Conclusion of a two-part story
In part one last week, we told the story of University of Iowa running back Ozzie Simmons and his mistreatment by Gopher players because of the color of his skin. This second part looks back still further to a time when racism was even more flagrant, leading to the death of an Iowa State Black student-athlete due to injuries inflicted here in a game with the Gophers.
The story of Jack Trice
Jack Trice was born on May 12, 1902, in Hiram, Ohio, the son of a former Buffalo Soldier. He was an active child who played many sports. His parents sent him to Cincinnati to live with his uncle and better his educational opportunities.
He attended East Technical High School, where he starred on the football team. His coach, Sam Willaman, was hired as head football coach for Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He asked Trice and a couple of his football teammates to attend the school and play ball there. Trice accepted.
Trice worked hard at Iowa State both academically and physically, cleaning locker rooms to pay for his education. By his sophomore year all the hard work paid off in good grades and making the varsity team at a time when racism was rampant. A lot of college conferences did not want Blacks to play in their leagues, so Trice’s first game was an exhibition game.
On October 5, 1923, Iowa State University headed to Minneapolis where they were scheduled to play the Gophers the next day. When they reached the Curtis Hotel, the manager told them no Negro (i.e., Jack Trice) could stay in a room or eat at the restaurant.
The team found Trice a place to stay at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House. That’s where he wrote the letter that would later be read at his funeral.
The day of the game the KKK was at the stadium and there had been a float sponsored by the Klan in the homecoming parade. A man campaigning for the mayor of St. Paul, openly a member of the Klan, was also at the game. Trice was unaware of the danger surrounding him.
Through the first quarter he blocked every play that he could even though his collar bone was broken on the second play. When Trice was on the field, the U of M players were berating him, calling him racial slurs, kicking and spitting on him. In spite of all this, Trice refused to leave the game.
By the third quarter, Trice was badly injured, lost consciousness, and was rushed to the University of Minnesota Hospital as the Gopher fans mockingly chanted, “So sorry, Ames” over and over again. Minnesota won the game 20 to 17.
A few hours later, after the doctors declared Trice fit to travel, he was still suffering serious abdominal pain as he rode the train with the team back to Ames. There he was again rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding. Two days later, Jack Trice died of his game injuries.
Much speculation surrounds the play that resulted in Trice’s death. Many of his teammates said after the fact that he had been targeted throughout the first two quarters because of his skin color. The grandfather of University of Minnesota sports historian Bob Patrin had attended the game and was terribly upset.
Patrin said his grandfather told him, “Jack roll-blocked three Gopher players, and after the play the three players start beating and stomping him. Grandfather…knew that those players would kill that Negro football player, and he left the game.”
Trice’s funeral was attended by more than 4,000 people including family, friends, students, faculty, community members, and the Iowa State University president, who read the letter Trice wrote at Phyllis Wheatley. It read:
“My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family, and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays, I must break through the opponents’ line and stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference. Fight low, with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good.”
As a result of this incident and Trice’s death, Iowa State University did not renew its contract to play the University of Minnesota. The two teams did not meet again for 65 years.
History that must not be forgotten
The playing field in Iowa State’s Cyclone Stadium was named Jack Trice Field in 1975 to honor the school’s first African American athlete and the school’s first athlete to die of injuries sustained during an athletic competition. In response to student demands, the stadium itself was renamed Jack Trice Stadium in 1997, the only such Division I stadium to be named after an African American.
Why, then, is this story not better known here in Minnesota? Could it be because these incidents do not reflect well on the U of M and its Golden Gophers?
Both of these individuals, Ozzie Simmons and Jack Trice, gave their all to their schools and teammates, and their schools have acknowledged this debt. Yet in spite of the part the University of Minnesota played in the racist actions that injured both players because of the color of their skin—fatal injury in the case of Trice—Gopher athletes do not have a clue about this history.
Like much of its other past practices of segregation and discrimination against Blacks, the University of Minnesota needs to openly acknowledge these ugly chapters in its history and ensure that the names of Simmons and Trice are not unknown to current and future student-athletes, especially the African American athletes who are following in their footsteps.