Jack Trice: Death and mystery on the gridiron

- The Fox 9 Investigators reveal the circumstances surrounding the death of Jack Trice, who died after a Gopher vs. Iowa State Football game in 1923

In the afterglow of Super Bowl LI, it is worth reflecting on a Minnesota football game nearly a century ago, when the stakes were higher and the game more brutal. 

For Jack Trice, an Iowa State tackle, it was not only one of his first games, it would also be his last. 

Trice died from injuries sustained in that game against the Minnesota Gophers on Oct. 6, 1923. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery and controversy to this day.

“I truly think he was targeted because he (Trice) was African American,” said Breion Creer, a defensive lineman for the Cyclones, who grew up in Minnesota, but never heard the name Jack Trice until he went to play at Iowa State University. The Cyclone’s stadium in Ames, Iowa was named after Trice 20 years ago. 

“That's one of the mysteries to the story,” said Steve Jones, author of a biography on Trice. “What really happened to Jack Trice?”

THE LIFE & TIMES OF JACK TRICE

Born in Ohio, the grandson of slaves, Trice was recruited to play for Iowa State in 1923 by his old high school football coach. He was one of 22 black students at Iowa State that year, and because of discriminatory housing restrictions, he was forced to live off campus with his wife.  

Standing 6’2" and weighing 200 pounds, Trice was considered a formidable football player for his time.

Trice got a job as a janitor, and as legend has it, would even clean the cleats of his white teammates.

“He was very conscious of his place,” said Tom Kroeschell, a long time member of the Iowa State Athletics Department. “What did he think? We really don’t know.”

College football in the 1920’s was, for the most part, a white man’s game. 

Kroeschell said many other schools - like Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma - would forfeit a game rather than play against a black man.

Having heard there was a black man on Iowa State’s team that year, the University of Missouri’s Athletic Director, Chester Brewer, wrote to warn Iowa State they would forfeit an upcoming game that season.

“The whole question is bigger than our athletics,” Brewer wrote.  “We cannot permit a colored man on any team we play.”

THE GAME:  MINNESOTA VS. IOWA STATE

Iowa State’s second game that season would be against the University of Minnesota, and the Cyclones would be the underdog.

“The Gophers in the 1920s were an extremely formidable program with great tradition and huge crowds,” said Kroeschell. “He’s never played on that kind of stage.”

When the team arrived at the old Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis, Jack was informed he could not room or dine with his white teammates. 

That night, all alone in his room, Trice wrote a note on hotel stationary that would cement his legend.

Addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” Trice wrote of the game the next day:

“The honor of my race, family and self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow.”

“It's almost like he had some sense of foreboding that he might not be around at the end of the game,” said John Rosengren, a sports writer who has called Trice a "Martyr of the Gridiron."

There was simmering racial tension in Minnesota in 1923, which saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The weekend of the game, the Klan was holding a state-wide convention in St. Paul. A Klan leader ran for Minneapolis mayor that year. The Klan even had a float in the University of Minnesota Homecoming Parade.

“That’s what makes it a big deal. He knows the racial issues are at play that day,” Rosengren said. 

THE PLAY

The next day, Jack Trice would be the only black man on the old Northrop Field, which once sat across from the Armory. 

According to historical accounts, on the second play of the game, Trice broke his collar bone, but refused to leave the game. 

Late in the third quarter, Trice threw his body horizontally in front of the tackle, what was known as a roll block, just like he foreshadowed in his hotel note the night before. 

Trice landed on his back, and according to some accounts, was trampled.

“The story is he threw this block, and three University of Minnesota players stomped on him,” said Bob Patrin, a former archivist with the University of Minnesota, whose grandfather saw the game, which Minnesota won 20-17. 

“He said he didn’t want to see anymore Gopher Football because of what they did to Jack,” Patrin said.

According to a University of Minnesota alumni newsletter later that month, Trice was carried off the field to chants of “We’re Sorry, Ames!”

Trice was taken either to University Hospital or Minneapolis General; the historical record is unclear, and was released a few hours later. Trice joined the rest of his team on the train back to Ames that night. 

By the next day, Trice was in excruciating pain and bleeding internally, but surgery, and the risk of infection that it carried in that day, was considered too risky.

Two days after the game, the bells of the Campanile on campus would ring at 3 p.m. Trice was dead at 21.

Asked by Fox 9 Investigator Tom Lyden if he thinks Jack Trice was murdered, Rosengren said, “I don’t know if he was targeted because he was an exceptional football player, or for his race. But, I do think the Minnesota players went after him harder than they went after anyone.”

At Trice’s funeral, held on campus, Iowa State’s President read the note Jack had written at the Curtis Hotel, which had been discovered in Trice’s pocket. 

University of Minnesota President Lotus Coffman wrote a condolence letter. Coffman wrote that the fatal play had taken place right in front of him.

“There was no piling up,” Coffman wrote reassuringly. 

As Rosengren points out, it was a comforting narrative, but it may not have been true.

“Most certainly Coffman had a stake in that,” Rosengren said.

It’s also true that the uniforms and leather helmets offered players little protection. Fatal injuries in college football during that era were not uncommon.

There was never an official inquiry into the death of Trice.

A STADIUM AND A NAME

The story of Jack Trice would fade from memory, only to be rediscovered by professors and students in the 1950s and again during the civil rights movement in the 1970s. 

Generations of students and professors maintained a 24-year campaign to rename Cyclone stadium.  Until finally, in 1997, the stadium was officially renamed Jack Trice Stadium.  It remains the only major college stadium named after an African American, a fact not lost on Trice’s descendants.

“It’s not normal to have a stadium named after a player - a black player - and especially one who played only one game,” said George Trice, a cousin three times removed from Trice, who also attended Iowa State.

Patrin, whose grandfather saw the game, believes something, even a plaque, should commemorate Trice’s sacrifice on the University of Minnesota campus. 

But, Patrin is doubtful.

“I just can’t get them to wake up to the fact that he’s a national hero," he said. 

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT JACK TRICE?

The story of Jack Trice has captured the imagination of many amateur historians and even a few Hollywood producers who are attempting to turn his story into a feature-length movie.

For those interested in additional information, the Special Collections and University Archives at Iowa State University is an outstanding reference with most of the primary documents, including the letter Trice wrote at the Curtis Hotel the night before the game.

John Rosengren’s article for SB Nation, “A Football Martyr,” is a provocative primer on Trice.  Another excellent introduction, especially for children and teens, is Steven Jones' biography of Trice, “Football’s Fallen Hero.”

The most academically rigorous research was conducted by the late Dorothy Schwieder, whose 2010 recounting of the story is exhaustively thorough and well sourced

Perhaps the most enthusiastic Trice historian is Joshua Kagavi, who has an extensive and impressive website dedicated to Trice’s legacy, which he updates regularly.  Kagavi  also owns Trice’s football jersey and the only known photograph of Trice playing football for Iowa State, during his first game, an exhibition, against Simpson College.

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