Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2004 editions of The Kansas City Star
He sees himself in the man's face. The same confident jaw and youthful smile. But the eyes, his eyes, that's what draws George Trice in, sends him back almost a century.
Many students on the Iowa State campus walk past the statue of former football player Jack Trice, the namesake of their stadium 20 yards away, and feel nothing. Don't even turn to look. Then there's George, a relative of Jack's who grew up in the man's shadow all his life.
George is a junior at ISU now. He couldn't even touch the statue when he first arrived. To him, it felt like staring into his own grave.
"It's like a ghost, " he says. "People say, `You look just like it.' "
Jack Trice was the first black football player in Iowa State history - one of the first on the Great Plains. This was long before the civil-rights movement, before Emmett Till, and Medgar Evers, and the Lorraine Motel. Jack's legend has become a distant beacon, his story growing fainter every year, even here in the heartland.
"Everybody holds him to such a high standard because he was on the path to be great, " George Trice says. "It was a big challenge for me coming here. I caved under that pressure."
He sits by his cousin's statue. College has been hard for George - six years and counting. But he won't quit; he believes that his family needs someone to complete the journey that was stolen from Jack Trice. George knows his mother wants this so badly; he hears it all the time.
"I was letting him know how important it would be for a Trice to graduate from that college, " says Wanda Trice-Elbert, "for a Trice to succeed where Jack tried but didn't."
George looks over at the monolithic field rising to his left, trying, like many in this college town, to understand a story from a different time, to bring form to history, air into the lungs of forgotten injustices. All but a handful of the characters are dead. But their actions over six heartbreaking days in 1923 live, in a weathered file in the Iowa State archives, in faded newspapers, in the hearts of the Trice family.
"Why is my cousin's name on the stadium?" George Trice says. "It was 80 years ago. He was killed because he was black."
Thursday, October 4, 1923
The gunmetal Midwestern sky creaked. The hard breaths of a killing frost moved across parts of Iowa, a silent alarm that winter was coming early. The weather folks figured it to be the coldest October in 13 years.
In Ames, Iowa State College head football coach Sam Willaman ran his team through a final practice. They'd be playing a powerful Minnesota squad in two days, and he had reason to be concerned.
So did Jack Trice, his sophomore lineman from the small town of Hiram, Ohio.
As one of the few black football players in the nation, and one of about 20 black students on the entire campus, Trice knew race was always an issue. He understood his symbolic importance.
Two times his freshman season, opponents had refused to play him. Everyone had heard the latest rumors: Minnesota "asked" Willaman to leave Trice at home. Some even whispered about warnings.
Trice was definitely worried. He wrote a letter to his mother, telling her that he feared the Minnesota game. He never mailed it.
At a pep rally, Willaman addressed the student body, then loaded his boys onto the bus. Twelve miles east lay Nevada, Iowa, and the train station.
As the team crossed the wide boulevards toward downtown, Trice made an unusual request: Would the bus stop at his apartment, so he could speak one last time to his new bride, Cora Mae Trice? They'd eloped to Michigan, and their love was still so fresh.
The men came to a halt at the corner of Fifth and Douglas in downtown Ames, a square brick building where the Trices lived on the third floor. Jack bounded up the stairs, giving his wife a hug and a kiss. He dwarfed her, and his impatient teammates and coaches couldn't pull him away.
"Come on, Jack, " one of the coaches called, according to a Trice biography written by Steven Jones. "We have to go."
He stayed a few minutes longer, lost in her eyes. An uneasy feeling settled over Cora Mae. Something was amiss. She tried to read Jack's face, to root out whatever was troubling him.
At last, Jack let go. He promised he'd come back to her as soon as he could.
Jack Trice was born a second-generation free man. All four of his grandparents had been slaves, and his father had joined the Army to escape the South, finally settling in Ohio.
As a boy, Jack would ask questions about the scar on his daddy's hand, left over from an arrow wound. He took courage from the story: Indians had surrounded his father's unit, setting fire to the wagons. Green Trice managed to escape.
