Mike Morris’ involvement in a timeless regional sporting staple came about innocently enough.
In 2011, Morris was walking across the quad at Rio Linda High School, where he was at that time the school’s beloved football coach, history teacher and athletic director, when a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy flagged him down.
“Hey, can you tell me where coach Morris is?” the deputy asked.
“I thought, ‘Oh, damn. What’d I do?’” Morris recalled this week with a laugh.
It was the start of a bond that continues. Morris knew about the game and its cause, and he learned more about the Pig Bowl in quick order. The annual charity game pitting Sacramento-area law enforcement Hogs against regional fire service Fire Dogs was in need of some football gear and new coaching blood. Morris came highly recommended. It didn’t hurt that Rio Linda High had a storage room full of black helmets and black game pants, the colors the Hogs needed to fit their guys.
“I’m so glad I signed on because it’s been one of the highlights of my coaching career,” Morris said. “The uniqueness of the event, the players are fantastic, great guys, and it’s been a great time.”
Saturday marks the 49th Pig Bowl, continuing the longest such game in the country. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Hughes Stadium. The early years of the Pig Bowl meant that seemingly half of the region came to a standstill. People tailgated the night before games at Hughes Stadium, then filled it up, more than 23,000 stuffed inside the horseshoe stadium on the Sacramento City College campus.
Over time, the crowds thinned as Sacramento grew as a sports region, but the game’s intent and individual efforts never slowed. Players compete in honor of those they have lost in the line of duty and to raise funds for area charities. The game bounced around the region over the decades — at local high schools and at Sacramento State — but now is back to its roots at Hughes Stadium.
For four weeks, the Hogs and Fire Dogs work out, train, condition and prepare. Sometimes workouts are in the driving rain, or in cool, crisp conditions under the lights. It isn’t a game about ego. It’s about pride, a shared respect and admiration among all the first responders. A missed practice sometimes happens for all the sobering reasons — an emergency call.
Some Pig Bowl players are football lifers. Shawn Galyean will suit up for his 24th Pig Bowl as a member of the Hogs, a linebacker who works for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Another long-timer is Jeff Daigle, 43, of the Rocklin Police Department. The free safety who played football at Kennedy High School in Greenhaven will appear in his 13th Pig Bowl, leading the defense as a “whip-smart, tough player,” Morris said.
Nothing in a football game can duplicate the intensity and, too often, the horrors the Hogs and Fire Dogs experience in their real jobs. This game and this sport provide a measure of camaraderie and relief from their everyday work experiences.
“We enjoy the fun part of this,” Daigle said. “We do have stressful jobs. There’s a lot of similarities in terms of working together in a police or fire capacity and on the football field. We’re playing in a game that isn’t life or death. It’s fun. It does take you back to your youth. That’s why a lot of people who played sports get into law enforcement or fire. It’s a physical thing, not a desk thing, and it’s adjusting to situations.”
Daigle added, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys who play this game. It’s my favorite time of year. After Thanksgiving, I start training and getting into shape. I have a fear, a fear of failure, so I don’t want to let my teammates down, and that’s why I prepare the best I can — to be ready.”
Brotherhood and bruises
Daigle said downtime after practices is not reserved for talking about work. It’s about everything else, such as family and football.
“Practices and the game are a good release for us,” Daigle said. “It’s the brotherhood, and we all have a lot in common.”
Daigle said the event and preparation is good for mental health. The bodies become sore after practices and especially the game, but the mind remains healthy, he said.
“That’s why I look forward to this every year,” Daigle said. “You appreciate all of it. You don’t know who won’t show up the following year. It’s not all tragic. We have lost players over the years in the line of duty, or some stop playing because it’s time.”
Daigle’s body has told him it’s time before, but he has blocked out his aches and pains. Daigle earned Pig Bowl MVP honors in 2017 despite being slowed with broken ribs suffered on a punt return block. As the captain of the defense, he ignored the searing pain and played on. Doctors told him later he had suffered two broken ribs.
Daigle wants to play in the 50th Pig Bowl next year and to continue perhaps as a coach. Anything to give back to a game that has given him a ton.
“I hope to be a part of it for years to come,” Daigle said.
‘Coach them up’
In the Pig Bowl, not everyone was a high school star, or even played in college. Some haven’t played organized football since they were in middle school. Some have never played at all, but they’re athletic and eager. Coaches appreciate that.
The Fire Dogs roster includes Bay Area transplant Aaron Harris, who played at Oakland Tech High School and Modesto Junior College. Harris is in his fourth year as a firefighter. He also plays semi-pro football with the Sacramento Capital City Fury, so he can’t get enough of the action.
Some drive hours each week to practice, including firefighter Komi Fabrice Tay.
One thing the coaches have realized over the years, Morris for the Hogs and Robert Swonger of the Fire Dogs, is that the players welcome the instruction. They want to be coached, to be led, to be motivated.
“We chew on them if we have to,” Morris said. “When I first started coaching the game, I tip-toed around it. These are grown men. They carry badges and guns. But they want to be coached, so we coach them up.”
Morris is 8-3 in his Pig Bowl coaching tour, and he’s certain of two additional things.
“I coached in the most exciting Pig Bowl of them all, a two-overtime win a few years ago, and I coached in the most boring game — a 7-3 loss last year,” Morris said. “I stepped down as head coach at Rio Linda in 2013 and knew I didn’t want to be a head coach again. This game gives me my fix for one month every year. I love it. And the guys get nervous before the game, amped up. It’s great to see that. You want those butterflies. It means that the game means something to you.”
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