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How Black Trailblazers Have Shaped the History of Iowa Football for the Better

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In celebration of black history month, it seems only fitting to shine a light on the stories of some of Iowa football’s African American pioneers and honor the lasting impact of their achievements.

Emlen (Em) Tunnell of the New York Giants is from Iowa, 30 y Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Over the past year, the Iowa football program has undergone a complicated examination of its relationships to many of its African American student athletes. Thanks to the efforts of former black players like James Daniels and Faith Ekakitie as well as the leadership of several African American players currently on the roster, the program has gone through a period of honest introspection about how it treats its black athletes and has experienced cultural changes that will hopefully make the team a healthier and more inclusive environment for years to come.

The black student athletes who spearheaded these important conversations and positive changes are only the latest in a long line of trailblazing African American leaders to come through the Iowa football program. Throughout the program’s history, these players have left indelible legacies on not only the University of Iowa, but on the game of football itself. In celebration of black history month, it seems only fitting to shine a light on the stories of some of these African American pioneers and honor the lasting impact of their achievements.

Any story of African American success in the Iowa football program must start with Frank “Kinney” Holbrook. The son of a former slave who escaped captivity to fight alongside the Union Army in the Civil War, Holbrook became the first black player to join the Iowa football program in 1895. A star halfback for Iowa’s 1896 team, Holbrook scored a team-high 12 touchdowns on the season and established himself as the best defender on a stingy Hawkeye defense that allowed only twelve points that season. Holbrook overcame vile, racist threats and taunts from opposing fans in a key Hawkeye victory against Missouri and helped Iowa clinch its first ever conference championship outright with a thirty yard touchdown run against Nebraska that reportedly saw the talented running back break six tackles on his way to the end zone.

Holbrook’s success at Iowa blazed the trail for Archie Alexander to follow in his footsteps several years later. Nicknamed “Alexander the Great,” Archie became the second African American player to suit up for the Hawkeyes and was a standout at tackle from 1909-1911. Alexander’s accomplishments extended far beyond the field of play, however. The first African American to graduate from the University of Iowa’s engineering program, Alexander found great success in the professional ranks of his chosen field, eventually starting his own firm which was described by one press source as “the nation’s most successful interracial business.” Alexander was a lifelong advocate for African Americans, serving as president of the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP and the Negro Community Center Board. Alexander was also a successful player in national Republican politics and was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to serve as Governor of the Virgin Islands in 1954.

Alexander’s career served as blueprint for another African American lineman who followed in his footsteps a few years later. Fred “Duke” Slater became one of the greatest linemen in Hawkeye football history during his storied career (1918-1921), earning Consensus All-American honors as a senior while leading the Hawkeyes to an undefeated national championship season under coach Howard Jones. Slater, who was named to several All-Century teams and was the first African American inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in the inaugural 1951 class. He was referred to by Notre Dame legend Elmer Layden as “the greatest tackle I ever saw,” while Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dick Hackenberg wrote that “what Jackie Robinson was to baseball, at a much earlier date Duke Slater was to collegiate football.” Slater also found immense success after leaving Iowa, becoming the NFL’s first black lineman, making seven All-Pro teams over the course of his ten-year professional career, and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Slater also broke new ground as a lawyer and jurist, becoming just the second African American judge in Chicago history and the first black judge to serve on the Cook County Superior Court.

Slater was one of many prominent black Hawkeye football stars who helped break down the stigma associated with black players in major college football. All-American running back Ozzie Simmons regularly overcame vitriol from opposing fans and players en route to becoming one of the most dynamic rushers in the sport from 1934-36, while star quarterback Wilburn Hollis became one of the most prominent black QBs in the nation when he took over as the starter for the #1 ranked Hawkeyes in 1960. Cal Jones, a two-time consensus All-American at guard who was named captain of the 1955 Iowa squad, became the first black player to win the Outland Trophy and the first African American featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jones, who refused to sign with an NFL team due to the league’s common practice of paying black players less than their white teammates, died tragically in a plane crash at the young age of 23 and joined fellow legend Nile Kinnick as the only player in program history to have his number retired.

In the years that followed, several other black Hawkeye players have gone on to accomplish famous firsts both on and off the field of play. Emlen Tunnell not only went on to become the first black player to suit up for the New York Giants and to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after establishing himself as one of the greatest defensive backs of all time, but was also awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal for making two heroic rescues of fellow sailors during his decorated career with the Coast Guard during WWII. Frank Gilliam, a former high school and college teammate of Cal Jones who was a standout in his own right, returned to his alma mater at the conclusion of his professional playing career to become the first African American assistant football coach in the history of the Big Ten before eventually moving on to become one of the first black scouts in the NFL and the league’s first African American Director of Player Personnel. Finally, Dennis Green, one of the leaders of the 1969 boycott of black players over the perceived mistreatment of students of color at the University of Iowa, similarly helped break down barriers for African Americans throughout his distinguished coaching career, becoming only the second black head coach in NCAA D1-A history and the third in NFL history.

Iowa football’s legacy has been permanently shaped by the courage and excellence of many black sports pioneers. With former African American stars continuing to commit their time, resources, and energy to supporting black student athletes at the University of Iowa and working to help instill a culture that allows players from all racial backgrounds to thrive, this legacy seems likely to continue for years to come. The Iowa football program, which prides itself on molding young men into leaders, must continue to empower the next generation of African American leaders who will inspire change both on and off the football field.