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World's greatest athlete is our own Glenn Morris

December 14, 2009
By Tony Phifer

Start a debate about the greatest athlete in Colorado State University history, and the conversation is likely to veer all over the field.

Glenn Morris, student-athlete for Colorado State College of Agriculture and the Mechanics Arts (now Colorado State University) on May 5, 1936.

Great Colorado State athletes

Some would say that Thurman “Fum” McGraw, multi-sport star of the 1940s, or Jack Christiansen, CSU’s only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, top the list.

Others would pick six-time gold medalist Amy Van Dyken, swimming superstar who in 1996 became the first American woman to win four gold medals at a single Olympics.

Or basketball legend Becky Hammon, football standout Greg Myers, 10-time track and cross-country All-American Bryan Berryhill, or two-time Olympic discus thrower Casey Malone.

1936 Olympic decathlon gold

The conversation, however, should begin and end with Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon gold medalist. Only Morris earned the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” – a feat no other CSU athlete has matched. He was the first Coloradan to earn an Olympic gold medal, and he earned the Sullivan Award in 1936 as the nation’s top amateur athlete.

His remarkable rise to fame included ticker tape parades, a starring role in a Tarzan movie, and heroic service to his country in World War II. Despite all that, Morris remains an enigma known only to the most dedicated CSU follower.

“It’s a shame more people don’t know about Morris because he obviously was an amazing athlete,” says CSU track coach Brian Bedard. “I know there have been athletes from CSU with longer careers who competed at very high levels, but winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the process speaks for itself.”

Grew up in poverty

Glenn Morris on the football field in 1933.

Morris certainly ranks among the more unlikely gold medalists in history. He grew up in poverty on the family farm in tiny Simla, Colo., running two miles to school every day despite having asthma.

Morris’ athletic prowess continued at the University, where he starred in football, track, and basketball.

Triple threat as a student-athlete

He was a record-setting hurdler and helped lead the Harry Hughes-coached football team to a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship in the fall of 1933, twice earning all-conference honors as an end.

Following the 1934 season, he became the first CSU player selected for the East-West Shrine Game.

True passion was competition

Although Morris was president of the student body and earned degrees in economics and sociology, competition was his true passion. In 1932, he attended the Los Angeles Olympics with Hughes and watched as American Jim Bausch won the decathlon with a world-record total. Morris was fascinated by the 10-event competition and vowed to become a decathlon champion.

After graduating in 1935, Morris began training for the 1936 Berlin Games under the watchful eye of Hughes. He took a job on Hughes’ staff as assistant football coach, and he also sold cars at a local dealership.

Speed and strength for grueling decathlon

He dedicated the rest of his time to training for the grueling decathlon. Even though he was blessed with speed and strength, many of the decathlon events, such as the pole vault and 1,500-meter run, were foreign to him.

By the spring of 1936, the 23-year-old Morris was ready to make good on his vow. Competing in his first decathlon at the Kansas Relays, the unknown Morris stunned the field by winning the two-day competition with 7,567 points – an American record.

Bound for Berlin, joining legend Jesse Owens

On the steps from left are Josephine Hage, Glenn Morris, and Maxine Herman at the "Presentation of Oak" ceremony held on campus following the Olympics on Sept. 10, 1936.

Two months later, he won the U.S. Olympic Trials decathlon by beating favorite Bob Clark and breaking the world record with 7,880 points. Soon, he was on a boat bound for Berlin, joining American greats such as Olympic legend Jesse Owens.

When the U.S. athletes arrived, they were thrust into a political firestorm as the Third Reich stepped onto the world stage. Adolf Hitler was determined to make the Games a showcase for German superiority.

Shattered Hitler's dreams

But Owens, the great African American sprinter from Ohio State University, quickly shattered Hitler’s dreams of German dominance, winning four gold medals. Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens and his remarkable performance.

Morris, though, was the talk of the Games. Despite battling an illness contracted on the journey across the Atlantic, Morris was in second place after the first five events, trailing Clark by two points.

Broke his own world record

Morris dominated the second day of competition, capping his memorable performance by collapsing at the finish of the 1,500-meter race, the final event. The crowd gave an ovation for Morris, whose winning total of 7,990 points broke his own world record. That mark would stand for nearly 14 years before another American broke the record.

“The thing you have to admire about Morris is his determination,” says Stephen Harris, international Olympic historian. “He only competed in three decathlons, and he set an American record in his first and world records in the next two. Nobody has ever done anything like that. And to become the world’s greatest athlete on that stage is just remarkable.

Showed the world America's greatness

Glenn Morris speaks to the crowd on campus during the presentation of the oak tree ceremony held Sept. 10, 1936.

“He poked a finger right in Hitler’s eye by outshining all of his athletes and every other athlete at those Games. He showed all of the world America’s greatness.”

Morris returned to America a conquering hero. Parades were held in New York City, Denver, and Simla, and a brief though disappointing Hollywood career followed. He played one season in the NFL before getting hurt, and he then enlisted in the Navy, serving in the South Pacific.

Horrors of war changed the man

The horrors of war scarred Morris, and he returned a different man, moving from job to job and in and out of veteran’s hospitals. The man whose athletic ability and chiseled good looks had mesmerized the world in 1936 died in 1973 of congestive heart failure; he was 61.

Morris was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1969, the CSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1988, the Colorado High School Activities Association Hall of Fame in 1998, and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2007.

His memory lives on

Morris' gold medal rests in a safe at Simla High School, where his memory lives on in students who strive each year to earn the Glenn Morris Award for athletic and academic achievement. A billboard greets visitors to Simla with the message: “Home of Glenn Morris, Olympic Champion.”

At CSU, a small memorial that includes photos and other items is in the lobby of South College Fieldhouse – the very building where Morris trained to become the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”

Glenn Morris (right) at the 1936 "Presentation of Oak" ceremony with University President Charles A. Lory (center) and Bill Wagner, fellow athlete and football standout.

Solid as an oak

Like all gold medalists at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, decathlon champion Glenn Morris was given an oak tree seedling to plant in his home country to serve as an inspiration to future generations.

Morris chose to donate his oak tree to his alma mater, Colorado State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (now Colorado State University).

A picture of Morris and CSU President Charles Lory (photo opposite) shows that the oak arrived on campus on Sept. 10, 1936. There is no record of the tree’s fate after that, and it is nowhere to be found on campus.

Only a handful of the famous oaks remain alive around the world, including at least three in the United States. All are revered and treasured symbols of Olympic greatness.

Originally published in the Winter 2009-2010 Colorado State Magazine.