Talented, driven, fit, focused and most importantly young – a common stereotype used around the world to illustrate what a “typical” athlete should encompass.
Don Morris has all of this and more. The only catch: He’s a Senior Olympic Competitor. At 77, Morris has maintained his athletic talents and won over 80 medals in the last 25 years in city, state, national and international Olympic events.
In June, at the California Senior Olympic State Championships held in Pasadena, Morris won two gold medals in the 75-to-79-year-old basketball competition. Sinking 21 of 25 of his free throws, Morris shot 84 percent and also shot a record of 70 percent in the Precision Shooting competition.
Morris, a Cal Poly Hall-of-Famer, says his motivation comes from when he attended Cal Poly in 1950.
“I have wanted to stay in shape my whole life,” he said. “I wish I were in better shape now but life wears us all down.”
With three knee replacements Morris still holds his own against some of Cal Poly’s finest basketball players. His strength has been tested over the years, and has not yet slowed him down. He says being a Navy Carrier Pilot has kept him motivated and determined to compete.
Morris got involved in the Senior Olympic games after a team in San Diego recruited him when he was 55 years old.
“We did very well,” Morris said. “I have just stayed with it but I can no longer move sideways, because of knee operations, so now I just enter the shooting contests.”
Morris’ mentor, Dr. Tom Amberry, was his teammate in the Senior Olympics and the “Guinness Book of World Records”-holder for the most free throws of in a row (2,740).
“I use his theory that shooting is about 50 percent mental and 50 percent athletic,” Morris said. “I think about getting control of my mental state. Being focused and calm is the key to competing.”
The Olympic grounds aren’t the only place he heads for a challenge and competition. The retired Cal Poly emeritus professor can be found quite often in the Recreation Center competing against Cal Poly’s very own in basketball shooting competitions.
The students are lured in by the mystery and myth surrounding Morris’ legend.
“I sometimes play students who have heard rumors in their resident halls that they should look out because there is this old guy in the gym who will challenge you to a basketball shooting contest,” he said. “They call them ‘urban rumors.’”
A little trick Morris uses in order to help the students take the competition seriously is to offer them a Gatorade for incentive.
“I explain that if they beat me in two of the five Senior Olympic events they win,” he said.
After purchasing the Gatorade in bulk, Morris will give the player a bottle even if they don’t win, simply just for trying.
“The Gatorade is just a device to get the students to take me seriously and compete at their maximum,” Morris said.
Amid all the competition Morris keeps a humorous demeanor. He has been known to ask students to play for their shoes.
“I think most students are very surprised,” he said. “I joke around a lot and say ‘let’s play for shoes’ but when they see my canvas Converse Chuck Taylor’s they do not want to put their $200 Jordan shoes on the line.”
Morris says he has never actually collected a pair of shoes, an amount that would equal a garage full, because he would never want to embarrass the students by taking their shoes.
“It is just for fun and camaraderie,” he said.
Over the years Morris has accumulated about seven pairs of his very own Chuck Taylor signature sneakers. “I keep them in my locker, in the coaches’ locker room, and in my garage at home,” he said.
Once the competition is complete, Morris gives two handouts to the players who he says are “kind enough to compete in the shooting contest.” The first handout is one expressing gratitude, the second is a guideline sheet explaining the rules of what he calls the “Two Minute Shot Shooting Contest.”
“Each contestant is allowed two minutes to compete,” said Morris. “You try to make as many baskets as possible from any of the five designated spots. Each basket is worth one to three points depending on the location.”
So what exactly does it take to beat such a driven athlete like Morris? How about a 6-foot-7, 205-pound all-state athlete from Arizona. Tyler McGinn currently holds first place with 64 points, a record he set on May 24, 2007.
“Playing with Dr. Don is a cool experience like being apart of a long living tradition,” McGinn said. “He takes these competitions very seriously.”
McGinn’s teammate Joe Henry, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound all-county athlete from Santa Rosa took second place with 54 points in the May 24 competition.
“Joe was with me the day Dr.. Don challenged us,” McGinn said. “I had played him about twice before because he is always around campus during the day and he always has Gatorade.”
Once the shootout is over, the students aren’t quite off the hook. Morris likes to engage in his own version of a “basketball-shooting timed event.” In an event that lasts for two minutes, Morris asks the students to time him for ten seconds as he takes his pulse.
“My pulse usually comes out around 120 to 135,” he said. “Then I time them while they take their pulse and they usually end up around 180 to 200 beats per minute.”
Within the 40 years that Morris has been asking students to check their heart rates only a few have ended up in the 240 range, a point where Morris recommends that they see a doctor.
Morris has always had an athletic itch. He competed in track and field lettered in football in high school as well as at Mt. San Antonio College, which Morris said was just enough to make the Cal Poly football team. He was on an athletic scholarship at Cal Poly from 1950 to 1953.
When he graduated Cal Poly he decided to go into the Navy Flight training program at Pensacola, Fla. where he completed flight training and became an officer. In 1992 he retired from the Navy as a commander.
A true Mustang at heart, Morris spent 40 years working at Cal Poly as the personnel officer, housing director, then professor and dean.
After some encouragement from his grandchildren, family and friends, Morris decided to go public on YouTube, where he shares his stories on old time Cal Poly players, the Senior Olympics, and shooting free throws.
A hobby that Morris believed would only grab the attention of fellow Senior Olympic competitors has gained support from younger athletes as well.
“I had no idea how popular YouTube was until my friends had put the videos up for viewing,” he said.
One video alone, the California Senior Olympic Basketball video, has received more than a 1,000 hits. Morris’ YouTube video feed has gotten so popular it has even been recognized internationally. Citizens from Belgium have left Morris some words of praise along with many of his own admirers from Cal Poly.
As for Morris, this one-man athletic machine has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
“I love the excitement, adrenaline rush, the competition, the workout, and most importantly, the camaraderie,” he said.
Morris says he would like to continue competing twice a week against the students in the Recreation Center. If you’re looking for a challenge you can find him there on Mondays around 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and again on Tuesdays around 9:30 a.m. to noon, after the Retired Men’s Coffee Cabinet.
Make sure you wear a pair of shoes you don’t mind losing.