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Bobby Joe Morrow, 3-time winner in 1956 Olympics, dies at 84

In 1956, Mr. Morrow crossed the finish line, securing a US gold medal in the 4x100 meters.
In 1956, Mr. Morrow crossed the finish line, securing a US gold medal in the 4x100 meters.Associated Press/file

WASHINGTON —For a brief period in the Eisenhower era, the world’s fastest man was arguably an American sprinter who trained on his family’s cotton and carrot farm, chased jack rabbits through the Rio Grande Valley and turned down scholarship offers from major schools to attend a small Christian college in west Texas.

From 1956 to 1958, Bobby Morrow won all the major sprinting titles for which he competed, capped by three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Not since Jesse Owens had a sprinter so dominated the Olympic track. Not until Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt would a man do so again.

Mr. Morrow set 14 world records, according to the international governing body World Athletics, and appeared on ‘‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’’ landed on the cover of Life magazine, and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, beating out baseball’s Mickey Mantle, who had just won the triple crown of hitting, and Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.

But as the years went by, Mr. Morrow retreated from the public eye and was largely forgotten, described in a 2016 Guardian headline as ‘‘the greatest Olympic sprinter you've never heard of.’’ Frustrated by his ill-fated business ventures, media coverage, and last-minute rejection from the 1960 US Olympic team, he returned to his hometown in the valley, where he ran a sugar-cane farm and woodworking business and, as he had in his youth, outpaced rabbits, catching one in each hand to surprise his youngest daughter.

He was 84 when he died May 30 at his home in Harlingen, Texas. His daughter Elizabeth Kelton said he had a blood disorder and chose to go into hospice care rather than continue treatment.

Mr. Morrow was a 21-year-old student at Abilene Christian College, now a university, when he traveled 48 hours by plane to compete in the Melbourne Olympics. Humble and handsome, with close-cropped brown hair, he was a lay preacher who neither drank nor smoked, and he became a 6-foot-1 poster child for his Churches of Christ-affiliated college. Texas Monthly would later call him the ‘‘Fastest Nice Christian Boy in the World.’’

‘‘Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I'd ever seen,’’ Abilene Christian coach Oliver Jackson told Sports Illustrated in 2000. ‘‘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.’’

As a freshman, Mr. Morrow won the 1955 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in the 100-yard dash. A year later, he defended his title and also won the 100 and 200 meters at the NCAA championships.

Mr. Morrow continued his dominant streak at the Olympic track of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which had a loose, red-cinder surface that one athlete compared to sawdust. Pulling away from fellow American Thane Baker, he won gold in the 100 meters with an official time of 10.5 seconds, then matched the world record of 20.6 seconds in the 200 meters, edging past defending champion Andy Stanfield while running with a bandaged thigh.

‘‘We all came out of the curve about even, with Stanfield maybe a foot or so ahead. I thought, now we'll find out who’s got it,’’ said Trinidadian sprinter Mike Agostini, according to a Sports Illustrated account. ‘‘We found out all right. That doggone Morrow just went zoom and the race was over.’’

Less than a week later, he anchored the US team on the 4-by-100 relay, taking the baton after teammates Baker, Ira Murchison, and Leamon King gave the Americans a slight edge over the Soviets. Mr. Morrow extended their lead, helping his team set a world record of 39.5 seconds, breaking a mark that Owens had helped set 20 years earlier.

Mr. Morrow returned to the United States a superstar, so popular that Abilene Christian assigned a public relations official to field his interview and appearance requests. He visited the White House, received the AAU’s James E. Sullivan Award in 1957 as the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete, and was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1975. ‘‘He was the finest sprinter of his era,’’ Olympic historian David Wallechinsky told the Guardian. ‘‘But it was a short era.’’

As an amateur athlete, Mr. Morrow received little compensation for his success on the track. He was required to donate money from his television quiz-show appearances (he gave it to Abilene Christian) and said that while he and other Olympic athletes received about $15 a day, some US coaches, officials, and unqualified ‘‘freeloaders’’ received lavish perks, often just for handing out soap and towels.

Mr. Morrow’s criticisms of the US Olympic program were sometimes cited as a reason he missed the 1960 Games in Rome. A strained muscle left his thigh black and blue and limited him during the Olympic trials, but he was invited to train with the US team in Los Angeles as a potential reserve.

‘‘The coach, Larry Snyder, instructed me to show up at the airport in Los Angeles and accompany the team to Rome,’’ Mr. Morrow later told Sports Illustrated. ‘‘But when I got to the airport, he said there was no room for me on the plane.’’

By then, the easygoing running style that had brought him fame and glory was gone and he retired from track, just as business associates left him feeling betrayed.

By the end of the 1960s, his first marriage had collapsed as well. He said he missed the farm, ‘‘working with the dirt and with the plants,’’ and returned to the Rio Grande Valley, occasionally signing autographs and delivering motivational speeches.

The middle of three children, Bobby Joe Morrow was born in Rangerville, near Harlingen, on Oct. 15, 1935. He played halfback on the football team at San Benito High before running his first varsity race as a sophomore.

As Bobby began winning state titles and making headlines, he started considering college for the first time, as an alternative to life on the family farm.

Under Jackson, Mr. Morrow defended his NCAA sprinting titles in 1957 and won sprinting titles at the AAU championship in 1958. He received a bachelor’s degree that same year.

Mr. Morrow’s marriages to Jo Ann Strickland and Judy Bolus ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, from his second marriage, survivors include his partner of 20 years, Judy Parker; twins from his first marriage, Vicki Watson and Ron Morrow; and eight grandchildren.

Long after he retired from track, Mr. Morrow had a vivid memory of the medal ceremonies at Melbourne, when he stood in front of a crowd of 100,000 spectators three times to accept the gold. ‘‘You could hear a pin drop,’’ he told the San Antonio Express-News in 2006. ‘‘It just sent chills up and down your spine.’’

‘‘The amateur’s only reward — and his gift to the world — is simply the knowledge of excellence,’’ Sports Illustrated wrote after he returned home with his medals. ‘‘Bobby Morrow is one of the rare ones who achieved —and gave — a little more: a distillation of excellence, in his case as pure and heady an essence as the Olympic Games have ever known.’’