By Steve Jones, a special to CycloneFanatic.com As Black History Month heads into its final week of 2010, Iowa Staters have reason to be proud. Of the 100-plus stadiums in major college football, only one is named in honor of an African American athlete.
Iowa State University’s Jack Trice Stadium bears the name of the school’s first black athlete, and the only Cyclone to die from injuries suffered in athletic competition. While segregated from his white teammates in Minneapolis, Trice dedicated his play in the next afternoon’s game to his race, his family and himself.
However, the idealist young man—he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Iowa State alumnus George Washington Carver and someday help southern black farmers—died in the process.
Trice played less than two full games for the Cyclones, yet no name is bigger in Iowa State football history. ISU athletics director Jamie Pollard said the university is “very proud to have our football stadium named after Jack Trice.” Pollard is pleased with a series of new sculptures that highlight Trice’s life story and are permanently displayed in the stadium’s east side outside of the “Jack Trice Club.”
However, not enough people know the story of Jack Trice. More should.
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Jack Trice, born in 1902, grew up in rural Ohio and went to Cleveland’s East Technical High School. Trice excelled in sports, especially football. Following his senior season, his coach, Sam Willaman, was named head coach at Iowa State College. Trice became one of Willaman’s first recruits. Before going to Ames, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Cora Mae Starlard, but she remained in Ohio for the year.
Freshmen were ineligible for varsity action in 1922, but a year later, with Cora Mae now living with him, he became an instant starter at tackle in the days of leather helmets dropkicks and single platoon football. Following a scrimmage, a newspaper report raved about him:
“Trice, the big Negro tackle, was in every play. Indications are that opposing coaches will have a serious problem closing the holes the big fellow is sure to open.”
After opening the 1923 season with a 14-6 win over Simpson College, Iowa State had to face mighty Minnesota the following Saturday. After its Friday afternoon practice in Minneapolis, the team assembled in a hotel dining room for dinner.
Reserve halfback Bob Fisher, a classmate of Trice’s, came in late and noticed something odd. He asked, “Where’s Jack?” His teammates told him the awful truth. Against their complaints, the hotel barred Trice from the dining room because he was black. Fisher, from rural, all-white northwest Iowa, was shocked, and the incident stuck with him the rest of his life.
Trice was alone in his Curtis Hotel room. His emotions were running high. To capture his thoughts, he took a piece of hotel stationery and wrote himself a note, folded it and tucked it in his suit coat pocket.
On a beautiful October afternoon, Minnesota took an early lead only to see the Cyclones tie the contest 7-7 at half. In the second half, Trice wreaked havoc in the Gophers’ backfield, making tackles and disrupting plays. Then everything changed.
Trice again broke through the Minnesota line only to find blockers ahead of the ball carrier. Using a dangerous roll block, the big Ohioan tried to take out the blockers so teammates could make the tackle. When the play ended, Trice remained down on the field. His stomach burned. Taken to a hospital as Minnesota escaped with a 20-17 win, Trice was allowed to return to Ames with his team and was admitted to the ISU hospital.
Trice’s conditioned worsened on Monday. His teenage wife, who went for a quick bite of lunch, was summoned back to his bedside. “Hello darling,” Cora Mae said entering the room. Trice weakly looked at her, yet said nothing. When the campus bell tower rang three times at 3 p.m., she realized Jack was dead. He was only 21.
At a campus memorial service the next day, a note was read to the 4,000 mourners. It had been found in Trice’s coat pocket.
“To Whom It May Concern. My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family & 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 thru 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. Jack”
Jack Trice had dedicated his play against the Gophers to other African Americans, his family and himself. He knew if he played well, doors would open for other blacks in football and elsewhere.
Trice died of internal injuries. It’s unknown whether he was targeted because he was the best Iowa State player, because he was black or whether it was only an accident.
Life went on and Iowa State forgot about Trice. An article about him appeared in the 1950s and a groundswell of support 20 years later led to naming the field at ISU’s new stadium in his honor: Cyclone Stadium-Jack Trice Field. A Trice statue, now at the stadium, was erected on campus. It took another 20 years before Trice was fully and rightfully honored by the new name, Jack Trice Stadium.
(Steve Jones is the author of the children’s book, “Football’s Fallen Hero—The Jack Trice Story,” published by Perfection Learning Corp., Logan, Iowa.)
Steve Jones also writes about Iowa State athletics for Examiner.com. CLICK HERE to take a look at Steve’s bio.