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Blue, Blue Days
Mike Shropshire
June 05, 2000
Bobby Morrow, who sprinted to three gold medals at the 1956 Summer Olympics, is a bitter and all-but-forgotten man
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June 05, 2000

Blue, Blue Days

Bobby Morrow, who sprinted to three gold medals at the 1956 Summer Olympics, is a bitter and all-but-forgotten man

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Here at the mouth of the Tex-Mex delta, where the Rio Grande completes its nearly 2,000-mile odyssey to the sea, a powerful Gulf breeze hisses through a tall stand of sugarcane that abuts the back fence of a farmhouse. Inside, a buzzing sound emerges from the kitchen; the noise is coming from Bobby Morrow's blender. The sun has just disappeared beneath the flatlands of Nuevo Le�n to the west, so it's margarita time.

San Benito, a somnolent town of 20,000 situated on the U.S. side of the river, acts as a metaphor for Morrow's retreat from public scrutiny. He's regarded as one of the finest sprinters ever, yet it's hard to drink of anyone who has hitched a ride on the American celebrity starship who has so thoroughly vanished into the back pages of sports history. Local javelina hunters have more trophies in their dens than the 64-year-old Morrow. The most conspicuous souvenir of his athletic career is a photograph of him in the blocks next to actress Rita Moreno, who is wearing cocktail attire. That's hardly a fitting tribute to a man who won three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics.

"Thrice last autumn, while sound boiled up from all the broad decks and crowded galleries of Melbourne's historic Cricket Ground, a rangy, dark-thatched and extraordinarily self-possessed young sprinter from Texas fled to victory ahead of the fastest runners in the world." That was the lead to the story that pronounced Morrow SI's Sportsman of the Year for 1956. His fame was far-reaching. Morrow appeared on the cover of LIFE. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show, raising his pants leg to compare his muscles with the host's. "Helluva nice guy," Morrow says of Sullivan. "After the show he lent me his overcoat and took me to a party at his apartment." It would be a stretch to suggest that Morrow circa 1956 was as big a celebrity as Mark McGwire is in 2000, but not much of a stretch.

Morrow, who was raised on his family's farm near San Benito, arrived on the campus of Abilene (Texas) Christian College in 1954. The Wildcats' track coach, Oliver Jackson, in effect told Morrow that if he wanted to attend a party school, go to Holy Cross; if he wanted to win footraces, come to Abilene. Jackson had a plan. His intent was to assemble a team of sprinters who could outrun the West Texas wind. If they could do that, then they could outrun the world. In Morrow he found his main man.

"Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I'd ever seen," says the 80-year-old Jackson, who lives in Abilene. "He could run a 220 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 from ag sciences to speech, because he'd be destined to make a bunch of them."

By Morrow's sophomore year, he had tied world records in the 100-and 200-meter dashes (10.2 and 20.6 seconds, respectively) and anchored Abilene Christian relay teams to another world mark in the 4x220. Still, track and field purists from the West Coast were skeptical of Morrow's skill and suspicious of the wind gauges used at meets in Texas. The San Benito Bullet? Sober up.

The doubt disappeared after the June 1956 U.S. Olympic Trials at the Los Angeles Coliseum where Morrow won the 100 and 200 meters. By then, everyone realized it made no difference whether the man in the next lane was from Baylor or Belgrade—he had no chance of outrunning Morrow. Morrow's only bona fide rival was Duke's Dave Sime, destiny's victim, who beat Morrow in the 100-yard dash at the Drake Relays in April 1956 but was injured at the trials.

"I was standing near the finish line for the 100-meter finals in Melbourne," says Bob Richards, who won the gold medal in the pole vault at the 1956 Games. "The track was terrible. Loose, like sawdust, and Bobby was kicking cinders 10 feet into the air behind him. On a modern surface, there is no doubt in my mind that Bobby would have run an eight-something 100 meters. He was the greatest sprinter I ever saw."

At slightly more than 6 feet, Morrow was tall for a sprinter, but his legs were thick. Stylistically Morrow was a symphonic convergence of many moving parts, his stride offering the illusion of a man floating an inch or so above the cinder fairway. "Oh, he looked so relaxed, so graceful, like when he was chasing rabbits back on the farm. That was Bobby's trademark," says Jo Ann Richey, Morrow's former wife, who was married to him when he won those three gold medals, in the 100, the 200 (setting the world record, in 20.75) and the 4X100 relay. "But when he got back from Melbourne, he told me that he was so scared when he got there that he wanted to run right back out of the stadium and never stop."

Morrow overcame his stage fright, but he contracted something else in Melbourne that he found far harder to shake, a bitterness that still gnaws at him. He noticed that the nicer hotel accommodations, far from the austerity of the Olympic Village, were afforded, as he says, "to a bunch of guys whose job was to hand out soap and towels, because they had to find something for them to do." Morrow was describing International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who had been head of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1930 through '53, and his legion of men from that organization. "They flew their wives over there, too," says Morrow. "And their friends."

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