The idealist: Jack Trice’s tragic college football legacy | College football


Upstairs in his room, Jack sat at a small desk. Unable to eat with his teammates because of the color of his skin, his mind turned to greater things. His was no stranger to prejudice; after all, no Black man was. But the divide between him and those around him seemed to be widening. Maybe not physically but certainly culturally.

Students would later recall Jack strolling through the south side of campus. He worked out in the gym. He attended convocation. He rubbed elbows with them. But he never stepped over “the invisible barrier.” He “lived alone and apart.” Like his high school yearbook, the college newspaper commented on his smile. Even the students on campus who didn’t know him personally still experienced his smile. But to many, that was as close as they could get to Jack. It was true: There was a barrier. But it wasn’t invisible. It was black. Jack worked for the greater good, to lift up those around him. He was an idealist.

With a weighted mind, he picked up a leaf of Curtis Hotel stationery that night. He put pen to paper, dated it 5 October 1923, and began to write:

To whom it may concern:

My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. 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. 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. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good.

Jack folded up the note and put in his coat pocket. It was there soon before his funeral where the letter would be discovered and reverberate forward for decades to come.

The next morning, excitement filled the air. Hundreds of fans had made the drive from Iowa to Minneapolis to catch the game. The rest stayed behind in Ames and filled the State Gymnasium. For the price of a quarter, they could follow the game on a Grid-Graph. A miniature football field showed the players’ positions, who had the ball, and the type of play. Announcements were made as updates came over the telegraph from Minnesota. All the players’ names lined the side of the board. When a person made a play, his name would light up. Along the top of the board ran the quarter and yardage information. Cora, Jack’s young bride, was among those in attendance at the gym, eagerly waiting to hear how Jack and his high school friends from East Tech did in their new adventure.

Iowa State’s stadium now bears Jack Trice’s name
Iowa State’s stadium now bears Jack Trice’s name. Photograph: David Purdy/Getty Images

More than 12,000 fans awaited the two teams’ appearance on Northrup Field. It was a crisp and clear day, and the student stands filled up well before the game. University of Minnesota cheerleaders riled up the crowd, leading them in Gophers chants (it was the first year women were allowed on the cheer squad).

Minnesota, hats off to thee,

To thy colors true we shall ever be.

Firm and strong, united are we.

Rah, rah, rah, for Ski-U-Ma!

Iowa State’s Coach Sam Willaman , who had brought Jack and five of his high school teammates with him from Cleveland to Iowa, waited with his team for the signal to run onto the field. With the crowd roaring behind him, he turned to the team. He reminded them of the challenge ahead. This was a big game against a larger and more experienced team. But he knew they were going to give all they had. It was their determination that would be their edge. His eyes moved toward Jack’s. “Boys,” he said, “I know of two men on this team I know will fight.” He let everyone know Jack Trice was one of them.

At 2pm, the Cyclones ran onto the field and began warming up. The Iowa State fans on the south end of the field threw their hands and voices high into the air above them. The cheerleaders bellowed in megaphones:

A-m-e-s Rah! Rah!

A-m-e-s Rah! Rah!

Hoo-Rah! Roo-Ray!

State College-Ioway!

Then they pointed above the crowd for the Sky Rocket yell:

Z-z-z-z-z-z-z Boom!!! Ah!


Seconds later, the Locomotive chant rumbled through the Cyclones’ corner:

A-m-e-s Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

A-m-e-s Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

A-m-e-s Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!

Ames! Ames! Ames!

At 2.17 pm the Minnesota Gophers materialized on the sideline. The maroon mass emerged onto the field, breaking up into smaller groups. One squad practiced kicking and punting, and another worked on passing. Team captain and All-American Earl Martineau showed up with his broken right hand wrapped for protection. He wasn’t expected to play that day. Showing he could still kick the ball, he pleaded to Minnesota’s Coach Spaulding over the din of the crowd to let him play. The Minnesota coach just shook his head and directed him to the bench. They were going to play without him.

Finally, at 2.30 pm the starters lined up. Gold on one side, maroon on the other. And green clover beneath their feet. Jack looked across the field. With only leather helmets for protection, you could see every part of your opponent’s face, and they yours. Minnesota had won the coin toss and elected to kick the ball. Norty Behm, one of Jack’s high school friends, received the opening kickoff and returned it for 15 yards. Iowa gained another three yards on a short run. A quick pass to Norty was stuffed as Minnesota tackled him for a seven-yard loss. The Minnesota team was holding the Cyclones players close and keeping the game physical. The next play led to another loss of yardage. Iowa fumbled the snap for a punt and the Gophers broke through the line. With the Cyclones staggering backward, Minnesota recovered the fumble on Ames’s four-yard line. Two plays later, the home team scored the first touchdown of the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the Cyclones to the benches for discussion.

Jack walked back to the sideline holding his left shoulder. He had felt something crack or pop near his collarbone. Perhaps it was broken. Another possibility was that he had separated the small joint where the collarbone meets the top of the shoulder blade – a common football injury called an AC separation, and maybe a little easier to play through. According to the rules of the day, if Jack went out then, he couldn’t return until the second half. So he didn’t say anything; he just held his shoulder.

The first half ended with the game tied 7–7. During halftime, Willaman asked Jack if he was all right. Jack reassured him he was. Spaulding, meanwhile, was beginning to panic. The second quarter had shown Minnesota’s weakness against the passing game. The game looked like it could go either way. He went over to Martineau. He was going into the game. His hand was bandaged, so he couldn’t pass, but he could run. Spaulding wanted him in as halfback.

The second half started with Iowa State kicking the ball. When the crowd saw Martineau take the field, their dampened spirits livened back up. His presence on the field seemed to inspire everyone, his own teammates included. This was going to be the year they won the Big Ten championship, and they weren’t going to let the farmers from Iowa stand in their way.

Ames was able to hold Minnesota’s offense and relied on passes to the Behm brothers for their own offense. But with Ames deep into their own territory, Minnesota’s right tackle Louis Gross swatted a pass down and it deflected into the hands of one of his own players, who ran the intercepted pass back for a touchdown. The Gophers regained the lead 14–7.

Johnny received the kick again and returned it for nearly 20 yards. Norty received a pass but was tackled for a loss. The next play, Johnny ran to get open. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jack running forward to help make room for him. As usual, Jack had been able to make holes for him by overpowering his man. But this time, instead of locking up, Jack just dropped. It looked like the other guy had tackled him to the ground. Johnny grabbed the pass as it whizzed by and ran for 25 yards before being downed by Martineau. He got up and started to walk back to his team, when he spotted a small crowd across the field. Several Minnesota players were getting up, but someone was still lying on the ground. It was Jack.

Sometimes Jack did a “roll block,” where he took a few opposing players down with him, but this looked different. Jack was on his back, his body exposed. It was a straight power play, Johnny thought to himself. Clearly the opposing end had been tired of being beaten and taken Jack out of the play the only way he could – illegally. The fullback must have stepped on him once he was down. Louis Gross, who lined up opposite Jack, recalled three or more players ran over Jack, but to him, it looked like an accident. At first no one thought Jack was seriously hurt. Later accounts would reverse the original flow of the play and have Jack on defense running from the other side of the field to help stop the play. In both scenarios, his abdomen was trampled by several Minnesota players. The call went across the telegraph: Trice was down.


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