Jack Trice is a legendary figure in the world of Iowa State University sports. As Iowa State College’s first black football player in 1923, Trice suffered fatal injuries in his first major college football game against Minnesota. In 1997, Iowa State named their football stadium after Jack Trice. It remains the only stadium named after a black person. For years, I was told Jack Trice’s jersey number was lost to history, yet I always wondered how much research had truly been done. Many people know that baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson’s number was 42, so it’s fair to surmise Jack Trice’s number would hold the same significance in the Iowa State community. (The picture above is linked to ISU’s Special Collections Flickr page, where more images of Jack Trice can be found.)
Fully expecting to fail, I plunged into the annals of history. After all, Jack Trice died nearly 90 years ago–surely someone would’ve written down his jersey number by this point if it was so easy to find. Before I started my quixotic quest, I needed to understand the world of college football during that era. After examining the history of college football, starting in 1916, the NCAA standardized jersey numbers on the back of uniforms. It was not until 1937 that front numbers were required. Additionally, until the 1920s, numbers were generally between 0 – 25 before later expanding.
With a window of eight years from 1916 to Jack Trice’s first year on the varsity squad, it was probable that the 1923 Iowa State (also known as Ames) team had numbered jerseys. While there are no 1923 jerseys or programs readily available, I searched the archives of many newspapers from 1923. All of them referred to Trice as a skilled tackle, but none referred to a jersey number.
With no 1923 sources readily available, I started investigating previous years. A 1920 picture of the Ames – Iowa game had a distant image of the players. Only one player had part of their back facing the camera and what appears to be a number is faintly visible. Additionally, a 1920 homecoming program of the same game shows “CURRIE – Left Half Back” in a crouching position. The number 6 is visible on his back. Surprisingly enough, “ALSIN – Right Guard” also has a number 4 visible on his chest. This is the first front number I have found in my research of this era. The team picture doesn’t show any numbered fronts, so this may have been a practice jersey or worn backwards. Additionally, this could be an off-center A.
It seemed pretty clear the 1923 team had jersey numbers. Even if there were no clear sources, I could perhaps nibble around the edges by finding out the jersey numbers of other players on the 1923 team by using 1922 and 1924 information. The 1922 edition of the Iowa State yearbook listed a freshman football roster of 20 players with 19 present for the picture. Further sleuthing revealed a 1924 homecoming football program between Ames and Missouri, which had a beautifully numbered roster of the Iowa State team. The numbers go from 1 through 63.
Knowing current collegiate rules restricted freshmen from playing on varsity, there were at least 13 missing numbers from the varsity roster (numbers 18, 19, 24, 27, 29, 32, and 53-59). Further review of the freshman roster from 1924 appears to reveal a roster of 14 players in the picture. This roughly corresponds with the missing numbers.
Presumably any available numbers from graduating seniors in 1923 would be available to the 1924 freshman team. Also, it makes sense Jack Trice’s number would be available in 1924 to the freshman team. Using the freshman roster from 1922, and cross-referencing with the 1924 numerical roster, no player has a number higher than 44. If these two assumptions hold true, we have narrowed down the possibilities of Jack Trice’s number down to just six different numbers: 18, 19, 24, 27, 29, and 32. (Unfortunately, numbers weren’t tied to positions yet, so the 1924 roster of tackles reveals these four numbers: 7, 51, 4, and 25. No rhyme or reason. That doesn’t help.)
To be continued . . .