No one at the University of Iowa knew Ozzie Simmons was coming. One day in 1933, he just showed up.
“His arrival caught coaches by surprise,” Letitia Stein of the Chicago Tribune wrote in Simmons’s 2001 obituary, “but they told Mr. Simmons to suit up after seeing him practice.”
He played running back for the Hawkeyes from 1934-1936. At first, the era’s sportswriters couldn’t bother to figure out how to correctly spell his name. Sometimes it was Ozzie. Other times, Oze. The spelling was, wrote Hawkeye historians Dick Lamb and Bert McGrane in their 1964 book on the history of Iowa football, left to “the whim of the writer describing [Simmons].”
Simmons, an African-American man from Texas, just wanted to play football and earn a degree. He did both. But that first season – 1934 – he unwittingly and horribly became the pivotal figure in the football rivalry between Iowa and Minnesota, which meet again this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
On its way to a national championship, Minnesota demolished the Hawkeyes in 1934 in Iowa City. It was Iowa’s homecoming. The Gophers rushed for 595 yards – then a single-game college record.
But winning wasn’t enough that day for the Gophers. In Simmons’s skin color, they saw a bulls-eye. They hit him after plays. On one punt return, they deliberately drove a knee into him.
Simmons said after the game he did not think Minnesota had played dirty, but as Simmons told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jay Weiner in 1988, he had made it a point to not complain about his treatment.
Simmons told Weiner that opposing players would say, “Let’s get that n—-r over there. Come on n—-r, you’re not going to run today. I didn’t say anything, because I learned the best way to do it is just play your game and don’t say anything.”
Simmons stayed quiet, but the University of Iowa community was furious at the Minnesota football team, and by dumb luck a scheduling glitch led the Gophers back to Iowa City again in 1935. Tensions ran high. Many feared for the safety of the Minnesota players as Iowa fans looked to avenge what took place against Simmons in 1934.
Hoping to avoid a violent incident, Iowa governor Clyde Herring distracted the masses by making a public bet again Minnesota governor Floyd B. Olson. Minnesota beat the Hawkeyes, 13-6, so Herring shipped Olson his trophy – a live hog that Olson then forwarded along to the Minnesota football team. However, according to Lamb and McGrane, before sending along the hog to the team, Olson commissioned a St. Paul, Minnesota, sculptor make a bronze likeness of the hog. Floyd of Rosedale was born.
It was first awarded following the 1936 Iowa-Minnesota game, during Simmons’s last season with the Hawkeyes. He was so dismayed following Iowa’s 52-0 loss to the Gophers that he nearly quit the team. Simmons finished his career with more than 1,500 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns, and eight runs of at least 50 yards.
“He was one of the two or three greatest back I’ve ever coached and the best halfback I’ve ever seen,” Iowa coach Ossie Solem told Lamb and McGrane. Solem coached college football for almost 40 years.
Simmons spent nearly four decades teaching physical education for the Chicago Public Schools. According to Stein, Simmons was buried in a black sport coat. Stitched in gold on the coat were the words “Hall of Fame,” which memorialized his 1989 induction into the National Iowa Varsity Club Hall of Fame. Simmons was a charter member.
* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.