Former Chicago Rush fullback Johnie Kirton's No. 37 will return to the field Sunday.
Linebacker Kelvin Morris will honor the memory of his close friend and former teammate by donning Kirton's uniform number when the Rush hosts the Spokane Shock at 3 p.m. at Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
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Kirton, who was on the San Jose Sabercats, passed away Monday, just two days after playing against and helping to beat his former team.
"It's been tough, but the past few days it's been getting better, just thinking about pretty much all the good things that we did," Morris said. "I was with him the past two weeks, so I had a chance to see him, kick it with him, so it was fun. We had a good time."
Morris was summoned to Rush head coach Bob McMillen's office Tuesday morning. McMillen broke the news to Morris that Kirton, 26, had been found dead in his hotel room in Santa Clara, Calif. As of Friday afternoon, the cause of death is unknown.
"To see a man break down like he did, losing a friend like that, it was tough," McMillen said. "You're going to see a different player in Kelvin Morris. Even though he's a great football player, I think he's going to turn it up a notch. He's going to go out there with Johnie playing on his shoulder."
On Thursday, Kirton was named the Arena Football League's player of the week for Week 12 after rushing for 3 touchdowns -- including the game-winning score -- in the Sabercats' 84-77 overtime win over the Rush on May 26. Kirton "He just brought so much energy and charisma to the team that whenever they were down, he was always doing something to try and lift up the team," McMillen said. "When you lose a player like that and a guy like that, it's always tough."
Kirton played college football at Washington from 2004-08 and started his Arena Football League career in 2010 with the Arizona Rattlers. After spending 2011 with the Rush, where he set team records for rushing yards and attempts in a single game and season, Kirton returned to Arizona for the 2012 campaign. He was traded to the Sabercats on May 9.
"The biggest part that hurts me is that when I saw him in Arizona, he was with his daughter and they were laughing and joking around and kissing each other," McMillen said. "I'm a family guy, I love my kids more than anything, I couldn't imagine not seeing my kids every day and that's what that little girl is going to have to go through."
Rush home after OT road loss:
Coming off an 84-77 overtime loss in San Jose last week, the Rush looks to build momentum when it hosts the Shock on Sunday.
"We were 30 seconds away from beating a good team," Kelvin Morris said. "We're a good team, but we just have to cut down on some of the mistakes and finish."
Bob McMillen was disappointed with the defensive performance against the Sabercats and hopes to see improvement Sunday.
"It's not just that final 20 seconds that cost us the game," McMillen said. "It's not being able to get some stops on defense. The defense knows that, the coaching staff knows that. Hopefully we'll see a different defense this weekend."
Arena League playoff race:
With eight games remaining, the Rush is 1½ games behind first-place San Antonio in the National Conference Central Division. If the AFL playoffs began today, the Rush would be the No. 4 seed in the National Conference.
"It's still a long season," Kelvin Morris said. "Not exactly where we want to be but, but we're still there."
Bob McMillen pointed to Sunday's contest against Spokane and the June 9 road matchup with the Utah Blaze as must wins for the Rush in the AFL's playoff race.
"Those are two teams we've got to beat to help us solidify getting into the playoffs," McMillen said. "This is a big one this week. We've got a team that's never come to Chicago and played. They're going to have to deal with our fans and what we do out here and how the atmosphere is in Chicago."