On Saturday, the top-ranked Portsmouth Warriors will play one of their biggest games in franchise history when they host the No. 3 West Virginia Lightning. But the stakes will be even higher for Warriors receiver Michael Morton.
Morton — along with fellow Warriors Josh Saunders, Charles Johnson and Larry West — played with the Lightning over the past few seasons. But prior to this season, Morton made the jump across the Ohio River to join a Warrior team that’s been on the rise. It may be a longer drive for the West Virginia native, but he says it’s more than worth it.
“We have more fans and a home stadium here. That really influenced my choice to come here,” Morton said.
Morton grew up in Huntington, W. Va., and was a standout receiver at Huntington High School. After receiving an offer to play Division I football at Kentucky, Morton packed his bags and moved to Lexington.
But after a few months of summer workouts, Morton could tell his dream of being a big-time college football player wasn’t going to work out.
“I don’t know if I was ready for SEC football,” he said.
Luckily, his former coach at Huntington High had recently been hired at Kentucky Christian University. Morton jumped at the chance to move closer to home and play under his former coach and mentor.
But after a solid freshman season, Morton suffered a serious knee injury that ultimately ended his career at KCU. After returning home to rehab for a few months, Morton enrolled at West Virginia Tech near Charleston. But a few seasons after joining the Golden Bears, the school suspended the football program following the 2011 season. For third time since graduating high school, Morton was left without a team.
Still not ready to give up the game, Morton joined the one of nation’s premier semi-pro teams — the West Virginia Lightning. With a storied history dating back to the early ’90s, Morton thought he had found the perfect place to continue playing the game he loved.
With the Lightning, Morton established himself as one of the team’s most versatile players — in his two seasons with the team, he returned kicks, started a safety and eventually became one of the team’s top receivers. He even served as the team’s backup quarterback.
But after the 2014 season, Morton found himself looking for more. He grew tired of playing every game on the road in empty stadiums. After talking to a number friends in semi-pro football — including his high school mentor, Snook Martin — he decided a move to the Warriors would offer the best opportunity.
“I’ve always had mad props for the Warriors organization because I had a lot of friends here,” Morton said. “Snook Martin, I’ve been best friends with him my whole life. That’s who really brought me up playing football.”
The move seems to be working out for Morton on and off the field. The veteran receiver is tied for second on the team in touchdown receptions, and is enjoying the perks that come along with being a Warrior.
“The Warriors have a bit of an edge on the Lightning…from top to bottom,” Morton said. “The only thing the Lightning have on us is a bus, and that doesn’t win ball games.”
The highlight for Morton so far this season was the Warriors’ 41-35 road win over the Lightning in the team’s first league game. After trailing by as many as two touchdowns late in the second half, the Warriors rallied for a dramatic overtime victory.
“It let everybody know that we’re the real deal,” Morton said.
Morton has remained close with his friends from the Lightning, and hopes to retain bragging rights after this weekend’s game. He expects emotions to run high again this week, just as they did in week one.
“Before the game we were joking about it a little bit, but when we got on the field it was serious,” he said.
Morton and his Warrior teammates have high expectations for this season, and he doesn’t expect his old team to get in the way.
“I expect nothing less than an undefeated season and a National Championship ring on my finger,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen. I’m pretty confident.”
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter