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Ashway: Remembering America’s forgotten great sprinter
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

Friday would have marked the beginning of the Olympic Games. Sigh.

At least we get Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves!

Such is life during these turbulent viral times.

We might need to wait another year for the Summer Games — if we’re lucky — but we can sprint into some Olympic Trivia right now:

What do Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Usain Bolt all have in common?

Piece of cake. They’re the only athletes to garner gold medals in the 100, 200, and 4x100-meter relay in a single Olympics.  

Now comes the hard part. Name the fourth member of that exclusive group.

I’ve always been amazed that everyone has heard of Owens, Lewis, and Bolt; they’re household names.  But virtually no one remembers Bobby Joe Morrow. And that’s a shame, because his is a fascinating story.

Morrow died on May 30, at the age of 84. During the first quarter of his life, he went from chasing jackrabbits on his dad’s farm, to triple Olympic gold medalist at Melbourne in 1956.

Morrow stole the show at those Games, despite Charles Dumas becoming the first person to high jump over 7 feet; Parry O’Brien breaking the 60-foot barrier in the shot put; Al Oerter winning the first of his four discus golds, and Bob Richards becoming the only man to win the pole vault in consecutive Games.

“He was the greatest sprinter I ever saw,” Richards told Garner Roberts, the former sports information director at Abilene Christian University.

Morrow was certainly the greatest in 20 years, since Owens swept the sprints in Berlin. The United States Chamber of Commerce honored him as one of nine Great Living Americans. He won the Sullivan Award as America’s best amateur athlete. He made magazine covers, appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

No small feat, that. His competition included Mickey Mantle, who won the Triple Crown; Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in the World Series; NFL MVP Frank Gifford; Heisman winner Paul Hornung; and Floyd Patterson, the youngest heavyweight boxing champ in history.

“Athletic prowess was not the sole reason for Bobby Morrow’s selection, although it was an important factor indeed in a year so notable for excellence in sports,” Paul O’Neill wrote in Sports Illustrated’s Jan. 7, 1957 issue. “But Bobby Morrow, the unusual sprinter, is also an unusual young man, and none symbolized more eloquently than he the ideals of sportsmanship which the athletes of the US Olympic team took with them to Australia.”

Heady stuff for the sophomore from tiny Abilene Christian College, as it was then called, who was raised on a 600-acre farm just a half hour from the Mexican border.

As a sophomore in high school, Morrow qualified for the state meet. “It was a great experience for me just to be in Austin,” Morrow told Roberts. “Going to the state meet from our little high school was something!”

Despite having his choice of colleges, Morrow chose Abilene Christian “because of Oliver Jackson and the great coach that he was, and because of my Christian upbringing” he told Roberts.

“Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I’d ever seen,” Jackson told Sports Illustrated in 2000. “He could run a 200 with a root beer float on his head and never spill a drop! I made an adjustment to his start when he was a freshman. After that, my only advice to him was to change his major to speech, because he’d be destined to make a bunch of them!”

Despite the strict amateur rules then in effect, Morrow found a job that enabled him to train for the ’60 Games. However, he sustained a thigh injury and didn’t completely recover before the Olympic Trials.  He finished fourth in the 200, just missing the team.

However, officials told him to train with the team, and if he regained his health, he would be put on the team going to Rome.  

“I left my job in Abilene and stayed in California for about six weeks,” Morrow told William Martin of Texas Monthly in 1984. “I was beating the ones who had made the team. They said, ‘Come to the plane in the morning. We’ll tell you then.’

“So, I got out to the airport, and they said, ‘Nope, you’re not going.’”

And that’s how Bobby Morrow’s track career ended.

What followed was a series of deals with crooked people who only wanted to profit from using his good name. He became estranged from Abilene Christian, which had used him as a fundraiser. His marriage to his high school sweetheart dissolved.  

It all left Morrow disillusioned. “To be able to represent your country in the Olympic Games is an experience an athlete will never forget,” he told Martin. That was the positive.

As for the negative, “I like for people to know me for what I am, not what I’ve done. I was invited to address a joint session of the Texas legislature in Austin, just because I was able to run. I hadn’t done anything else. That’s what I don’t like.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce named me one of the nine Great Living Americans. Listen to the guys that were in there: Clare Booth Luce, Cecil B. DeMille, Norman Rockwell. Just because I went to the Olympic Games and had the natural ability that my mother probably gave me at birth, why should I be named one of the nine Great Living Americans?

“Just because of my legs.”

“He really didn’t see his gifts as anything special,” his daughter, Elizabeth Kelton told the Washington Post. “He always said, ‘It’s not like I cured cancer. I just ran.’”