How Body Surfing Turned Duke Morrison, College Dropout, Into John Wayne, Actor

In this 1921 aerial photo, the Wedge can be seen at the top center, where a jetty intersects with the strand at a right angle. Balboa Pier is just offscreen to the far right. Balboa Island sits in the center of Newport Harbor.

When we were in high school in California in the 1970s, we would go with friends to a section of sand at the south end of Newport Beach, not far from Balboa Pier. There we would jump into the water to body surf one of the most notorious breaks on the California coast: the Wedge. The break got its unique name because of the way the waves would come at an angle against the shore and the rocky jetty built as an entrance to Newport Harbor. The force of the waves at that point was far stronger than elsewhere along the beach, but because of the tubular shape of the waves, they were very attractive to body surfers. One major drawback: The waves often broke in depths of just a few feet, which meant that unless a surfer could pull out of a wave before it crashed, he risked being crushed into the shallows.

On one bright summer morning, we went to the Wedge with our friends Dick and Nick. All three of us were accomplished body surfers, having grown up challenging the waves at Huntington Beach not far away. On this day, the three of us all caught the same wave. It was a terror. Too big. Too fast. Crashing into standing water that was too shallow. I was the first to arrive on shore, cradling my neck in my hands, certain that I had crushed a vertabra. Dick followed, limping, afraid that he had torn something serious in his right knee. But where was Nick? Finally we saw him, close by the jetty, crawling on all fours. He told us to call an ambulance because he was sure he had broken his back. A few beers from a cooler apparently mended his backbone, and ultimately he turned out to be okay.

It was to this beach in the summer of 1926 that 19-year-old Marion Morrison traveled with some friends from USC, where he had finished his freshman year and a successful season as an offensive tackle for the USC Trojans. But fate was waiting for the future John Wayne alongside the waves that crushed against the jetty.

In John Wayne, The Life and Legend, author Scott Eyman relates an eyewitness account from Morrison’s friend Eugene Clarke about what transpired that day.

One day we went to Balboa and there were a lot of pretty USC sorority girls down there that day and we decided to do a little showing off. We jumped in the water—it was Duke’s idea—and started to do what the kids now call body surfing. The waves were pretty high, real rough, and one of them caught the Duke and tossed him ashore with a badly wrenched right shoulder.
We had to report for the start of football practice a few days later and when the first scrimmage started, Duke’s shoulder was still in bad shape. Now Duke was a tackle, you understand, and [Coach] Howard Jones always insisted that when you blocked the opposing lineman, you hit him with your right shoulder, hit him real hard.

Clearly, Duke Morrison wasn’t going to be hitting anyone “real hard” with his right shoulder. His injury soon became apparent to the coach. He was later cut from the team, lost his football scholarship, and was forced to drop out of college. It was then that Morrison set his sights on a goal he had only dreamed of: to become an actor.

Blogger Mark Lukach wrote his own version of this tale with his own anecdotes at The Scuttlefish. It’s a fun read—and best of all, includes a video of boogie-boarders at the Wedge in more recent times.

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