Commentary: The world should know Iowa State’s Jack Trice, the only Black man with his name on a major-college stadium
Trice died after playing his second game for the Cyclones in 1923.
Absorb these words from Iowa State starting defensive back Greg Eisworth.
“It’s an amazing honor to know that every time I step on that field, not only am I representing Iowa State and everything we stand for, but I’m representing someone who was courageous enough to fight for change — someone who has helped shape college athletics into what it is today, and given minorities the opportunity to do what they love.”
The man he’s talking about is Jack Trice, whose name is attached to Iowa State’s football stadium. For Eisworth, who is scheduled to play his final collegiate games there this fall, it’s significant to play in the nation’s only FBS football stadium named for a Black man.
Race awareness has been at the forefront of American discussion following the death of George Floyd last month while in the custody of Minneapolis police. And that discussion goes beyond racial injustice. It’s also about opening eyes to Black perspectives and history — such as Friday’s observance of Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in America.
Part of that under-told and under-reported history includes the story of Jack Trice.
“Being a part of naming Jack Trice Stadium represents one of the most important experiences of my entire career,” said Gene Smith, Iowa State’s athletics director in 1997 when the stadium was named for Trice, who was just 21 when he died.
“His story and the symbolic nature of the naming still conjures up emotions for me. Having an African-American name on such an iconic stadium of a Power Five conference university as prestigious as Iowa State University is significant. In times like this, it is even more meaningful.”
The first Black athlete at Iowa State, Trice died on Oct. 8, 1923, just two days after the second varsity college football game of his life. Minnesota players trampled Trice, and reports say he broke his collarbone in the third quarter and later died of hemorrhaged lungs and internal bleeding. Racist motives were suggested. According to a passage in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, “the KKK was at the stadium, and there had been a float sponsored by the Klan in the homecoming parade.”
Almost 75 years later, Trice’s name was affixed to the stadium. Iowa State would not play Minnesota again for 66 years after the game that ended Trice’s life.
‘Rudy didn’t do a damn thing compared to Jack Trice’
Smith, now the athletics director at Ohio State, isn’t alone in wanting more people to know Trice’s story. ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew did additional research before the Cy-Hawk game last September between the Cyclones and rival Iowa Hawkeyes. They knew some of what happened at Minnesota. But the whole story?
“If I wasn’t as closely associated with college football as I am, I don’t think I would have known about it, which is really sad,” GameDay analyst Desmond Howard said this week. “Other college football programs should talk about that story. All football players should know about that story. It’s a significant story in college football, period, whether it’s today or tomorrow. It’s one of the most significant — maybe the most significant.”
Howard, a Black man who played at Michigan, mentioned the movie “Rudy,” which is about former Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger, a white man, and the struggles he endured to finally play one game.
“We like to hype up Rudy, and Rudy didn’t do a damn thing compared to Jack Trice, but we make movies about Rudy,” Howard said. “That’s how wrong it is.
“I could go to any Power Five school in the country, and I’d say a majority of the Black football players — they may know all the intricacies of the Rudy story. But if I said Jack Trice, they’d look at me like I had two heads. They’d wonder who that was, and that’s wrong. It’s very wrong.
“For Iowa State to name a football stadium after an African-American — and keeping that name — says something for Iowa State.”
Doing the right thing
Iowa State remains the only major-college football stadium named for a Black man.
“The fact that more stadiums fail to bestow a similar honor is a missed opportunity,” said Reginald Stewart, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Iowa State and president of the Big 12 Conference’s association of diversity officers in higher education. “Until someone else steps up to recognize the legacy of the Black athlete or coach, we will proudly continue to claim our position as the only D-1 (FBS) football stadium honored for an African-American.”
Jack Trice is not just a name on a stadium at Iowa State; it’s more than that. There’s a Trice statue in the middle of campus. Trice is expected to be part of the new entrance to the stadium that bears his name.
“The pride comes in the fact that this university, in a state that is majority white and on a campus that is mostly white, still has not sought to change the name of the stadium,” said Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of the Iowa State Alumni Association. “The pride is that Iowa State did the right thing (in 1997) at a time when this was not seen as something that you would do.”
That’s important in this age of trading millions of dollars for stadium naming rights. Even when MidAmerican Energy agreed to donate $1.5 million a year to have its brand attached to the stadium, Jack Trice’s name was staying. It wasn’t even brought up.
“There was never any discussion about removing the Jack Trice name from the stadium,” MidAmerican CEO Adam Wright said. “It only enhanced our desire to be affiliated with both ISU and Jack Trice Stadium.”
That’s nationally significant, too.
“Having the facility named after Jack Trice ensures that despite the cruelty that ended his life, his valiant quest to overcome adversity will not be forgotten,” said Betty Andrews, the NAACP’s area president for Iowa and Nebraska.
His story continues to resonate in Ames.
“It means a lot to me,” Cyclones safety Lawrence White said. “I get to play in a stadium named after a person who was a pioneer. We get to honor his name and everything he stood for in the best way we can.”
Iowa State’s Stewart put it this way:
“One of the most salient lessons to come from recent conversations on the violence facing Black community members is the importance of saying each victim’s name and recognizing them as a human worthy of dignity, love, respect, admiration, forgiveness and redemption. Saying someone’s name, and pronouncing it correctly, is a sign of deep and profound respect.”
At Iowa State, respect is pronounced Jack Trice.
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