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Jack Trice’s life and football career were tragically cut short

The first African-American to play varsity at Iowa State died from injuries suffered in a 1923 game

Sophomore lineman Jack Trice was the only African-American on the field when his Iowa State Cyclones faced the University of Minnesota on Oct. 6, 1923 in Minneapolis. In those days, most African-Americans were limited to black colleges in the South if they wanted to play football.

The 21-year-old Trice, in his first season playing varsity, was so aware of the moment that he wrote a letter on hotel stationery the night before his second game about “the honor of my race, family and self” being at stake.

Trice helped underdog Iowa State to a 7-7 tie at halftime. He was injured early in the first half but continued to play. He later learned that he had broken his collarbone.

Football in the 1920s was a brutal game, an era before face masks. Blocks and tackles that are illegal now were routine. The violence of the game took its toll midway through the third quarter at Northrop Field.

Trice, playing defensive lineman with his team trailing 14-7, ran toward a Minnesota ball carrier and threw himself in front of a rush of blockers. Trice ended up on his back instead of his stomach and was trampled by the Gophers players. The play, which was later banned, was a roll block, which trips up the rusher.

According to reports, Trice was helped off the field and Minnesota fans chanted, “We’re sorry, Ames.” He was taken to a local hospital.

Iowa State lost 20–17, but the score was insignificant to many of Trice’s teammates. His injury weighed heavily.

“The fullback, going through the hole, stepped on Jack’s stomach and maybe his groin,” Trice’s teammate Johnny Behm told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 1979 interview. “He was badly hurt, but tried to get up and wanted to stay in. We saw he couldn’t stand and helped him off the field.”

Hours after Trice was admitted to the hospital, doctors decided that he could travel back to Ames on the train with his teammates. Trice died two days later from internal bleeding.

An anxious or introspective Trice wrote to no one in particular the night before the game:

“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.”

John G. Trice was born in 1902 in Hiram, Ohio, a small town 41 miles southeast of Cleveland. His mother sent him to live with relatives in Cleveland, where he attended East Technical High School. Behm, also one of Trice’s high school teammates, told The Plain Dealer that no better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. Behm said Trice had speed, strength and smarts.

Iowa State hired Trice’s high school coach Sam Willaman in 1922. Willaman brought several players, including Trice and Behm, with him to campus in Ames. Trice played on the school’s freshman football team because freshmen were not permitted to play varsity ball.

Trice majored in animal husbandry. He was the first African-American to play a varsity sport (he also competed on the track team) at Iowa State. Thirty-two years earlier, inventor George Washington Carver had become the first African-American student at the school.

In the summer before Trice’s sophomore year, he eloped with Cora Mae Starland. He was 20. She was 15. The couple lied about her age and listed 19 on their marriage certificate.

When Trice returned to Ames on the train with his teammates the day after the game, he was immediately admitted to the student hospital. His condition worsened. His wife was summoned.

“When I saw him I said, ‘Hello Darling.’ He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o’clock. That was Oct. 8, 1923, and he was gone,” wrote Cora Mae in a 1988 letter to Iowa State.

Classes were suspended two days later for a memorial service. Thousands of students and faculty gathered at the center of campus. His casket was carried by several of his teammates and placed out front in the ceremony. Speeches were made. The college president read the letter Trice wrote the night before his last game. His teammates collected money to help pay for funeral expenses and cover the cost to send his body back to Ohio.

A replica era-correct jersey close to the one the late Iowa State football defender Jack Trice would have worn, at his cousin George’s home on Oct. 27, 2017 in Laveen, Ariz. Jack represented number 37, but the jerseys didn’t have numbers at the time.

Caitlin O'Hara for The Undefeated

Trice’s mother, Anna, wrote a letter to the school president and expressed her gratitude to Iowa State and the support from the students. In the “Jack Trice Papers,” provided by Iowa State’s special collections department, she wrote in 1923: “If there is anything in the life of John Trice and his career that will be an inspiration to the colored students who come to Ames, he has not lived and died in vain. But Mr. President, while I am proud of his honors, he was all I had, and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”

Questions surfaced about whether the Minnesota players intentionally tried to hurt Trice because of his race. Reports at the time varied. Iowa State didn’t renew its contract to play Minnesota for 66 years; the teams finally faced each other again at Iowa State in 1989.

