IOWA CITY, Iowa - Alex Karras had played 58 of a possible 60 minutes.
Exhausted, he sat in Iowa’s celebratory locker room with tears in his eyes while clutching a handful of roses. The Hawkeyes had just defeated Ohio State, 6-0, earning the first Rose Bowl berth in program history.
A man, and not just any man, walked up and put his arms around Karras. “You are a wonderful football player,” Duke Slater told Karras.
Iowa’s 1956 triumph over the Buckeyes remains one of Iowa’s greatest victories. It also united two men, who played more than three decades apart, in a hug of history. Two men who were among the greatest to play in an Iowa uniform.
Slater and Karras had a reunion of sorts last weekend in Canton, Ohio. Both were enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, members of the Class of 2020. COVID-19 delayed that enshrinement for a year.
Slater, a star tackle at Iowa and the first African-American to play in the National Football League, had a 10-season professional career. He played on both sides of the ball, for the Milwaukee Badgers, Rock Island Independents (where Jim Thorpe was one of his teammates) and Chicago Cardinals. Karras, also a tackle, played 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions. Slater passed away in 1966. Karras died in 2012.
Slater’s name has been front and center in Iowa this summer. In late July, the Board of Regents approved naming the field at Kinnick Stadium Duke Slater Field. It will make its debut Sept. 4 when the Hawkeyes host Indiana in the season opener.
If someone said the renaming was a long time coming, I wouldn’t argue with that. But if someone said it was a politically-correct reaction to racial issues inside the program that surfaced more than a year ago, I would disagree.
Because that doesn’t give a great man like Fred “Duke” Slater the full dose of recognition he deserves.
Slater came to the state of Iowa as a boy of 13 when his father, George, became the pastor at a church in Clinton. Slater led the River Kings to a pair of mythical state titles. Players on the high school team had to buy their own shoes and helmets. The Slater family - Duke was the oldest of six - didn’t have the money to buy both. Slater decided the shoes were the most important, and he played without a helmet.
He showed up at the University of Iowa in 1918, at a time when the student body was invited to try out for the team. According to a 1929 story by George Kirksey of the United Press, published in papers across the country, Slater approached Iowa Coach Howard Jones.
“The Negro came up to Jones and told him he wanted a tackle job,” Kirksey wrote. “What’s your name?’ queried Jones. “Duke Slater,’ replied the youngster. Jones looked him over, got him in a football suit and put him on the first team. For four years Slater held down the job, being taken out only when injured.”
Slater, who got the nickname Duke from the family dog, lettered four years for the Hawkeyes. He was able to play in 1918 because freshmen were eligible because of World War I. He went on to become a three-time all-Big Ten selection and was an all-American after his sophomore and senior seasons. Iowa was 23-6-1 with Slater in black and gold.
Slater, 6-1 and 215 pounds, was often double- and triple-teamed.
“More commonly known as “Duke,’ Slater was always a menace to the opposition and ordinarily found two men instructed to stop him,” said The 1921 Hawkeye, the University of Iowa’s yearbook.
Despite the extra attention, teams still struggled to contain him. In the third game of the 1921 season, a 14-2 victory over Illinois, Coach Robert Zuppke was not happy with his team’s ability to stop Slater.
“All efforts were made by the Illini mentor to stop the “Duke’ Slater hole-making and the (Gordon) Locke rushes, but all in vain,” the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported. “Fresh men were no better than the others and it was a very much chagrined and disappointed coach that left the field.”
That Illinois victory was part of Iowa’s 7-0 season under Coach Howard Jones in 1921, when Slater was a senior. The biggest victory was a 10-7 triumph over Notre Dame on Oct. 8, 1921, in Iowa City. It snapped a 20-game winning streak for the Irish. Coach Knute Rockne lost just 12 games at Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930. This was one of them. Notre Dame’s captain was Eddie Anderson, who would return to Iowa as head coach for two tours of duty (1939-1942; 1946-1949). Anderson coached Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick and the famed Ironmen to a 6-1-1 record in his first season.
The play everyone remembers lives in a photo. It shows a helmetless Slater blocking three Notre Dame players, including all-American Hunk Anderson, as Gordon Locke scored a touchdown in what would be a 10-7 final.
That play now lives in the form of a bronze relief on the north side of Kinnick Stadium. And next month, the Slater name will move inside to the field of play.
When there was a campaign to rename Iowa Stadium in honor of Kinnick, who lost his life as a pilot during World War II, there were some racial overtones.
President Willard “Sandy” Boyd suggested the stadium be renamed Kinnick-Slater Stadium. “Both of these individuals contributed greatly to the university, not simply as football players, but as human beings who exemplified throughout their lives what a university should be,” Boyd told reporters.
On June 16, 1972, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to change the name from Iowa Stadium to Kinnick Stadium. They also approved a move to rename Rienow II dormitory Slater Hall to honor Slater. Blacks were not allowed to live in university dormitories when Slater attended school.
And the color of Slater’s skin seemed to be a big story when he played for the Hawkeyes. His race always found its way into newspaper stories and headlines.
The 1929 story by United Press about Slater called him “a tall, husky negro.” The headline to that story in the Springfield Press of Springfield, Mo., read, “Duke Slater, Negro Tackle, Still At It After 16 Years in Gridiron.” And the headline in the Brooklyn Citizen read, “Duke Slater, Colored Lad, Starts His Sixteenth Season on Gridiron.”
So race always chased after Slater, much like he chased opposition ball carriers. His football talents made him a trailblazer, and he handled that with class and dignity. He is a man that the University of Iowa should be proud to honor again.
This is a man who started work on his law degree at Iowa while he played in the NFL for the Rock Island Independents. He was working as an attorney in Chicago when he became the second African-American man in that city to be elected judge on the Cook County Municipal Court. He later moved up to the Superior Court.
Slater also found the time to follow his alma mater, traditionally returning to Iowa City for homecoming games and attending some road games as well.
When the College Football Hall of Fame was kicked off in 1951, Slater was in the inaugural class and the first African American so honored. When the Kinnick Stadium Wall of Honor was established before the 2013 season, Slater was one of nine former players honored. His name and number, 15, are on the face of the Brechler Press Box.
And on September 4th, 100 years after Slater completed his college career, Hawkeye fans will watch their favorite team in action on Slater Field.