Commentary

ISU only I-A school to honor African-American in stadium name

Updated: February 15, 2008, 7:52 PM ET
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

When Euseph Messiah arrived at Iowa State, he barely noticed a weather-beaten statue outside of his team's home stadium, much less cared whom the facility was named after.

Jack Trice's figure can be found outside the stadium that bears his name, despite a fleeting college career that lasted only two games for the Cyclones.

That might not seem like much. But for those who have learned about Trice's tragic story of sacrifice, it remains one of the most compelling in the history of college football.

[+] EnlargeJack Trice
Iowa State athletics Iowa State officially named its stadium for Jack Trice in 1997.

In an age when most stadiums are named after a megabuck donor or a corporate sponsor, the Cyclones' home facility honors Trice, who died from injuries on Oct. 8, 1923, two days after he was trampled in a football game against Minnesota.

"I look at that statue a lot differently now," said Messiah, a junior wide receiver. "After hearing his story, you think about all that he went through. Now, he's a motivating factor for me every time I walk in the stadium because he represents so much."

Trice was the first black athlete in the school's history. He is also the only Cyclone to die from an injury sustained during athletic competition for the school.

"It's a story about someone who gave everything for his race, his family and himself and died in the process," author Steve Jones said. "For that, we consider him a hero on this campus."

Trice was born as a second-generation free man in 1902. His father, Green Trice, joined the Union Army and became a buffalo soldier to escape the South, finally settling in Hiram, Ohio, after the Civil War. The elder Trice was so excited about receiving an educational opportunity that he started the first grade at the age of 26.

After moving to live with relatives in Cleveland as a teenager, Jack Trice attended East Technical High School. It was there where he started his football career and forged a friendship with his coach, Sam Willaman.

That association led Trice's former coach to summon him to ISU along with six other teammates after Willaman was hired as the Cyclones' coach.

It was an era before athletic scholarships were offered. In order to pay for some of his school expenses, Trice worked on a construction crew before leaving for college.

On one of those hot, sticky days on the road crew, he met Cora Mae Starland. Trice was smitten, but had to leave for college a few days later. After his freshman year at ISU, he returned to Ohio to marry her. Trice was 20. Starland was 15.

There were only about 20 black students on the ISU campus when they arrived. Unable to secure any housing, they turned to the local Masonic group, which arranged for them to board in a room at their local temple.

Trice majored in animal husbandry with hopes of someday teaching modern farming to Southern black farmers. His wife was studying home economics.

Trice first found athletic success at ISU in track. As a freshman, he won the Missouri Valley Conference's meet in the shot put and discus. Even bigger things were expected out of the 215-pound tackle once his sophomore season began -- his first as a varsity football member of the Cyclones.

[+] EnlargeJack Trice statue
Iowa State athletics Iowa State students raised money to erect a statue of Jack Trice outside the stadium that bears his name.

He excelled in the classroom as well. Trice had a 90 average and had already passed 45 hours after only one year of college.

The ISU of Trice's era was one of the more enlightened universities of its age. George Washington Carver had served as a faculty member before moving to Tuskegee Institute.

But Trice's place on the ISU football team wasn't universally approved. Some opposing teams refused to play the Cyclones because of his presence, several newspaper accounts have said. And on his only road trip for the Minnesota game, Trice stayed apart from his teammates in a different hotel in Minneapolis because officials at the team hotel refused to allow him to eat in the dining room with the rest of his team.

While there on the night before the game, Trice wrote a letter to himself. It was found in his jacket pocket, shortly before his funeral.

"My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family and self are at stake," Trice wrote. "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. … Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack."

Trice complained of a sore shoulder from an injury he sustained on the second play of the game, but remained in the game. Just before the end of the third quarter, he made a headlong dive attempting to stop a blocking wedge on an off-tackle smash. He landed on his back and was then trampled by several Minnesota players.

"The fullback, going through the hole, stepped on Jack's stomach and maybe his groin," ISU 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."

But others have always alleged that Trice was targeted because of his skin color.

"We don't know if it was an accident, or if he it was because he was his team's best player or if he was hurt because he was an African-American," said Jones, who wrote the book "Football's Fallen Hero: The Jack Trice Story" in 2000. "That's kind of the mystique about him.

"Everybody who was on the field on that day is gone today and whether it's intentional or not, I don't know. I guess it's really perspective. I've talked to two people who had seen the play. One person told me that nothing out of the ordinary happened. But another who saw it said it was murder."

[+] EnlargeJack Trice's Words
Tom EmmersonJack Trice wrote that "the honor of my race, family and self are at stake" in his final letter.

According to newspaper accounts, the Minnesota crowd chanted, "We're sorry Ames, we're sorry," when Trice failed to re-enter the contest, which Minnesota won 20-17.

Doctors determined after the game that Trice had sustained a broken collarbone early in the game, but was healthy enough to return home with his teammates. He was placed in a Pullman coach, resting on a straw mattress.

But soon after the Cyclones departed, Trice started having trouble breathing. When he was treated back in Ames the next day, his condition had worsened. A doctor summoned from Des Moines determined that surgery was too risky. Trice died the next day of hemorrhaged lungs and internal bleeding throughout his abdomen.

Iowa State canceled classes two days later for a memorial service. More than 4,000 students and faculty members turned out for the ceremony. Trice's casket was draped in cardinal and gold -- the school's colors -- before he was buried.

Cora left for Ohio soon afterward. She remarried several years later and never returned to Ames.

"She would often talk about him, how she was still in love with him when it happened and how devastated she was," said Betty Armstrong, Cora's oldest living child from her second marriage. "But she didn't want any part of the history by going back there."

The story faded over the years and was destined to be forgotten until ISU student Tom Emmerson was rummaging through the school's old gymnasium in 1957.

While there, Emmerson discovered a faded plaque covered with grime and bird droppings tucked behind the spiral staircase at the facility.

"I saw that and got interested in who Jack Trice was," said Emmerson, who eventually became chairman of ISU's journalism department. "I had never heard of him. I talked to some people in the athletic department office and then I went to the library and wrote a piece about him."

That story helped spark renewed interest in Trice. In 1974, ISU's student body government voted unanimously to recommend that the school name the new football stadium after him. Several years later, students raised money to erect the statue of him outside the stadium.

School officials originally named the facility "Cyclone Stadium." But due to the persistence of ISU students, staff and other supporters, the facility was named Jack Trice Stadium in 1997. It is the only Division I-A football stadium named for an African-American.

"I do wonder sometimes how the stadium might have ended up as something like the Domino's Pizza Stadium rather than honoring him," Emmerson said. "But I give all credit to the students. They were the ones who made this happen and they never let go."

Today, few of Trice's relatives are still alive.

Armstrong was the first black librarian hired by the city of Youngstown, Ohio, in 1953. But she realizes that her own personal struggles in her career were minor compared to those faced by Trice and her mother during their short marriage.

"I've gone through a lot of heartbreaks myself," said Armstrong, who turned 80 last year. "But I can only imaging how my mother and Jack went through things back in those days. It had to be horrible for them."

Trice has been the subject of a play and there have been talks about a movie about his life. But the most fitting memorial comes when the Cyclones play in a stadium named in his honor.

"We have come a long way and we wouldn't have been able to do it without the sacrifices of people like Martin Luther King and Jack Trice," Messiah said. "So many people went through so much to provide for what we can do today. And the fact that he did it here at Iowa State makes it even more significant for us."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at espntimgriff@yahoo.com