Trice’s teammates placed a plaque inscribed with the letter he wrote before the Minnesota game in the school gym. Years passed before interest in Trice resurfaced after a student discovered the plaque in the old gym in 1957 and wrote a story about Trice’s life that would inspire another generation of students.

In 1974, the student body government voted unanimously to recommend that the school name the new football stadium after Trice. Years later, students raised money to erect the statue of Trice outside the stadium in 1988.

All of this generated enough momentum to inspire a campaign that eventually led to Jack Trice Stadium in 1997 — it remains the only major college stadium named after an African-American.

George Trice has memorablila depicting his cousin and the stadium that was eventually named in his honor in 1997, decades after his death and student movements to honor Jack in the 1970s.

Caitlin O'Hara for The Undefeated

Martin Jischke, Iowa State’s president in 1997, told the media at the time that Trice had “brought an enthusiasm and a promise to the university. That is exemplary. I believe it is appropriate to recognize those qualities by naming the stadium for him.”

Thomas Hill, senior policy adviser to the school’s president, credits the students for keeping Trice’s spirit alive through their persistent efforts to name the stadium in his honor. 

“The students had the burning desire to do this,” said Hill, who began his stint at Iowa State in 1997. “Over 20 years is a long time for a student body to keep this alive. One administration would leave, and they’d tell the next administration to keep Jack Trice alive. Here you have a predominantly white institution that believed in what Jack Trice, a black man, represented. The students refused to accept no as an answer. They wore the school [administration] down.”

Rob Wiese was the president of the Iowa State Government of the Student Body in 1997.

“We worked for the stadium name because it was the right thing to do,” Wiese said. “Jack Trice represented what our school was all about. We learned he was a good student. He played hard as an athlete, and he paid the price by losing his life.”

An 8-year-old George Trice first heard about Jack, his first cousin twice removed, when Iowa State dedicated the statue in 1988.

George Trice wondered what all of the fuss was about. He remembers how his mother, grandfather and uncles raved about an airplane trip to celebrate a relative. But the chickenpox spoiled George’s first plane ride. He and his mother were left behind while the family participated in a ceremony that honored Jack Trice.

George Trice, a Cleveland native, sought another opportunity to visit Iowa State his senior year of high school when he applied for admission to the school.

George Trice, cousin of the late Iowa State football player Jack Trice, at his home on Oct. 27, 2017 in Laveen, Ariz. Jack, the first Black athlete at Iowa State, was killed during a game against Minnesota in 1923, and questions surrounding his death still remain. “I go back and forth,” George said. “Was he targeted because he was Black? Or was it just the position he was in on the field? Did they hit him harder because he was the only Black player? I don’t know.”

Caitlyn O'Hara for The Undefeated

George Trice’s last name sparked such an interest with Iowa State administrators that the school flew him out. He was given a tour of campus, which included a tour of the stadium, a visit to the statue and a trip to the basketball arena, where a camera projected him on the big screen.

“When I leave the arena, people walk up to me to say hello and are giving me a thumbs-up,” George Trice said. “I’m like, this is a cool feeling.”

The school offered George a full academic scholarship. But George Trice’s time at Iowa State was more of the life of a celebrity than an academic. His last name was a ticket to paradise that included nightclubs, bars and extended naps.

“My grades were horrible,” George Trice said.

“We treated him like a rock star,” Hill said. “He’d come on campus and people would cheer. He hadn’t done a thing. He just showed up and folks went absolutely crazy because they revered Jack Trice so much.”

It took George Trice seven years to graduate from Iowa State because of his early party life and constant change of majors. But he was happy to finally earn a degree that his distant relative missed out on because of his death.

“I wasn’t living up to his legacy,” said George Trice, now a commercial manager for Nationwide Insurance who earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing. He earned his master’s in business administration this year from Grand Canyon University.

“I disappointed some people along the way. I wasn’t doing anything to preserve the name. The reason why the stadium was named in his honor is because people found the value in what he stood for and what he did. Getting that degree with my mom in attendance was a proud moment for the Trice family.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.