Education fascinated the elder Trice. After the service, he began first grade at age 26. His tiny classmates used his wide arms as a swing set. He found work for a man named Wallace Ford, and years later, he would purchase the farm where he had labored and quietly saved money. The Trice family was going places.
Jack, called Johnny by his friends, grew up comfortably in insular Hiram. The neighborhood children, all white, included him in their parties. Gaylord Bates, a boyhood friend, wrote in a 1956 letter: "He was as full of fun and practical jokes as anyone else. He could not be accused of any more devilry, and certainly no less, than the rest of us engaged in."
Anna Trice worried about her son. She made him work hard. His friends became accustomed to her voice booming out into the afternoon, signaling a premature end to Jack's play.
She knew the world could be cruel, and also that Jack was naive. He liked to believe the best about people. She had seen the worst.
What she needed was a way to toughen him up, and she settled on Cleveland. Anna would send Jack to live with relatives in the city, hoping to give him a dose of real life.
So after eighth grade, Jack Trice packed his things.
He wasn't sure exactly where he was headed, but he dreamed large.
"I think I understand his personality, " says Jones, his biographer. "He was idealistic. He was an overachiever. He was intelligent. Articulate. He always wanted to do big things for people."
Friday, October 5, 1923
The team gathered for dinner at the Curtis Hotel, a 12-story high-rise in downtown Minneapolis. The place didn't allow blacks in its main dining room.
As the Iowa State team ate, several players noticed that Jack was missing. They argued with management, to no avail. Jack sat alone in his room trying to process everything. He took out a piece of stationery, crowned with a sketching of the hotel's towers.
First, he wrote the date, then began, in tall, cursive letters with bold descenders and ascenders.
"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!"
He stopped and underlined the word "will" for emphasis. Yes, he was sure that great feats awaited. He put the pen back to the paper.
"My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped I will" - again, underlined - "be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays, I must break through the opponents' line and stop the play in their territory.
"Fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good."
He signed his name to the letter and tucked it inside his sport coat.
In his head, it was already game time.
Jack Trice became a man in Cleveland. He found glory on the football field, becoming part of the East Technical High School powerhouse. They dominated, with Trice on the line and the fleet Johnny and Norton Behm in the backfield.
School didn't come easy to him, but he worked hard at it. His domineering mother, though 30 miles away, stayed in his head. After graduation, he swallowed his dreams and took his diploma to a construction crew.
Under the summer sun, he worked on the roads outside his little Ohio town, the same roads he once imagined escaping on, riding over the horizon to something better. Now, he watched the cars zoom by, bound for somewhere.
Then Sam Willaman, his old high school coach, found him. Willaman had been offered the job at Iowa State College, and he wanted Jack to come with him. It was a shot to keep playing football, to get that education, to get out of town. In just a generation, a Trice had gone from starting first grade at age 26 to packing for college at 20.
Jack struggled with his admission tests but passed. He chose animal husbandry as a major, planning on going south after college to help sharecroppers.
That first year, he studied, played freshman football and finished first in the Missouri Valley Conference freshman meet in shot put and second in discus. He had a 90 grade-point average, and the freshmen had even beaten the varsity. Fans looked forward to 1923.
On campus, Jack found himself. He worked in the State Gym and a downtown office building as a custodian.
The former got him access to the swimming pool and, at night, he and Cora Mae would go skinny-dipping, according to Betty Armstrong, Cora Mae's daughter from her second marriage, now well past 70.
Trice mostly kept to himself. Decades later, teammate Harry Schmidt would say, as if this were a good thing, "He didn't speak out much. He kept his place."
His place was in the starting lineup, even if some teams didn't want to play against him. He helped Iowa State coast to a tune-up win at home against Simpson, and he turned his attention to Minnesota.
That would be Jack Trice's chance to show them all.
Saturday, October 6, 1923
The team gathered around Willaman in the locker room. More than 10,000 fans waited outside.
"Boys, " he told his players, "I know of two men on this team that I know will fight."
