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Duke Slater, a name worth our remembering

Duke Slater, a name worth our remembering


I realize I'm late with this, but I just discovered Duke Slater.

Slater, who was born in 1898, was an African-American who lived his teen years in Clinton, attending school and playing football. In 1918 he went on to the University of Iowa where he is believed to have been the first African-American to play football for the Big 10 and is regarded as one of the best players ever of any color.

In 1922, he joined the Rock Island Independents (yes, our Rock Island) in what is now the National Football League, becoming the first African-American lineman in NFL history, according to a book by Iowa native Neal Rozendaal.

In his NFL off-seasons, Slater returned to the University of Iowa where he earned his law degree in 1928. He remained in Chicago after his retirement from 10 years in pro football and began a long career as a lawyer on the South Side. He also served as a judge for two decades. He died in 1966.

I knew none of this, though, last month as I toured Clinton's old Roosevelt School, originally Clinton High School, for a story about a plan to convert the building into apartments.

Sweat tickled down my back as we made our way to the school's tower that was boarded up, stuffy and pitch dark, save for the flashlight of the maintenance man.

Michael Kearney, a former Clinton alderman and historian extraordinaire who was part of the tour, pointed out that an interesting feature of the tower is the names of former high school students scratched into the bricks, including that of Duke Slater.

In my response to my question of "who was Duke Slater?" he gave me a quick primer, and then related an amazing story. At the time Slater was in high school, athletes had to pay for their own helmets and shoes, and his family was poor. Slater had to choose between shoes or a helmet, so he chose shoes.

He played his entire time at Clinton bare-headed! Not only that, he played most of his college career bare-headed, too. Times sports editor Don Doxsie explains that in those days, helmets were optional and Slater chose to play without one.

As I drove home from Clinton, I marveled that I had never heard of Slater and that his name isn't in our common lexicon of Quad-City or football greats.

Sports writers may know of him, and I'm proud to say that he is in the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Quad-City Times, the Quad-City Sports Commission and the Quad-City River Bandits, but the general public, like me, tend to forget.

Author Rozendaal, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., couldn't agree more, and is on a personal mission to get Slater the recognition he deserves, including admission into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Rozendaal, 35, makes his living as an economist for the government, but he is keenly interested in University of Iowa sports, and in Duke Slater in particular.

Rozendaal argues his case on his website,

For example, when the University of Iowa was considering renaming then-Iowa Stadium in 1972, the university president suggested "Kinnick-Slater Stadium."

Kinnick was a 1939 Heisman Trophy winner who died during a training flight while serving as a U.S. Navy aviator during World War II.

Ultimately the stadium was named only for Kinnick and Rozendaal writes that he thinks that has "elevated his (Kinnick's) fame among the Iowa fan base to almost unimaginable proportions, while Slater has faded into relative anonymity."

Rozendall thinks it's terrific that the university has put Slater's name on the Kinneck Stadium Wall of Honor, but he hopes for more.

"I truly believe, both on and off the field, that he (Slater) was the most influential Hawkeye athlete ever," Rozendall said in a telephone interview.

Not only did he play well at Iowa and in the NFL, but he helped bring other African-American players to Iowa. And not just in football but in wrestling, track and field and basketball, Rozendaal said.

And his play was exciting.

Consider, for example, a game in 1921, when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame came into Iowa with a 20-game winning streak.

"The Hawks jumped on the board early with 10 quick points and held on for a 10-7 upset," Rozendaal writes.

"One of the greatest photographs in the history of Iowa football is from that game, depicting a helmetless Slater clearing a hole for teammate Gordon Locke by blocking three Notre Dame defenders.

"That victory helped the Hawks on their way to their own 20-game winning streak, still the longest in school history," Rozendaal concludes.

Rozendaal believes that Slater's "life story is every bit as inspirational and compelling as the stories of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson."

Slater was a Hall of Fame finalist in 1970 and 1971, but he hasn’t been seriously considered since, Rozendaal said.

Because Slater played nearly 100 years ago, his name is in the "senior pool" of possible candidates, with only one or two names selected annually. 

But Rozendaal said he "has full faith that it's going to happen."

"I can't say whether it'll be five, 10 or 20 years, but I firmly believe it will happen."

If you'd like to know more about Slater, I recommend Rozendaal's website.

And remember the name Duke Slater and his story. 


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