ATHENS — Zippy Morocco, one of the greatest pure athletes ever to have donned the red and black of Georgia, died on Sunday. He was 86.
His son, Atlanta businessman and former Clemson quarterback Chris Morocco, confirmed that his father’s death was the result of suicide. He also said he believes his father’s depression and the bouts with mental and physical problems he endured late in life could be the result of chronic tramautic encephalopathy, or CTE.
For that reason, the family intends to donate Morocco’s brain to CTE research.
“We’re all a little shocked but, at the same time, we know that Dad was in a really, really tough place,” Chris Morocco said during a telephone interview Monday. “Mental illness is real and it’s something we all deal with. I think we should draw attention. It’s something we’re facing as a society and we’re finally drawing some awareness to it. And I that’s a good thing.”
CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered severe blows to the head or multiple concussions. Morocco played at Georgia in the 1950s and in the NFL at a time when football was played in leather helmets and without facemasks. Numerous NFL players who sustained multiple concussions report having symptoms of the disease, and there is an ongoing legal dispute between the league and the players association over the knowledge of and protection against CTE.
“We believe it was at least a contributing factor,” Chris Morocco said. “Playing in the age that he did (1949-51), where they played with the type of equipment they did, I can’t imagine that it didn’t contribute. That’s one of the reasons we’re dedicating his brain to science. We’re trying to learn more.”
The family enlisted the services of friend Dean Trevelino of the Atlanta public relations firm Trevelino/Keller Communications Group to put the word out about the possible association of CTE in Zippy Morocco’s death. He was battling lymphoma and had just recently completed chemotherapy treatment.
“Sunday afternoon, after a devastating battle with depression and cancer, our beloved Anthony Joseph ‘Zippy’ Morocco, a UGA All-American, left us,” the statement read. “The family, which intends to donate his brain to CTE research, wishes to thank all those who loved and adored Zippy.”
A mass will be conducted at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Friday at 11 a.m., and a reception will follow at the Athens Country Club.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Morocco came to Athens when he signed with Georgia in 1948 and, other than a brief stint playing in the Canadian Football League, never left the South. He is considered one of the greatest two-sport athletes ever to play for the Bulldogs.
“Zippy was a good friend and he was well named,” said Vince Dooley, former Georgia football coach and athletic director. “I competed against him in football , basketball and Tennis and I never knew a quicker athlete. He will be missed. Our condolences to his wife Fran and all the family. God bless Zippy and the family.”
In football, he ranks third all-time at Georgia with a punt-return average of 14.2 yards. He led the Bulldogs football team in kickoff returns three consecutive years and in punt returns two years. He also led the Georgia receivers in 1950 and averaged more than 10 yards every time he touched the ball.
In basketball, Morocco became Georgia’s first All-American in 1953 when he set the SEC record for scoring (590 points at the time). His greatest performance came that season with Georgia trailing Tennessee 86-85 in Knoxville. Morocco dribbled away nearly the entire final minute. Then, with four seconds remaining, he unleashed a set shot from an estimated 40 feet, swishing a victorious jump shot as time expired.
Morocco was named the SEC’s Most Valuable Player that season. He was inducted into the State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, and UGA’s Circle of Honor in 2002.
“He really was one of the finest two-sport stars we’ve ever had,” said UGA’s Loran Smith, an athletics association fundraiser and resident historian. “He was an All-American in basketball, a slick punt returner and good running halfback in football and just had a fluid style of athleticism. He set the SEC scoring record in basketball the same year that Bob Petit was at LSU.”
After his athletic career, Morocco settled back in Athens and had a successful career in real estate and other businesses. He leaves behind his wife Fran, two sons and a daughter.