The first time I saw him run, my eyes—quite to my surprise—filled with tears. As he rocketed through the curve and down the stretch, extending a string of victories that would mark him as the finest sprinter since Jesse Owens, perhaps the best the world had ever seen, Bobby Morrow was as beautiful as a high-speed human could be. A year later, in 1956, this shy farm boy from San Benito would become the star performer in the Melbourne Olympic Games and, for a time, the most celebrated athlete in the world. I had had other sports heroes—Ted Williams and Kyle Rote, to be specific—and places in the pantheon would eventually be granted to Bob Cousy and Carl Yastrzemski. But I knew Bobby Morrow. He’d speak to me and call me by name. He signed my yearbook “your buddy” and mentioned all the good times we’d had together as Frat brothers. I watched or read about every race he ran for six years, and I collected—and still have—a thick file of clippings and magazine articles about his career. I trust it is clear that we’re talking about serious adulation.
Like most of us in sight of the half-century mark, however, I have learned that nobody wins every race. So when, now and then over the last 25 years, I would hear that Bobby Morrow had suffered some new setback or disillusionment, that life had not always given him a good handoff or a choice lane assignment, it held a special poignancy for me. Still, I felt a certain trepidation when I called to ask if I could come to Harlingen for a visit. Our phone conversation was uncomfortably similar to most others I had ever had with him—of few words and brief compass. He was never what you would call a compulsive conversationalist, and I felt no assurance that a visit would elicit much more than a few official memories and the diffident response I had seen him give others who seemed to think that because they had watched him run a footrace, they could claim the status of friend.
King of the Sprinters
When I arrived at Daddy’s Money, Morrow’s pool and video game center just across the street from Bobby Morrow Clothing, I learned that Bobby had gone to Brownsville on business and would not be back for several hours. His wife, Judy, an attractive and intelligent woman whom I thought of as his “new” wife despite the fact that they had been married thirteen years, was embarrassed that her husband had apparently forgotten our appointment, but she set me up in a back room of the clothing store with an ample supply of coffee and a stack of old scrapbooks.
The first scrapbook chronicled Bobby’s high school career as a San Benito Greyhound. Most of the early clippings were about his gridiron exploits, but about midway through the book, track took an insurmountable lead. The 15 to 20 points he consistently scored in the dashes and the long jump led to his being named outstanding performer in meet after meet. In his junior year he took first in the 100 at the state meet and began to attract the attention of college coaches. Sportswriters said he was “the fastest and prettiest runner in the state,” but his performance had not yet peaked. In 1954 he garnered 24 points in the state meet, with victories in the 100 and the 220 and a third-place finish in the long jump, and a headline declared, SAN BENITOAN SETS SCHOOLBOY 100 MARK OF 9.6 Even though no high schooler had ever run that fast before, Morrow sent his high school coach a laconic telegram: “1st place 9.6. Not pushed.” Track experts began to realize what they were seeing, and major college track powers began to recruit him in earnest. Morrow loved to run but had given little thought to college. He had expected to finish high school, marry Jo Ann Strickland, and join his father on the family’s successful cotton and carrot farm. When he did decide to give college a try, he had to attend summer school to obtain enough credits to enroll.
Bobby could have attended any college he wished. But because he was a member of the ultraconservative Church of Christ and sought a wholesome environment—San Benito track coach Jake Watson had said of him, “No dishonor has ever been connected with his name, and never will”—Bobby went to Abilene Christian, a small college affiliated with the Church of Christ. A minor league institution in most respects, ACC (now ACU) was not the aberrant choice it might have seemed. Oliver Jackson was recognized as a national-class track coach whose teams had won the Texas Conference title five years in a row and, led by sterling sprint and mile-relay quartets, had taken the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national title in two of the previous three years.
Oliver Jackson enhanced Bobby’s raw speed and natural grace by polishing his form and teaching him how to relax as he ran, a development vividly reflected in pictures taken during his first year of collegiate competition. In early shots of Morrow breaking the tape, his fists and teeth are clenched, his face contorted with strain. In later shots, his slightly parted lips and loose hands make it appear that he is easing up from a mildly strenuous trot. As one writer put it, “He doesn’t appear especially to pull, push, or drive as he runs. He’s never struggling… . He just runs… . He’s like a wheel rolling down the track.” The new techniques not only enabled him to run amazingly free of the injuries that plague so many sprinters but also shaved precious tenths from his times. At the NAIA meet late that season, on a cinder track soaked by rain and chewed up by earlier runners, Bobby Morrow ran one hundred yards in 9.1 seconds. Had it not been for a wind slightly in excess of the allowable minimum, he would have broken the