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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of
Bobby Morrow

by Clay Coppedge

America loved Bobby Morrow when he was perfect and fleet afoot, but that was a long time ago, in the early to mid-1950s, when he was a sports hero on the order of LeBron James or Tiger Woods or anybody else you want to mention today.

By the time he died on May 30 of this year in Harlingen at age 84, few knew who he was and what he did in 1956. He was a forgotten hero. In the end, he seems to have preferred it that way.

Born in Rangerville, four miles southwest of Harlingen, in 1938, Morrow grew up on a cotton and carrot farm. He drove a tractor, worked the fields and-if the stories are to be believed-chased jackrabbits. And caught them. He was a football star at San Benito High School but a superstar on the track where he won 17 consecutive 100 and 220-yard dashes and two consecutive state championships in both events. College wasn't in his plans until several of them offered scholarships.

Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University) track coach Oliver Jackson, who was quietly assembling one of the country's best group of sprinters, convinced Morrow to run for the Wildcats. The fact that ACC was a church-affiliated college also influenced the pious Morrow.

"Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I'd ever seen," Jackson told Sports Illustrated in 2000. "He could run with a root beer float on his head and never spill a drop. I made an adjustment to his start when Bobby was a freshman. After that, my only advice to him was to change his major for ag sciences to speech, because he'd be destined to make a bunch of them."

Morrow clocked a 20.6 in the 200-meter dash at the 1956 NAIA track and field championship, which equaled the best ever time on a course with a full turn, and he also claimed the 100-meter dash title, where his 10.2 equaled another world record. The ACU 200-meter relay team, which Morrow anchored, tied the world record.

The track and field world noted Morrow's accomplishments but wasn't overly impressed. East coast track and field purists were suspicious of the wind gauges used at the West Texas meets. Then Morrow went to the U.S. Olympic trials and won both the 100 and 200-meter dashes.

Morrow joined a team ranked as one of the best U.S. Track and Field teams ever. In addition to Morrow, billed as the World's Fastest Human by newspapers across the country, the 1956 U.S. team also included Charles Dumas, the first person to high jump seven feet; Parry O'Brien, the first to heave a shot put 60 feet; two-time pole vault champion Bob Richards; and discus thrower Al Oerter, the only man to win four gold medals in one event. The U.S. won 15 of 24 events in 1956.

But it was Morrow who stole the show in Melbourne. He won gold in the 100-meters and 200 meters and anchored the 4 x 100 relay team that broke a 20-year old world record. His three gold medals equaled that of his hero, Jesse Owens, who accomplished the feat at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was on hand in Melbourne to see Morrow and his teammates make their own history.

Back in America, Bobby Morrow was afforded the kind of celebrity usually reserved for astronauts and war heroes. He went on the Ed Sullivan Show and appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Sports Illustrated named him "Sportsman of the Year" over Mickey Mantle, Paul Hornung and Don Larsen, who pitched the first and still only perfect game in a World Series.

The country just couldn't get enough of the All-America boy from Abilene. At ACU, Morrow dabbled in public relations work and ran at invitational meets around the country for the free meals that came with them; the Olympic committee was wildly paranoid about athletes getting paid. During an appearance on television's To Tell the Truth, the network superimposed an announcement on the screen saying that Morrow's $25 winnings would be given to his college. What he perceived as the Olympic committee's unnecessarily heavy hand rankled him, and he made some public comments about it. Whether or not that had anything to do with what happened to him in 1960 is hard to say.

A pulled groin muscle slowed Morrow on the eve of the 1960 Olympic trials and kept him from qualifying for the U.S. team, but he was Bobby Morrow, the World's Fastest Human. The coaches asked him to stay with the team in California, the idea being that he might get a spot on the team as an alternate. As he continued working out, the leg got better. U.S. coach Larry Snyder asked him to show up at the Los Angeles airport and fly to Rome with the team, but when he got there Snyder told him there was no room for him on the plane.

Morrow never completely got over the slight. And he never ran track again. His first marriage fell apart. The pressures of his fame might have had something to do with it, but Jo Ann Richey, his first wife, told Sports Illustrated that the snub in Los Angeles was probably another factor.

"That was an awful way to treat Bobby, and it stuck with him," she said.

After the Olympics, the Dallas Texans (forerunners of today's Kansas City Chiefs) invited Morrow to a try out. "That was the days before big paychecks," Morrow said. "I hadn't played football since high school, and although I knew I could go out there and run down the field, I still had to catch the ball." He declined the offer.

Instead of football, Morrow went into business with associates who turned out to be crooks, worked for a Houston bank where he found the same class of people, and even appeared in a picture with notorious Texas con man Billy Sol Estes. The All-America boy grew disillusioned with sport and celebrity.

In time he returned to San Benito and farmed cotton and operated a few low-key business ventures. He was elected to the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Texas Track and Field Coaching Hall of Fame in 2016. San Benito named its new 11,000 seat stadium in his honor in 2006.

From time to time, a newspaper or magazine reporter would track Morrow down in San Benito for a "Where Are They Now" story, but Morrow had long ago stopped being impressed with his accomplishments and with the fame they brought.

Asked by Texas Monthly in 1984 if he was sorry the Olympic gold and his fleeting fame had ever happened to him, Morrow answered without hesitation, "Yeah, I am," he said. "I really am."

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" June 10, 2020 column

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