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Worst Moments in Big Ten Football History #10: The Death of Jack Trice, 1923

Jun 18, 2008 – 3:20 PM
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Mark Hasty

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FanHouse is counting down the ten best, ten worst, and ten weirdest moments in Big Ten football history.

ABOVE: Iowa State University's Jack Trice Stadium is the only Football Bowl Subdivision stadium named after an African-American.

It might have been an unfortunate accident of the sort which happened in the early days of football, before the players took the field in modern-day suits of armor.

It might have been an ugly, racially motivated attack which went further than its perpetrators intended.

It might have been a murder.

After 85 years, it's almost impossible to say just what happened on October 6, 1923, in Minneapolis. What is beyond dispute is that Jack Trice, the first African-American athlete at Iowa State, was trampled by at least three Minnesota players while executing a roll block. Though he did not appear seriously injured at the time, Trice suffered severe internal injuries and died two days later.

At the time, Trice's teammates and friends didn't think the trampling was intentional. Minnesota fans weren't so sure. They began chanting "We're sorry, Ames!" shortly after the play. (In the Midwest, it's common to refer to universities by their locations instead of their names.) When you look at what life was like for an African-American college athlete in the 1920s, you can't help but be a little suspicious.

Trice was welcomed at Iowa State, where he enrolled to follow hishigh school coach, but he and the rest of the school's African-American students couldn't find housing in Ames until a local Masonic lodge took them in. Trice didn't play football his freshman year, focusing instead on his studies and his performance in track and field. His big break came in the opening game of the 1923 season against the highly-regarded Golden Gophers.

Trice couldn't even stay with his teammates on that road trip; the team hotel was segregated. But really, the Cyclones were lucky the Gophers would even play them. Several other teams refused to play Iowa State because the team was integrated.

Trice hurt his shoulder on the second play of the game but refused to come out. He also insisted he was fine after the trampling incident, but since he couldn't even stand, he was taken out of the game and directly to the hospital. (I suppose, given all the other difficulties Trice faced, he was fortunate to find a hospital that would examine him.)

On the trip back to Ames, Trice began fading.

Was it murder? Was it a racially motivated attack gone too far? Was it just a severe misfortune? So much time has passed it's impossible to tell. A 2007 article in the Iowa State Daily is ambiguous on the topic. The university's alumni association at least implies that Trice's injuries were deliberately inflicted. Steven L. Jones, who has written a book on Trice, says the answer is unknowable.

Because it's unknowable, I couldn't put this moment at #1 on my list, where any deliberate, racially motivated murder would belong. But I can't leave it off, either, even though the real story here is more about Jack Trice and Iowa State than it is about the Big Ten. There comes a time after every tragic death, whether it's an accident or not, when you must forget how the lost person died and remember more how he or she lived. Jack Trice knew he was blazing a trail, and he was unafraid. If ever someone deserved to have a stadium named after him, it's Jack Trice.
Filed under: Sports
Tagged: wmibth