Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ozzie Simmons

Ozzie "the Ebony Eel" Simmons was the Iowa Hawkeye running back who was the central figure in the Iowa, Minnesota football game that spawned Floyd of Rosedale.

For those not in the know, Floyd of Rosedale is a statue of a pig that is rewarded to the winner of the annual Iowa vs. Minnesota football game. What seems today as a corny trophy, in a friendly rivalry between adjacent states, actually speaks to a much deeper conflict.

Ozzie Simmons grew up in Texas where he was a high school football star. College sports opportunities were limited for a black athletes in the 1930's so Ozzie and his brother hopped a train for Iowa City where they heard they may have a shot at the University of Iowa.

In 1934, Simmon's sophomore season, he made second team All American. The back garnered his nickname with his effective and elusive running style.

Not that 1934 was without it's setbacks. When Simmons and his Hawkeyes faced the Minnesota Gophers he was treated to attack of violence that went far beyond the boundaries of fair play. He was knocked out of the game three times by injuries suffered on cheap shots and late hits. None of these flagrant acts were penalized, infuriating not only the Iowas partisans, but proponents of fair play everywhere.

When the teams met the next year in Iowa City none of this was forgotten. The Governor of Iowa, Clyde Herring, told the fans that if Minnesota tried any of the tactics they employed the year before that they should take matters into their own hands. This only threw gasoline on what was already a tense situation. Minnesota threatened to break off athletic relations, accusations of thuggery abounded.

Compounding the tension was the fact that in 1922 Iowa State had a black player, Jack Trice, literally trampled to death by Gophers in a game in Minneapolis. Although the Gophers denied intentionally trying to maim Trice, the brutal act left a bitter taste.

As tempers mounted Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson offered a wager that was designed to lighten the darkening mood. Olson bet a prize Minnesota hog verses a prize Iowa hog. Herring accepted and the gesture seemed to work.

Minnesota prevailed without targeting Simmons. Fair play appeared to rule the day and Herring made good on the wager by presenting Olson a pig from Iowa's Rosedale farm. Herring named the pig Floyd after Olson and a ritual began.

Simmons went on to be regarded as one of the Hawkeyes all time backs. Simmons played briefly with black leagues since at that time the NFL decided they no longer needed african-american players. He had a long career in Chicago as a physical education instructor. The Eel died in 2001.

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