AMES, Iowa – Long Before the first snap is ever taken and well beyond the last game of every season, the name of one player reigns high above. Biographer Steve Jones knows the name and the story of the man behind it well.
“The Jack Trice story is one about a hero,” Jones said.
Jack Trice was 21 years old in 1923 and the first African American football player in Iowa State history. Trice broke the color barrier 24 years before Jackie Robinson did the same in professional baseball.
“You got to put it context with the times,” said Jones, “It was 1923 and racism was rampant. Jack Trice could not have played football just anywhere. But, his high school coach became the head coach at Iowa state and brought some players along including Jack Trice. Freshman didn’t compete in their first year, but in his second year he immediately established himself as a star in the line.”
The story of Trice has been a source of inspiration for may players who have tried to follow in his footsteps, like Carlos Blount who played for the Cyclones shortly after the stadium was officially renamed to honor the football hero in 1997 thanks to a major push by the student body.
“When we got a chance to choose our numbers, I wanted to emulate those footsteps and take it to the next level,” said Blount, “So, I chose number 37 because Jack Trice wore number 37. Animal husbandry was his degree and AG business was my degree so there was a lot of correlation there.”
Trice’s legacy centers around the second game of his college career, a contest that took the Cyclones north against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Away from the friendly confides of Ames, Trice was confronted with the reality of how unique his position on the team was 24 hours before kickoff.
“Best as we can tell, Jack Trice was staying at a different hotel than his team,” said Jones. “At about dinner time they had a team meal at the hotel, one of the players came in late, looked around, notices something isn’t right and said, “Where’s Jack?” Well, he learned the hotel would not allow Jack in the dining room.”
“He wasn’t a part of the team even though he was the man on the team; he couldn’t be a part of that,” Blount said. “Today, that’s a big part of any athlete’s preparation is being a part of that brotherhood. Jack Trice couldn’t be a part of that, yet, he had to go out and execute and perform.”
The game itself proved as difficult as the Cyclones had prepared for, tied 7-7 at halftime with Trice playing on the defensive line. Some accounts documented after the game claimed he was repeatedly targeted by opposing players.
“And then, one play in the third quarter changed everything for Iowa State. The ball went one way, Jack Trice came in there, as best as we can tell, he tried to do a roll block and that was a dangerous play and wasn’t even taught at that time. A roll block is you go in there and roll yourself into the blockers, blockers go down and other teammates tackle the ball carrier. What we think happened is Jack tried the roll block but instead of ending up on his stomach, he ends up on his back with his torso exposed; there’s a big pile up and everybody gets up and they look around and Jack’s still down,” Jones said.
“His response to that was to get up and go back for his team. They had to take him out of the game, make him stop playing. It wasn’t about him, it was about the team,” Blount said.
Trice was sent to an area hospital where he was treated and released. Two days later, on October 8th, he died from injuries received in the game.
Prior to his funeral on the Iowa State campus, a note was discovered inside Trice’s suit coat written on hotel stationary the night before the game.
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 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 cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack.
“When I first read the note and the times we read it before the game, pre-game and practice – it spoke a lot to his integrity. Again, I go back to this was not about a football game for him, this was about a legacy that he knew he was starting out on,” Blount said.
“And that note is forever been one of the most enduring pieces of Iowa State history,” Jones added.
Encapsulated in time just outside the gates of the stadium named in his honor — the legacy of Jack Trice lives on in the form of a statue of Trice holding the note.
“Here we have the only major college football stadium in America named after an African American and I think that’s significant. Once again, I don’t think we can over emphasize that here was a man who dedicated himself in a time when he was not welcome to play at every university in America and then died in the process. So, I think it’s very, very fitting this stadium bears his name,” Jones said.
“Jack Trice, his vision was paramount and surpassed anyone’s vision today, let alone back in that time. He was not thinking of the football game. He was thinking about all the opportunities that laid ahead of him. He knew that what he was doing, as he said he was a pioneer in his field, and what he was trying to accomplish — he wasn’t doing it for himself,” Blount said.
The debate over whether or not Trice was targeted in the Minnesota game specifically because he was African American may never be settled, but there is no doubt of the impact his short football career has made on the lives of many who followed his lead.