One of the most highly accomplished athletes in Colorado history, Glenn E. Morris (1912–1974) was raised in the small rural town of Simla in southeastern Colorado. Morris was a standout in high school and college football and track. But his greatest athletic achievement was winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany.
Glenn Morris was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the second of seven children. When he was three years old, his parents, John and Emma, relocated the family to Simla, Colorado, a small farm town on US 24 between Limon and Colorado Springs. His poverty-stricken family ran a 160-acre bean farm trying to eke out an existence. Glenn was not much interested in beans, though. Instead, his passion was for exercise, especially running. He was known to run long distances to and from school. He built hurdles, a high jump pit and a chin-up bar from materials lying around the farm. He practiced jumping over local creeks and fences.
In 1930 Morris graduated from high school having excelled in football and track. Opportunities were few and far between in Simla back then, so he set his sights on college. Colorado Agricultural College (now known as Colorado State University in Fort Collins) showed interest in Morris for his football skills. Morris joined the Aggies, where he played varsity football and received All-Rocky Mountain honors in his last year. He also set conference records in the low and high hurdles as a member of the track team, and as a senior he was voted president of the student council.
1936 Berlin Olympics
Morris watched his first decathlon while competing in the hurdles at the 1935 Kansas Relays; inspired, he came back to the Kansas Relays in 1936 to participate in his first decathlon. He not only won easily (despite pulling a leg muscle halfway through the competition) but also set an American record. That same year, he came in first at the Olympic Trials, qualifying for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He broke the world record at this competition, despite it being only his second decathlon.
Under the shadow of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, Glenn Morris put on an extraordinary performance in the 1936 Olympics. He not only claimed the gold medal in the decathlon but also set Olympic and world records in the process. He was victorious in five of the ten events, as the United States swept the competition with bronze and silver medals and Morris was declared the greatest athlete in the world.
While at the Olympics, Morris met Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most well-known women in Germany at the time. Riefenstahl was a painter, ballerina, actress, and film director who ultimately started her own motion picture company. Hitler hired her to make documentaries that emphasized the physical ability and overall superiority of the Aryan race.
Glenn and Riefenstahl quickly became enamored of each other, and the eventual end of this relationship allegedly haunted Morris for the rest of his days. On his deathbed in 1974, he is believed to have said that he wished he would have stayed in Germany with Riefenstahl.
Hitler was so impressed by Morris’s performance that he supposedly offered him $50,000 to stay and make movies. To the Nazis, the exhibition of Morris’s athleticism and physique solidly demonstrated the purported perfection of the Aryan people. Morris turned Hitler down and traveled back to the United States.
After the Olympics
Morris arrived back in America to considerable celebration. He was honored in parades in New York City, Denver, Fort Collins, and his hometown of Simla. Colorado Governor Ed Johnson proclaimed September 6, 1936 as “Glenn Morris Day.” The state capitol closed at midday, and various civic organizations and schools were asked to attend the day’s events.
Soon after his return, Morris married his college sweetheart, Charlotte Edwards, on December 13, 1936. Charlotte was instrumental in helping him train for the Olympics. She set him on a special diet, cooked for him, and supported him during his grueling workouts.
At the time, Tarzan movies were extremely popular in the United States. Morris’s celebrity status landed him an offer to appear as Tarzan in five of these films. Charlotte and Glenn moved to California so he could pursue his acting career. His first movie, “Tarzan’s Revenge,” was widely panned by the critics. A poorly written script and low budget were mostly to blame, and Morris’s concern over salary did not help the film.
Afterwards, Morris played bit parts in several other pictures, but soon his opportunities in Hollywood disappeared. To make matters worse, his marriage to Charlotte fell apart and they were divorced.
Morris then had a brief assignment as a radio announcer for NBC. He also worked as an insurance agent for a couple of years, and played right defensive end for the Detroit Lions football team. He played only four games with the Lions; it’s uncertain as to why he left so soon.
World War II
In late 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and before long Germany declared war on the United States. Morris joined the Navy in October 1942 and saw battle in the Pacific theater beginning in late 1944. Morris was designated a beachmaster, an officer in charge during amphibious landings.
Morris’s war experiences took a serious toll on him in two very important ways. First, Morris was used to being a man of action, and the long, boring trips across the Pacific Ocean had a profound, damaging effect on him. Second, as is the case with many soldiers, the horrors of combat damaged him emotionally. After the war, Morris was never the same. It was even reported that his black hair had turned gray by the time he was discharged. He left the service in the summer of 1947.
After his release from the military, Morris moved back to California where he worked a variety of jobs, including construction, steelwork, security, and as a parking lot attendant.
Unfortunately, his health declined in his final years. Post-traumatic stress disorder from his battle experiences affected him extensively. It’s been claimed that he suffered from hallucinations. His physical health also took a turn for the worse. In time, he took up smoking, was diagnosed with hypertension and emphysema, and found himself in and out of veterans’ hospitals.
It’s not unreasonable to think that major disappointments in his life could have been a source of deep sorrow in Morris’s later years. His lingering feelings for Leni Riefenstahl, his poor experiences with the movie industry, and his frustration with being unable to capitalize on his Olympic stardom may have well led him into a sense of lingering despair.
Olympic hero, movie actor, radio announcer, professional football player, and decorated World War II veteran Glenn Morris died of heart failure at the age of sixty-one on January 31, 1974, in Palo Alto, California. One of the greatest athletes in Colorado history, Morris’s many accomplishments are reflected in the numerous awards he received during and after his lifetime.
-1934: All-Rocky Mountain college football honors, played in 1934 East-West Shrine game in San Francisco
-1935: Colorado State College Nye award (top athlete on campus)
-1935: 1st place in Junior Nationals in 400-meter hurdles
-1936: 1st place in his first decathlon—Kansas Relays (new American record)
-1936: Gold Medal, Olympic decathlon, Berlin Olympics
-1936: AAU James E. Sullivan Award Winner
-1969: inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame
-1988: inducted into the Colorado State University (CSU) Sports Hall of Fame
-2009: Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) Centennial Celebration, recognized as the best male track & field athlete in conference history
-2011: CSU renamed the South College Field House as the Glenn Morris Field House
-2013: selected as The Greatest Athlete in School History at CSU
-2015: inducted into the RMAC Hall of Fame for Track & Field/Football
World War II
-Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
-Two Bronze Service Stars
-American Theater Campaign Medal
-World War II Victory Medal
-Philippine Liberation Ribbon