U of M Gopher football sports some ugly racial history

University of Iowa Libraries Ozzie Simmons

Part one of a two-part story

Last fall, as the University of Minnesota Gophers were preparing to play the University of Iowa for the bronze pig traveling trophy known as Floyd of Rosedale, I asked several former U of M football athletes if they knew the true history behind this trophy and if they had ever heard of someone called Ozzie Simmons. The answer to both questions was “no.”

I also asked if they had heard of a college football player named Jack Trice from Iowa State University. Again, the answer was “no.” I decided right then to do what I could to remind our community of the tragic histories of these two African American athletes and how this reflects on the early history of college football right here in Minnesota. These stories must not be forgotten!

The story of Ozzie Simmons

Ozzie Simmons was born in Gainesville, Texas, where he made All-State in high school as a quarterback. A former African American football player there told him there was an opportunity to play college ball at the University of Iowa. Following in the footsteps of Archie Alexander and Duke Slater, Black athletes who played for the Hawkeyes in the early 1920s, Ozzie and his older brother Don got on the train and went to Iowa City.

The Simmons brothers arrived unannounced to meet Head Coach Ossie Solem for the first time and let him know they wanted to play for the university. He allowed them to play during that afternoon’s practice, and both of them scored back-to-back touchdowns. Coach Solem invited them to join the team, saying, “We’ll find you a place to stay.”

After switching from quarterback to running back, Simmons became one of the greatest running backs in the history of University of Iowa football. In his first game as running back, he ran for a 15-yard touchdown, then returned a punt 61 yards and scored another 32-yard touchdown.

Related story: U of M Gopher football sports some ugly racial history – Part 2

He was so great that then-heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis asked to meet him in Iowa. He was so evasive a runner that they called him the “Ebony Eel.”

In October 1934, the University of Minnesota played against the Hawkeyes at Iowa Stadium in Iowa City.

In the first quarter of that game, the Minnesota football players beat up and stomped on Simmons so bad that before the quarter’s end he was knocked out. Again in the second quarter, he was knocked out, taken out of the game and rushed to the hospital. Iowa lost that game without their beloved Ozzie!

University of Iowa Libraries Picture of Ozzie Simmons from the 1936 yearbook.

Racism was a distant argument for the all-White Gopher players as they prepared for a rematch with Iowa on a November day in 1935. They were immersed in football, and one player was on their mind: Ozzie Simmons, still one of the great stars of Iowa. The Minnesota coaches were also concerned, but for a different reason.

Minnesota Head Coach Bernie Bierman had received a flood of threatening letters from Iowa fans. They were demanding that there be no repeat of Simmons’ mistreatment such as had occurred the previous season.

The president of the University of Iowa called the state’s governor, Clyde Herring, to advise him of racial concerns over the game with the University of Minnesota. Governor Herring called Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson, to inform him of these concerns.

In an effort to draw attention from the racial issues, they agreed to a bet that the team that won the game would receive a live pig.

When the live pig eventually died, a bronze pig trophy was created as a substitute; hence, Floyd of Rosedale. The trophy is still given to the winning team of this contest every year.

Coach Bierman received special police protection for the Gophers when the team got off the train in Iowa a couple of days before they played. As the game drew closer, the situation deteriorated. Rumors flew. One was that fans were organizing to storm the field if Ozzie Simmons was roughed up.

The Iowa running back, of course, wasn’t the only Black victim of racism; those were the days of widespread discrimination in college sports. It’s known that the University of Minnesota displayed open discrimination against Black students in the 1930s. The men’s dormitory was segregated and the school maintained White-only spaces. The women’s dormitories were also maintained as White-only spaces.

The university also maintained a Whites-only nursing program, and school dances were to be racially pure. The university employees were uniformly White.

After the game, Simmons was asked by a newspaper reporter if he thought Minnesota had played dirty. Simmons replied, “No sir, I don’t.” More than 50 years later, however, in a changing racial climate, Simmons admitted there was, indeed, rough stuff in that 1934 game.

He told a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that the Gophers had hit him late and piled on after plays were over. He said he always felt he was targeted because he was good, but he said the racial issue probably added some “oomph” to the hits.

Every year a freshman on the University of Iowa football team has to learn the history of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy and know who Ozzie Simmons was, what he did to put Black student-athletes on the map as the first African American All-American running back. But Minnesota does not know this story at all.

Next week: Sadly, the U of M Gophers’ mistreatment of Ozzie Simmons was not the first nor the worst incident of racial violence in the team’s history. For that, we must look further back to 1923 and the tragic death of Jack Trice.

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