading stories like this.

    Juwan, I hope you blow it out tomorrow and have the game of your career. I just wish I could be there in person to help The Hoosier Nation honor you and celebrate your excellent career at IU.

  2. Juwan has long been on my short list as my favorite Hoosier of all time.

    This just cemented it.

  3. Morgan has been nothing but exemplary. Beautiful story. Bring a lot of Skjodt Tissues to senior night.

  4. Not knowing the story before, isn’t that what you see in J Morgan. The way he plays and carries himself on the floor in his four years at IU. He has always had perspective and his demeanor seems to speak to who he genuinely is as a person. Morgan is willing without compromise to take on the role that he sees whether dealt to him or voluntarily who he is. What a guy.

  5. And what a performance he left us with in his last Regular Season game in Assembly Hall. He deserved every ounce of the appreciation the fans gave him as he walked off the court. How proud his family must be of him, not just for his ability as a basketball player, but simply for the man he has become.

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