As the rah-rah of the first month to another college football season ends, true football fans have already enjoyed many myth-making athletic plays by skilled players. Many of these plays will be immortalized on the various high-tech small and large screens we use every day.
But tucked away in the halls of college football history is the story of Jack Trice -- the first black athlete at Iowa State University (formerly College) and the only African-American athlete with a stadium named after him in Division 1 college football.
Although he was a college athlete, it was not his on-the-field exploits that endure, but rather it was a letter Trice penned that continues to resonate as far as any tweet or Facebook post today.
It was almost 100 years ago when Trice, a Hiram, Ohio, kid, followed his high school coach and several of his prep school classmates to Ames, Iowa, to play for Iowa State on the gridiron.
“As a community of students, alumni, faculty and staff, Iowa State chose to name their football stadium after a guy who’d played in only one major collegiate game. He didn’t rush for 7,000 yards. He didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, die in a world war or donate millions of dollars to the school,” John Arends, a playwright who wrote a screenplay about Trice, told HLN in an interview.
“Jack’s story is tragic,” Arends said. “It’s also extraordinarily triumphant.”
Trice’s triumphant moment ended shortly after it began: on a football field in Minnesota.
In 1923, the Minnesota Gophers were one of the better teams in college football. They would go on to compile a 5-1-1 record. But in the first game of the season, they’d face a middling Iowa State squad with a first-year player named Jack Trice.
On the eve of the big game, Trice was psyched about making his major college debut.
In a letter he penned at the Curtis Hotel the night before the contest, Trice called it the “first real college game of my life.”
To give you a sense of the enormous pride and anticipation Trice had about his opportunity to play in the game, he wrote in a letter that Iowa State has posted on its Facebook page: “The honor of my race, family and self are at stake.”
Football, often criticized today for its violence, was pretty much legalized mob fighting back then. The most popular play was the “Flying Wedge,” in which players would assemble in a nearly impenetrable triangle-formation with a ball carrier behind them. The Wedge would just mow players down, breaking bones and hearts on a slow trek to the end zone.
To add to the brutality, player uniforms didn’t have the padding that they have now. As a result, players often left games with crippling injuries.
Trice held no illusions about the harm he was about to subject his body to, as evidenced by this haunting sentence that seemed to hint at a foreboding knowledge:
“My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow,” he said in the letter.
Via Ken Scott/ HLN
“In that note, we see the ultimate underdog bowing his back and squaring his shoulders, steeling himself for the timeless battle,” Arends says. "'The honor of my race, family and self are at stake…' And we see both the expectations of his community, as well as his determination to persevere and excel."
What happened the next day on the field wasn’t far off from Trice’s premonition.
“During the second play of the game, he broke his collarbone,” a tribute article on the Iowa State website says. “He insisted he was all right and returned to the game. In the third quarter, University of Minnesota players forced Trice to the ground and crushed him,” the article says.
Again he left the field, this time headed to a hospital.
Two days later, he died from internal bleeding attributed to injuries suffered during the football game.
The long journey to recognition
A movement to recognize Trice quietly gained strength over the years before reaching the echelons of influential Cyclone faithful and Big Ten bosses.
In 1973, the football field where the Cyclones play in Ames was christened Jack Trice Field. Then, in 1997, Cyclone Stadium was renamed Jack Trice Stadium.
Jamie Pollard, Iowa State Athletics Director, told HLN that Trice’s legacy has carried on for nearly a century for several reasons. “First, the naming of the stadium after him has created a platform for multiple generations to be reminded of his story, which keeps his legacy front and center.”
“Secondly, the fact he was the first African-American football player in the history of Iowa State University, who also died as a result of an injury in his very first Iowa State football game, is such a unique story,” Pollard said.
Steadily but surely, treasures associated with Trice continue to be found, adding another piece to the puzzle of one of college football’s more intriguing players.
As a Jack Trice sleuth, Josh Kagavi runs a small keepsake business in South California. Kagavi has found Trice's long-lost jersey number (37) from 1923, the only original existing game photo of Trice and the only full "Jack Trice" autograph in existence.
“None of this had ever been seen in public before,” he said. “The tale of Jack Trice was one of our first projects and I've been researching his tale nonstop for nearly four years now,” Kagavi told HLN.
But the tale doesn’t end there. The story of Jack Trice is now gaining the attention of Hollywood. Arends said that he is in the process of shopping his script around to movie studios with hopes of getting a film made.
A Trice documentary produced by B&G Productions and Cyclones.tv was recently nominated for a Northwest Emmy.
In a day and age when tweets and Facebook posts continue to circulate days, months and years after they were written, Trice's letter stands as a testament to the will of a man determined.
"Yes, at first glance it reads as a simple pep talk," Arends said. "But in that note, in his own words and in between the lines themselves, we can discern the entire history of the struggle that continues for African-Americans in this country. It’s all right there. He was aware that he was a young man standing alone, against overwhelming odds, to defend his humanity, his right to be there, to be considered and respected as an equal."