Rob Oller: Ohio State 1950 Rose Bowl MVP Fred 'Curly' Morrison lived life to fullest
Some people enter a room and are hardly noticed. That was not Fred “Curly” Morrison. Some walk in and light it up. That was Morrison, but not exactly. The former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns fullback was more like the room itself, a safe and sun-filled space where friends and strangers gathered to swap stories.
It also happens that Morrison spun the best yarns. Some were even true. Or most were, but the Upper Arlington native’s storytelling was so full of animated characters and outrageous circumstances that his three children compare their father to Edward Bloom, the main character in “Big Fish,” whose tales seem too tall to believe until they reveal themselves as reality more than fishy figments of his imagination.
Did it really happen? Does it really matter? Morrison’s stories made you cry with laughter and laugh at misfortune. His positivity and the way he cared about people made every listener feel important. Real or make-believe, the world Curly created was so warm and welcoming that everyone was better for having been in it.
Sadly, the campfire went out Sunday when Morrison died in Murrieta, California, from complications following a broken hip six weeks ago. At age 94, the larger-than-life raconteur said one last goodbye to 92-year-old Sophie, his wife of 70 years, and passed into lore. He will not be forgotten.
Story One: Morrison, who came by his nickname honestly — he had a full head of curly hair right to the end — met Bob Hope when the Buckeyes were in California practicing for the 1950 Rose Bowl against California. Hope, who grew up in Cleveland, became a lifelong friend of Morrison’s, but on that New Year’s Day the comedian had more of a financial than relational investment in the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Ohio State fullback.
Hope attended the Rose Bowl with Bing Crosby, and to make things more interesting the comic and crooner bet each other $100 on the game’s outcome, and another $100 on whether Morrison would score a touchdown. Hope won both bets, having wagered on his home-state Buckeyes and on Morrison.
Both payoffs came late: Ohio State won 17-14 on a fourth-quarter field goal by Jimmy Hague, giving the program its first Rose Bowl victory; and Morrison saw two touchdown runs called back by penalty before he padded Hope’s pocket with a 1-yard plunge midway through the third quarter.
Normally gregarious, Morrison could rage like a rhino over issues of injustice. It happened in the Rose Bowl when the eventual MVP (127 yards rushing) threw his helmet in the end zone after one of his touchdowns was called back. It happened again when his son, David, played inside linebacker for San Marino High School near Pasadena, California.
“The other team’s star fumbled twice and the refs blew the ball dead,” David said. “It happened a third time and my dad literally hurdles six rows of people in the stands and runs onto the track and onto the field to yell at the refs about not making the right call.
“He wasn’t one of those stage dads. He didn’t come out and try to tell our coaches what to do. He was very supportive and super positive.”
But what he saw as unfairness ate at him. Morrison never agreed with Ohio State’s decision to force out Jim Tressel over the coach’s involvement in the 2010 autographs-for-tattoos controversy that led to NCAA sanctions against the school.
“He got upset when they fired Tressel,” David Morrison said.
Tressel and Morrison had struck up enough of a friendship that the Buckeyes coach asked the former fullback to address the team multiple times, including before OSU’s 26-17 win against Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
“Dad told them, ‘Don’t go out and embarrass yourself because you would be embarrassing your school and the state of Ohio,’ ” David Morrison said. “Then he pointed to Terrelle Pryor and said, ‘And you’re going to be the MVP.’ And he was.”
Real or perceived injustices aside, Morrison was equally amiable to prince and pauper, said his daughter, Rebecca.
“He had incredible charisma, and the greatest gift he gave me was he looked at every single human being, no matter who they were, like they were special,” she said.
Story 2: When playing for the Browns (1954-56), Morrison was part of a prank squad that carried a teammate’s new Volkswagen Beetle into the stadium and hid it. A first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1950, he earned a Pro Bowl invitation in 1955 after leading the Browns with 824 yards rushing. Following his retirement in 1956 his No. 32 jersey number went to a rookie. Jim Brown.
“I like to tell people my dad’s number was retired,” David said, proving his father was not the only storyteller in the family.
Stories 3-4: Morrison “discovered” comedian Jonathan Winters and helped negotiate Art Modell’s purchase of the Browns in 1961. Morrison worked for WBNS-TV in Columbus when the station needed a last-minute replacement for Flippo the Clown. Morrison suggested Winters, the art director at WBNS who told jokes in different voices. Later, when Morrison worked for CBS in New York, he helped Winters land a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show.
At the time, helping facilitate the sale of the Browns to Modell felt like a win; only years later did it pain Morrison to see the owner move the team to Baltimore. But Curly was not one to dwell on the negative. A self-made man, he had worked too hard, too long to live with regret.
But not to live without fun. David's favorite story from his childhood involved him and his brother Mitch challenging their father to a snowball fight.
"We lived in Connecticut and one day it was snowing and he said, "You guys go out back and I'll be out in a minute,'" David said. "My brother and I start making a pile of snowballs in the back yard and we're waiting and waiting and waiting and wondering what is keeping him so long, when all the sudden out from behind us here he comes carrying a bucket of snowballs. He literally ran circles around us, pelting us, and I don't think we hit him once."
After graduating from Upper Arlington High School, he joined the Marines, then attended Ohio State on the GI Bill and joined the Buckeyes as a walk-on, initially playing end before moving to fullback. He was inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.
Occupations that had him crisscrossing the continent included owning a car dealership in Toronto, working for a company in Los Angeles that developed instant replay and creating the Legends Invitational, a golf fundraiser at Pebble Beach featuring former NFL players.
“My dad was the friendliest person I’ve ever known,” David Morrison said. “At the gas station, the mini-mart or at flower stands, everybody interacted with him. And he didn’t just say hello. He knew their names. He spent time with them.”
And he shared wonderful stories. Sigh. The big fish has gotten away. Rest in peace, Curly. Tell St. Peter a good one.