The Story of Iowa's Forgotten Legend: Duke Slater

By Jeremy Karll on August 11, 2017 at 1:05 pm
Duke Slater

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All University of Iowa students have heard of Slater Hall. It’s on the West side of campus across the street from newer dorms like Petersen and Hillcrest, named after a football player who last played for Iowa 97 years ago. Yet few students residing in Slater Hall every year know the origin behind the name. They know it’s supposedly haunted, but Duke Slater’s legacy continues to fade by the year. Other than the occasional article written on him and Neal Ronzendaal’s book a couple of years ago, Slater has become a ghost himself around campus and in the dorm named after him.

Slater Hall and his No. 15 on Iowa’s Wall of Honor in Kinnick Stadium are the last traces of one of the best lineman to come through Iowa on campus. After the original plan of renaming Iowa Stadium as ‘Kinnick-Slater Stadium’ fell through, Slater’s memory has continued to fade. Despite University president Willard Boyd suggesting the aforementioned name, Gus Schrader, the head of the campus planning committee, campaigned for the stadium to be named Kinnick Stadium instead, suggesting that Boyd only included Slater to not anger African-American fans.

His other reasoning? Slater never won the Heisman trophy. Nile Kinnick is one of the greatest athletes to ever wear an Iowa uniform and deserves all the recognition he receives. But Schrader’s reasoning is clearly flawed, as the Heisman Trophy started in 1935, 14 years after Slater’s senior season. Even the Maxwell Award, another Player of the Year award, started in 1937.  

As we all know, Iowa decided on Kinnick Stadium, has a statue of Nile Kinnick outside of the stadium, and shows his Heisman winning speech before every game. On the other hand, Slater's lasting memory is a dorm named after him that I walk past every time I walk to Kinnick Stadium and am glad that a ghost never haunted me while visiting my girlfriend there.

Slater, standing at just 6-1, 215 pounds, never won a Heisman, but he became one of the greatest Iowa football players ever with his relentless and fearless attitude on the field. He was able to play as a freshman because the NCAA suspended eligibility rules due to World War I, eventually being named to the All-Iowa team by the Des Moines Register. However, he started to gain national recognition a year later.

Slater became a three-time All-Big Ten selection, a second team All-American as a sophomore and Iowa’s first black First Team All-American as a senior in 1921. He also played on the offensive and defensive line, and on special teams, in 1921 when Iowa ended Notre Dame’s 20-game win streak, 10-7, on its way to a perfect 7-0 season and first Big Ten title in 21 years. A photograph showing a helmet-less Slater blocking the entire Notre Dame defense has also become iconic in Iowa football history. Overall, Iowa went 23-6-1 during his four seasons.

His efforts with the Hawkeyes resulted in Slater being the only African-American inducted into the inaugural College Football Hall of Fame class in 1951 alongside Kinnick. Fans also selected Slater as an offensive tackle on the all-time University of Iowa football team in 1989, and the football team honored the 1921 team to start the 2012 season. The real travesty comes when looking at his professional career.

Slater went on to play for the Milwaukee Badgers, Rock Island Independents, and Chicago Cardinals as a professional. While Fritz Pollard receives a lot of recognition as one of the NFL’s first African-American trailblazers, mainly because he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, Slater’s efforts are often forgotten.

Slater was one of the most dominating lineman in the 1920s but somehow was never voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a candidate in 1963, the Hall’s second year in existence, and a finalist in 1970 and 1971, the first years the Hall introduced finalists instead of announcing the inductees at once. A United Press International article in 1963 listed Slater alongside Ken Strong, Steve Owen, Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner and Art Rooney as strong candidates to make the Hall. All have been inducted except Slater.

Many say that he was originally snubbed because voters in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t watch him play in the 1920s, or had forgotten how dominant he was. Now, almost 90 years since Slater last stepped on the field for the Cardinals, voters have obviously never seen him play. His Hall of Fame time limit has passed and he has to be nominated as an early-era player, the same way Pollard was inducted in 2005. His odds of being inducted are extremely thin every year, though, since only two players can be picked.

Due to being in an era where YouTube didn’t catch any of his dominance, Slater’s stats have to tell the story. Even though Pro Football Focus and advanced analytics weren’t around when he played, his numbers stack up well against any lineman from that era. Durability was an issue for most players in that era, as most didn’t play longer than five seasons in the 1920s. But Slater played for 10, starting 96 of 99 games and never missing a game due to injury. That’s four more seasons than Pollard played, and only George Trafton and Jug Earp played longer at that time.

He also received seven All-Pro selections during his career, easily the most All-Pro selections among African-American players before 1945. The only seasons he didn’t make an All-Pro team were in 1926 when he played most of the season in the AFL and 1928 because the Cardinals only played half the season. In fact, Pollard, Ink Williams and Bobby Marshall are the only other African-Americans to have one selection in that era. Only 16 players earned seven or more All-Pro selections before World War II, including six other linemen who are all in the Hall of Fame. Slater also played every snap, again playing on the offensive and defensive line, and special teams, when Ernie Nevers rushed for an NFL record six touchdowns against the Chicago Bears.

While Slater is widely recognized as one of, if not the best, lineman in his era, receiving seven All-Pro selections should come as somewhat of a surprise considering his career took place 20 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Slater might have had to deal with cheap shots during games, but the racism he faced off the field would have broken most players. It’s even more impressive considering Slater was the NFL’s only African-American player in 1927 and 1929. Therefore, while Pollard deserves a ton of credit for being a trailblazer in the NFL, it’s hard to say that Slater didn’t have at least as much of an impact. Even the second black offensive lineman in the NFL, former Hawkeye Harold Bradley Sr., received a chance with the Cardinals when Slater campaigned for him.

I was born 65 years after Slater’s career ended, so I’ve never seen him play and can only learn about him through pictures and stories. But it’s not hard to find legendary players and coaches rave about Slater’s abilities, including legendary coach George Halas.

"In the old Cardinals-Bears games, I learned it was absolutely useless to run against Slater’s side of the Cardinal line."

Nevers said that Slater, Bronko Nagurski, Walt Kiesling, Mike Michalske and Red Grange were the five greatest football players he played with or against. All are in the Hall, except Slater. Speaking of Grange, one of the best college and pro football players of all-time, he named Slater as one of the 13 best football players he played with or against, too. The other 12 are in the Hall.

Yet when the Senior Committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame deliberates at the end of August, Slater will most likely be forgotten, again. His jersey sits in the Hall of Fame, but his bust is still missing.

Slater never forgot where he came from, though. He returned to Iowa City during the off-season and graduated with a law degree in 1928 from the University of Iowa. Just like in football, Slater used his law degree to break down barriers. Eventually moving to Chicago led to Slater becoming the city’s assistant district attorney before being the second elected African-American judge in Chicago in 1948. In 1960, Slater became the city’s first African-American member on the Chicago Superior Court.

Slater would continue to return to Iowa City until he died in 1966 at 67-years old. He was on the sidelines in 1939 when Kinnick led Iowa to an upset win over Notre Dame, 7-6, 18 years after he did the same thing. Slater also watched Iowa take down Ohio State, 6-0, in 1956 to clinch a Big Ten title, eventually going on to win Iowa’s first Rose Bowl.

Slater probably won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018, and it might never happen. But it’s important to keep his legacy alive in Iowa City where he made a huge impact on and off-the-field. Duke Slater is one of the best football players to come through Iowa City, and his dorm should be associated with him, not ghosts.

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