The first was Jack Trice.
In the first half, Minnesota punished Iowa State, taking a 14-10 lead. Back in the locker room, Trice grimaced. He'd lived in the backfield, stopping most runs before they started, but at a cost. He had a broken collarbone, though he didn't know for sure.
"How are you, Jack?" Willaman asked.
"I'm OK, " he said, "but my shoulder hurts a little."
In the third quarter, Minnesota lined up in its trademark I formation. Trice saw the play going away from him, off tackle, and he tried a roll block, which is now too dangerous to be legal. He threw himself in front of the wedge, landing on his back.
Tired and injured, Trice couldn't roll over, and the entire Minnesota team ran over him, many piling on. Newspaper reports described a trampling, and on that lonely field, Jack began bleeding internally.
"If Jack had just been able to turn over, " said William Thompson, an Omaha doctor and former ISU assistant, in an interview recorded in 1974, "you see, turn over on his stomach."
There are several versions of the play. Many said Trice was stomped on viciously, even bitten. Others deny ill intent.
"Absolutely not, " said Schmidt, the teammate who would later become identified with the battle to keep Trice's name off Iowa State's stadium.
The Minnesota president wrote the Iowa State president a letter, saying there had been no piling on.
"Well, if I were prosecuting the case, " says Charles Sohn, a college professor who spent decades leading a fight to honor Trice, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure."
Whatever story you believe, one fact is indisputable. There was one black player on the field that day, and he was in trouble.
"He was badly hurt but tried to get up and wanted to stay in, " Johnny Behm told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer in 1979. "We saw he couldn't stand and helped him off the field."
The crowd, slowly understanding that something was horribly wrong, began chanting, "We're sorry, Ames."
Trice was rushed to a hospital a half block from Northrup Field. Doctors examined the tackle and decided he could travel. They loaded Trice onto a straw mattress in a Pullman car and sent him back to Ames, where he immediately was taken to the student health center, a block from the State Gym where he spent so much time.
At 4 p.m., on Sunday, his breathing slowed. He struggled through the night. As the sun rose, thunderstorms hit Iowa. A friend of Jack's told Cora Mae to hurry to the hospital. She found him fading and leaned over his face.
"Hello, darling, " she said, sweetly.
He looked up at her but couldn't speak. His lungs were hemorrhaging. His intestines were severely contused. Trice was dying a slow, painful death.
At 3 p.m., Cora Mae heard the bells on the campanile ring mournfully, one, two, three. Jack Trice couldn't fight anymore.
"That was Oct. 8, 1923, " she would write years later, "and he was gone."
Soon he was forgotten, too. His mother died. His friends moved on. Even his beloved Cora Mae remarried.
She never talked about her time with Jack, or showed off the necklace he gave her, so friends thought it strange when she became hysterical about her own son beginning football.
"She was very emotional about a lot of things, " says Betty Armstrong, the daughter, "and she didn't want my brother to play. She was so fearful that something would happen to him."
In the State Gym, a plaque honoring Jack, quoting his famous letter, gathered dust. Bird droppings covered it. No one bothered cleaning it. World War II came and went. The atomic bomb. Korea. And no one knew, not even a young Tom Emmerson, who'd grown up in Ames.
In 1957, a student at Iowa State, Emmerson spied something by the spiral staircase in the southwest corner. The words took his breath away: here, under their noses, was a story of sacrifice.
"I'd never heard of him, " he says. "No one had, actually. No modern student in the '50s would have recognized the name Jack Trice."
Forty years later, after decades of student protests and pleadings, after the school stubbornly refused since the 1970s to name their new football stadium after Trice, the struggle was rewarded.
The biggest structure on campus was christened Jack Trice Stadium in 1997.
"I think it's part of creating a climate that calls attention to the fact that we've come a long way as a university, " says then-president Martin Jischke. "And, more important, as a nation."
During the dedication, with the newly named behemoth reaching skyward behind him, Jischke read the famous letter, bringing some of Jack's teammates to their knees. Time hadn't killed the edge of those words.
