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The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

Morrell Is a Cougar, butHeart Aches for UCLA

November 03, 2001|J.A. Adande

His diploma, his varsity letter and all of the newspaper clippings in his scrapbook suggest Chuck Morrell wants Washington State to win today.

But he freely admits that there's a soft spot in his heart for UCLA. More than that, actually. All of his heart.

It's an unusual combination, but just about everyone and everything came into play during a visit with Morrell, whose life story involves a killer heart disease that has preyed on three generations of Morrell's family, and brushes with a diverse cast of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Keith Jackson.

Morrell was a running back at Washington State in the 1950s and set the school record for the longest run from scrimmage--87 yards. One piece of film from his playing days shows him scoring a touchdown on a kick return against UCLA, then running in the conversion.

The familiar voice calling play-by-play is Jackson, a Washington State graduate in the early phase of his career.

But after all of his years of trying to beat the Bruins, now it's his second-favorite school.

"I will have to pull for Washington State," Morrell said. "Just because they're sort of like the lost children up there; they don't get the notoriety that UCLA gets. Washington State, then UCLA. I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for UCLA. I would be dead."

He received a heart transplant at UCLA almost six years ago, a procedure necessitated by a heart defect known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) that came from his mother's side of the family.

When Morrell was in college, his 3-year-old half-sister died in her sleep when her heart stopped beating. His mother died at 54. His twin brother, Gary, also died at 54, in 1991. Before that, Gary's two sons, Kyle and Mitchell, had died at 12 and 14. Gary's daughter had a full cardiac arrest while walking home from school when she was 14, but was saved by two students and paramedics. Her son was diagnosed with HCM as an 11-year-old and had a defibrillator installed four years ago.

HCM causes a thickening in the heart muscle, which can often lead to the obstruction of blood flow and an erratic heartbeat.

When Morrell and his brother went to Downey High, they were linked by their love for football.

"We were ready to go to UCLA, except they were running the single wing," Morrell said. "We were both halfbacks and didn't really fit into the single wing."

Chuck bumped into Washington State's quarterback at the beach one day, and was persuaded to become a Cougar. His brother went with him.

After school, Morrell went to camp with the Washington Redskins--where he roomed with Tom Flores and Bobby Beathard--but his NFL career didn't last long.

He found success in the acting world, while Gary worked as a radio sportscaster, with stints at KNX and KFWB.

Chuck Morrell has appeared in 27 movies, TV shows and commercials, having done most of his work during the 1970s. On his wall are pictures of him with Taylor, George Peppard and other celebrities.

He also has the call sheet for a scene from "The Sting," on which Morrell's name appears with Newman's and Robert Redford's.

Life is not quite so glamorous now. Morrell has to take 12 pills a day and needs a spice rack to hold all of his medication. But he feels blessed. He knows some transplant recipients who require blood transfusions regularly. His own body put up very little resistance to his new heart.

Symptoms of HCM can include chest pain, shortness of breath and dizzy spells. What makes the disease so frightening is that sometimes the only symptom is sudden death.

Morrell works with Jeff Greaves, who lost his father to HCM and co-founded A Heart for Sports with his wife to promote detection of the disease among high school and college athletes.

In September, for example, the group provided free testing at an Angel game at Edison Field.

"The test is just an ultrasound," Morrell said. "It takes five minutes. It's noninvasive, there's nothing to it."

When aware of the condition, doctors can prescribe blood-thinning medication, recommend surgery or a new treatment called alcohol ablation, in which pure ethanol is injected into the thickened heart muscle, causing it to shrink.

The alcohol ablation is working for Greaves, but Morrell required a change of heart, so to speak.

After Morrell's brother died, doctors told Morrell he would require a new heart.

He was put on the list, but it was almost two years before a match was found. On Dec. 18, 1995, he finally got the call.

When he thinks of his heart, he thinks of the place he received it and the doctors who performed the operation. He thinks of UCLA.

It will be impossible not to today.

"I'm looking forward to the football game," said Morrell, who will watch it in his Huntington Beach home. "I don't know who's going to win the game. I've gotta root for Washington State. But by the same token, if it weren't for UCLA, I wouldn't be watching the game."

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com .

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