Last February, Plymouth State University senior linebacker Josh Morgan was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors removed his thyroid in May. He was placed on medication after being cleared to play.
His iodine/radiation treatments would have to wait until after the season.
"Because I know Josh, his decision to play football this season didn't surprise me," said the Panthers' head football coach, Paul Castonia. "You've just got to know the type of person he is. He's a worker, loves football and everything about it. He's never missed a workout, lifting session or practice. He's always the first player in line for drills. He served as one of our captains this season and epitomized what a captain should be. As my coaching career continues, I will always tell his story to future players because it's an inspiring story."
Morgan was recently named this year's winner of the Nason Award for Senior Achievement from the New England Football Writers Association.
A native of Foster, R.I., Morgan is the first Panther to receive the award, given to the senior who has persevered against all odds to succeed in football. Morgan, who maintains a 3.29 grade point average as a criminal justice major, is the first unanimous selection for the award, according to committee chairperson Howie Davis.
"I'm humbled. It means a lot to me," said Morgan. "I plan to share this award with my teammates and coaches because without them I wouldn't be here today."
Morgan said being able to play his senior season meant everything to him.
"I would have been bummed out if the doctors told me to stay home this season," said Morgan. "I wanted to be with the guys I started with four seasons ago. This was the best medicine for me, to be around the team and play."
Morgan led the Panthers in tackles with 72 this season, collecting one sack, one fumble recovery with five blocked kicks (two punts and three extra-points). He also played quarterback in PSU's last two games. At season's end, he was recognized with his second consecutive MASCAC All-Conference honor.
"Despite playing on medication, which at times made him sluggish, he still had an outstanding senior season," said Castonia.
In a late-season game against Massachusetts Maritime in Buzzards Bay, Morgan played on offense, defense and special teams.
In a running back role, he rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns on six carries in the 46-44 loss. In 2009 as a quarterback on his high school team, Morgan led Ponaganset High to the Division III state title.
Against Mass. Maritime, Morgan played quarterback and completed his only pass attempt for a seven yards for a first down. On defense he registered 11 tackles, nine solo.
"The game against Mass. Maritime was one of, if not, the single best performance I've seen in my 27 years of coaching," said Castonia. "This is a young man who never complained about his condition, never used it as an excuse. This kid is a winner."
Morgan said that game tested his stamina. "Just like the other games, game day was never an issue for me," he said. "But against Mass. Maritime, I was involved in over 100 plays. I even played every down on special teams, so I was proud of that."
Aside from his health, Morgan overcame another hurdle at PSU.
Before the start of his sophomore season, Morgan almost left the school for financial reasons.
"Before practice one day I saw him sitting on the hill overlooking our field with his head in his hands," said Castonia. "He told me his loan for school didn't come through and he'd have to leave school. We ended up getting him two jobs, working in the weight room and in the admissions office on campus. He still has both jobs and the money he's earned allowed him to afford to stay here."
Morgan said the help he received from Castonia and the football program was a moment he'll never forget.
"My mom had it rough that year because she didn't do well financially," said Morgan. "Plus I lost my scholarship for one semester because I didn't maintain a 3.0 GPA. It all changed in a hurry thanks to coach Castonia and I was able to get my GPA above 3.0 to restore my scholarship. I really challenged myself in the classroom and I've never looked back."
Morgan said he plans to pursue a career as a state trooper and may even serve his country one day.
"I'm even thinking about staying in the game as a coach some day," said Morgan. "I love this game so much I'd do anything they'd want to stay in the game I love." Morgan said he plans to begin his treatment on Jan. 6. and promises to maintain a positive attitude. "I'm going to beat this," he said.