He looked out at the crowd, which included friends from long ago and students, some of them now adults, who worked so hard to make this day a reality. Jischke quoted the poet Maya Angelou.
"A great soul never dies, " he said. "It brings us together again and again."
Tuesday, October 9, 1923
They canceled class. The story took up much of the front page. Nearly 3,000 people gathered around the Memorial Tower for the services. A gray casket, draped in a blanket of cardinal and gold, commanded their attention.
The players set up five-gallon milk cans around campus, and more than $2,000 was raised, enough to pay for the funeral, clear the mortgage Anna Trice had taken on her house for Jack's education and leave some for the family.
Anna took the Northwest Railroad through Cleveland, and she stared out at the crowd, sharing her loss with the school. One by one, teammates, coaches and teachers stood to tell stories about her boy. Professor Tolbert McRae sang "Abide with Me" and "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
President Raymond Pearson took out the letter found by the undertaker and read, as Jischke would do years later. Listening to his words, they never imagined Trice would be forgotten. An editorial in the Iowa State Student summed up the feelings of the campus:
"The crowing tribute must come from the minds and hearts of this college. ... Some tribute, some tangible thing, must be set up to the memory of Jack Trice. Then all who come into the influence of his memories, whatever it may be, will experience the steadfastness of purpose which was Jack's."
Anna Trice couldn't tell everyone how she felt. Only later, in a letter to Pearson, did she ask that her son become a beacon.
"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, " she wrote. "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."
When the memorial was over, Anna Trice collected the body of her only child and went back home.
As students struggled to honor Jack Trice, many of his relatives struggled a thousand miles away. Most still lived in the Cleveland neighborhood where Jack first played football.
It's as if Jack's death was a standing eight count, and the family hadn't yet returned to the fight. George tells of relatives in and out of jail, of young men and women never chasing a dream, spending their lives on a street corner.
"It's not just Jack, " George Trice says. "It's the legacy of the Trices."
He would be different.
Unable to pay for college, Wanda Trice-Elbert thought of her cousin and made a call. The school arranged for the George Washington Carver scholarship, named after the university's most famous grad. The chance to do right by a family done so wrong couldn't be ignored, and George was Ames-bound. Instead of an end, the story of Jack Trice had a new beginning.
Oh, George has had false starts - he's on the, ahem, seven-year plan; he has a young son named George Trice III - but he didn't quit. The school has used him in videos, even having him take tours to the statue.
"I can only begin to guess at the pressure he must have felt, " Jischke says, "being the representative of the family. Finally, one of the Trice family is getting a degree from Iowa State."
George thinks that his diploma, that small piece of paper he'll get next year, will erase it all. With his success, the family can leave their pain in the past, finally fighting low with their eyes toward the play.
"I'm the only one to accomplish anything, even though I have a son and I've been in this town for six years, " George says. "I'm back in school now. All my other family ... we're in the gutter."
With the summer sun heating the sidewalk outside the stadium, he steals a glance at the statue. When his mom comes to Ames, they stop by to remind themselves. When he thinks of leaving, all it takes is one look.
"I owe it to my family, " he says. "I can't come to a school where the stadium is named after my cousin, when this statue right here resembles me, and not graduate from here. No matter how long it takes. It's not a question. It's not an option. It's a must-do thing."
He knew it from his first trip to campus, the same year the stadium finally took his cousin's name. As the guest of school officials, with the winter of 1997 settling over the state, he found his seat in Hilton Coliseum for an Iowa State basketball game.
During a break in the action, the PA announcer introduced young George Trice, who smiled, looking just like the statue outside.
Ever think history is boring? Think it's about dusty books, forgotten sacrifices and faceless characters? Well, you should have been in the gym that night. You'd have seen history coming to life.
A roar began near the top of the coliseum, and 74 years after Jack Trice died, after students like these fought for years to honor his memory, applause rolled down the bleachers like thunder.
They stood on their toes, honoring a man who'd made good.