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Beach Grit

RIP WIlly Morris: “The opposite of savage!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Surf farewells Tom Curren's early rival, the big, the beautiful Willy Morris… 

Yesterday, the noted Californian surfer Willy Morris, who was fifty-seven years old, died, which in turn led to an outpouring of social media tributes.

Kelly Slater said, “I really loved this guy and really looked up at him from a young age. He was Tom Curren’s biggest rival as a teenager. Tom’s dad even named his dog after Willy.”

Big ol Willy, who turned to fishing and repping after the pro surf game, was a star of Quiksilver’s Performers movies and, with his beefy good looks, an exciting figure in advertising. One surfer who competed against Willy is the Encyclopedia of Surfing’s Matt Warshaw. 

I recorded this little back and forth with Matt about Willy this morning.

BeachGrit: So, tell me a little about Willy. I remember, as a kid, a clear-eyed, freckled-nose beautiful young thing living in Perth and amazed by the world beyond my bedroom walls, this savage tearing it up in movies such as The Performers. He was a very good surfer, yes?

Willy was the opposite of savage. He was the nicest, warmest guy you’d ever want to meet. But, yes, he was a very good surfer.

I was talking on the phone before lunch with Jamie Brisick, about how when people die, everybody of course says nice things, even if the person who just passed was mostly a prick. The point being that when somebody like Willy dies, it’s so hard to convey the degree to which he was a warmer and more generous human being then pretty much all of the rest of us.

And ever so big!

He was medium-big as a kid, then just kept growing into his late teens and early 20s. The bigger Willy got, the better he surfed. Had a back foot made of solid lead. Surfed a little like Ian Cairns, but mostly I think Willy rode like this guy we all admired at Malibu, named Allen Sarlo. Allen wasn’t tall, but really thick, built like a linebacker, and was a graceful, ridiculously powerful surfer. He still is. Allen is still riding waves from Third Point all the way through the pier. Anyway, in the 1970s nobody at Malibu could touch Allen in terms of power. Then one summer, kind of out of the blue, I think this was 1980, Willy was crushing lips like Allen. It was great. He was still just a kid!

Did you guys surf against each other? What kinda competitor was he? Did he tear your head off?

In 1974, my last year of WSA Boys division, I got a letter saying I’d finished the year ranked #1. Then two weeks later I got another letter saying, oops, the Ventura district just ran two make-up contests, Willy won both, and he bumped me off as champ for the year. Which pissed me off not only because I was never #1, before or after, at anything, but Willy was 18 months younger, so I got beat by a child. Except you couldn’t be mad at Willy. It was impossible. I was talking on the phone before lunch with Jamie Brisick, about how when people die, everybody of course says nice things, even if the person who just passed was mostly a prick. The point being that when somebody like Willy dies, it’s so hard to convey the degree to which he was a warmer and more generous human being then pretty much all of the rest of us.

How far did he go as a pro surfer? Top sixteen?

No, I don’t think he even got close. Willy wasn’t a killer. He liked competing, but didn’t get off on destroying people in heats. That, and during the early- and mid-‘80s, when Willy was on tour, so many events were held in small crap waves, and he was just too big to have a chance against the little fellas. But he won the Katin Pro, I think in 1984, and beat most of the top tour guys to get there. That would have been his competitive highlight for sure.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BhaXJ1ygOH2/?hl=en&taken-by=kellyslater

What will you remember Willy for, as?

Willy and his big brother Steve were really tight, and the whole Morris family was into surfing; they’d load up the family van and drive to Mexico for a week or two. In the ‘70s that was so unusual, and so wonderful. I guess that was more common in Australia and Hawaii, but in California back then you almost never saw it. For the rest of us, surfing-wise, it was like our parents didn’t exist. For Willy and Steve, the surfing experience was very much a family thing, and thinking of Willy today it occurred to me just how lucky he was to have parents like that, and how the whole family in that sense was way ahead of their time. Willy told me once that surfing was never a rebellious thing for him, and that he loved that he got to share it with his folks.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BhaxwglHkbR/?hl=en&taken-by=toddmessick

He was fifty-five, fifty-six, same as you, do moments like this make you pause and consider your own mortality? If you were to vanish tomorrow, would you be happy with your life?

I’m good at dancing around it. I tell myself that if I’d been born in any other century I’d be 10 years gone already, things like that. Death hasn’t taken out anybody yet from my inner circle. Both of my parents are still alive. I walk around these days practically holding my breath, because I’ve been so lucky up to this point. It won’t last. As for myself, yes, at this point, age 57, I could not be happier. I’m a decent husband, and a good father. I got way more than my share of kicks in years past, and I’m proud of my work. I can’t think about dying, I can’t even imagine it, because my son is just eight years old. Raising him is the only really important thing to do. Apart from that, yes, the boxes are all checked.

Willy Morris, 1962 – 2018 from ENCYCLOPEDIA of SURFING on Vimeo.