Ozzie (originally Oze) Simmons died early last month at age 87, identified in brief obituaries as one of the first African American college football players to be selected as an All-American. You’d think of him as a trailblazer, right? Well, sort of. His career 60 years ago brings into view the one-step-forward-two-steps-back struggle by black athletes—especially outspoken ones—to gain a footing in American society.
Calling Simmons an All-American is deeply ironic. Yes, he made the AP second team in 1935, but his talent deserved more and was thwarted less by opponents than by his own teammates. Simmons’s career painfully illustrates some bitter realities during football’s Jim Crow era that have long been forgotten.
Oze Simmons played at the University of Iowa from 1934 through 1936, a time when, literally, only a few dozen black players were given a chance to play on Northern college teams. (A trickle of black All-Americans began as early as 1892.) When their schools played intersectional contests against Southern universities, black players were typically not allowed to suit up. Simmons never suffered that particular indignity—Iowa played no Southern schools during those years. His humiliation was different. In his very first game, as an unknown kid from Texas, he astonished spectators and sportswriters by running for 166 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown, against Northwestern. Sportswriters tortured the language to amazing degrees in coming up with alliterative nicknames for the new sensation: the Ebony Eel, the Texas Tornado, the Sepia Sprite, the Wizard of Oze, the Hula-Hipped Hawkeye Hog Hide Handler. For the black community, football did not matter as much as boxing or baseball, but Oze Simmons was celebrated in the African American press as another black hope, along with Joe Louis and Satchel Paige, and black leaders from Chicago made pilgrimages to Iowa City for Hawkeye home games.
The handful of black players in integrated college football were invariably stars—this was the requirement for the chance to play—but that just meant that they were “marked” for opponents’ cheap shots because of their ability as well as their race. Simmons faced this treatment and reached the level of his spectacular debut only sporadically afterwards, but his greater problem, as became increasingly obvious over his career, was that his own linemen would not block for him.
At the end of the 1935 season, with Simmons, as a star player, a strong candidate for team captain, the Iowa squad took the unprecedented step of not electing one. (The black press was explicit in saying that the step was a direct slap at Simmons.) His tumultuous career reached a premature climax in 1936, when his coach, Ossie Solem, accused him of “laying down” in a 52-0 loss to Minnesota—a stereotype of the day insisted that blacks “couldn’t take it”—despite the fact that he played with an injured leg. Simmons quit the team, but was persuaded to return for the last two games. Then he received one final indirect slap from his teammates when they elected the team’s other black player, a self-effacing end, captain for the following season, after bypassing Simmons the year before.
When his college career ended, Simmons couldn’t play in the National Football League, which excluded black players from 1934 through 1945. He wound up playing in the American Association and for semipro teams such as the all-black Chicago Panthers. His biggest impact on society probably came after his playing days: Simmons spent 38 years as a phys-ed instructor in the Chicago public schools.