The Jack Trice Legacy Game commemorates a black pioneer at Iowa State


The Jack Trice Legacy Game commemorates a black pioneer at Iowa State


In a sort of shoebox that an Iowa State archivist got for me a few years ago were two pieces of correspondence from 1923.

The opening letter, dated Oct. 8, was from CL Brewer, who records show was then director of physical education at the University of Missouri at Columbia. His letter was addressed to Iowa State’s SW Beyer, a key athletic official on the Ames campus who virtually launched its intercollegiate athletics program.

Brewer’s letter read in part:

Newspaper reports indicate that a man of color will be playing on your football team this fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, that you know the conditions here and that it is impossible for a colored man to play with any team or even appear on the field.

This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for many years, and I know you understand the tradition that a man of color cannot come here. This whole issue goes beyond our athletics and there is no alternative for us but to say that we cannot allow a man of color on any team we play. …

Kind regards, CL Brewer

Beyer replied two days later, among other things:

School teachers in Iowa and Nebraska have been clear for several years that men of color are not allowed on teams that play with schools from Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. There is no written regulation on this topic, only a [gentlemen’s] Agreement.

We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However, everything is settled because Jack’s injury led to his death on Monday afternoon. …

Kind regards, your SWB: LM

The university is scheduled to open the Jack Trice Legacy Football Game on Saturday, a day before the 100th anniversary of Trice’s death. The home team will wear reproductions of the uniforms — with vertical silver stripes from waist to breastbone — that they wore on Oct. 6, 1923, when Trice suffered on-field injuries from which he later succumbed. And in the days before and after the game, the university will celebrate with academic lectures on Trice’s significance, the awarding of a posthumous degree and a memorial service on the anniversary of his death.

In all the years that young black men have played, starred and made such tremendous contributions to the game of college football that they now dominate, I can’t remember anyone who has been so honored. Especially one who wasn’t a pure American, a pure conference attendee, or a pure jack-of-all-trades. Trice played only one game, at home against Simpson College, before passing away after his second game.

Trice’s story, which I researched for my dissertation many years ago, is one of the most remarkable in a sport full of such stories. He was more than a pioneer as the first black football player at Iowa State University and one of the first black football players at a predominantly white college. Trice became an inspiration. Why? Because of what he wanted to do for others.

Trice left his home in Cleveland in 1922 and moved to Ames, intending to learn farming like his father, who died when Trice was seven. And he wanted to farm in the South, where his parents were born, for the predominantly black American population of that region. What better place to learn the craft than Iowa State, which produced America’s most famous black scientist, botanist George Washington Carver? Carver was also part of the Iowa State football program and served as its coach for a time.

But like the other few black students in Ames, Trice was left to fend for herself at the same time that a local KKK group emerged. He had to secure housing off campus, which was de facto reserved for whites only. That meant renting a room in a house that housed and fed black students. And finding a job to pay what Trice did, as a janitor. It helped him bring his teenage bride, Cora Mae, to live with him a year later. He said goodbye to her before joining the team on an overnight train ride on October 5, 1923, to a game against Minnesota the next day.

College football was a much more dangerous game back then. Nearly two decades earlier, then-President Theodore Roosevelt convened the heads of major football schools to clean up a game in which several players were killed in 1905. For example, this led to the banning of the flying wedge, in which blockers blocked their arms and rolled over would-be tacklers.

The few black players at white colleges were often victims of in-game violence. When Paul Robeson joined the Rutgers team in 1915, where he became a two-time All-American, he was targeted – by his own teammates.

Trice couldn’t fit in at Northrop Field in Minnesota. He wasn’t a light-skinned black man with wavy hair. Trice had dark skin, a dark chocolate color. He wore his tightly curled tuft of black hair high on his head and cut short at the sides. His opponents took note.

Trice was the target of their attack early and injured her shoulder in the first quarter. In the third quarter, Trice, playing defensive end, faced an avalanche of linemen clearing the way of a Gophers ball carrier, a formation similar to the one that had been banned. Trice lowered his body and began a roll to break the oncoming blockage.

He was trampled underfoot. Maybe on purpose.

Trice couldn’t make it to the sideline on her own. But after teammates helped him, the team doctor sent him to a hospital. He was released early, which some have suspected, in order to make the team’s overnight train ride back to Ames on what was believed to be a straw mattress in a drafty boxcar.

Trice was taken to the Iowa State Infirmary. On Monday his condition worsened. He was believed to have suffered a broken collarbone and internal injuries, which some believe should have been treated in Minnesota. The Iowa State Daily announced his death later that day. “He has been with his wife since his injury, who nurses at the hospital say is holding up bravely,” the newspaper reported.

Classes were canceled the next day due to a funeral on campus. Cora Mae gave University President RA Pearson a letter she found among her late husband’s possessions and gave him permission to read it to the crowd. It read in part:

My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, my family and myself is at stake. Everyone expects me to achieve great things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly around the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will I try to do more than my part.

A memorial plaque was placed in the corner of the gymnasium. It was forgotten until a teacher noticed it half a century later. The Iowa State Daily wrote an article about the discovery. One class dug deeper. A student movement began to honor him more prominently.

All of this inspired the Jack Trice Memorial Stadium committee, which culminated in 1997 when this ordinary and once-forgotten athlete was memorialized and his name unveiled at the home stadium where his game would be played on Saturday. It’s the only stadium in major college football whose name commemorates a member of Trice’s race, someone colleges once refused to let play. The Jack Trice Legacy Game commemorates a black pioneer at Iowa State

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