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Calvin Jones arrived at Iowa 7 decades ago with ‘fanfare,’ broke barriers as Black offensive lineman
Iowa football offensive lineman from Evashevski era was first Black athlete to win Outland Trophy, be on cover of Sports Illustrated
IOWA CITY — Drew Tate was in for a surprise when he met Edwin Harrison in the Canadian Football League during their playing careers.
Tate, the former Hawkeye quarterback, was not just talking to any other CFL offensive lineman.
He was talking to the grandson of one of two players from Tate’s alma mater to have their number retired.
“He was like, ‘Dude, you’re Calvin Jones’ grandson?’” Harrison said in a phone call with The Gazette. “He was like, ‘Man, your grandfather is a legend.’”
Seventy years since his first varsity season at Iowa, Jones’ accomplishments — while perhaps not as remembered as other Hawkeye greats — still stand out in Iowa’s offensive line tradition.
Jones was the first Black player to win the Outland Trophy, which recognizes the best interior lineman in college football. He remains one of four Hawkeyes to ever win the national award.
He also was the first Black athlete and the first college football player to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, appearing on the seventh edition of the magazine.
Forest Evashevski, who led the Hawkeyes to two Rose Bowl appearances and their first No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll, described Jones as “the greatest lineman I ever coached.”
“Calvin Jones was tremendously important to Evy’s success,” said Neal Rozendaal, who has written four books on Iowa athletics history.
Jones was named a team captain as a senior — a rarity for a Black athlete in the 1950s.
“He was beloved on that team,” Rozendaal said. “They all admired him.”
Unlike many other Iowa stars who “arrived in Iowa with not a lot of fanfare,” Jones was far from a hidden gem on the recruiting trail.
“Of course there hadn’t been recruiting rankings or anything back then the way there is today,” Rozendaal said. “But if there had been, he would have been seen as certainly right at the top of the best linemen and the top players overall in the entire country that year.”
Jones was initially committed to play for Woody Hayes at Ohio State before instead going with his friends Frank Gilliam and Edward Vincent to Iowa.
“The famous story that people tell is that Gilliam and Vincent stopped by Cal Jones’ house as they were getting ready to go to Iowa to say goodbye to Cal,” Rozendaal said. “Cal said, ‘Hold on a second, wait here a second fellas.’”
Then came the surprise.
“He came back and said, ‘Let’s go, I’m coming with you,’” Rozendaal said. “The Iowa staff was shocked when Calvin Jones was there.”
Hayes, meanwhile, was “absolutely furious” and requested an investigation into the matter, Rozendaal said.
Jones, Gilliam and Vincent — known as the “Steubenville Trio” — were a key part of Evashevski’s first recruiting class.
“Calvin Jones was an enormously huge recruit, but Gilliam and Vincent were big recruits as well,” Rozendaal said. “They were huge in terms of the establishment of the Evashevski regime at Iowa.”
Jones was an All-American in 1954 and 1955, but had to overcome some adversity to accomplish the feat the first time.
“In 1954, he played the entire season with a broken wrist,” Rozendaal said. “He almost had to change his style a little bit."
While many stories have been told about Jones, it is difficult to evaluate the accuracy of all of them, partially because of his legacy.
“He came in with such fanfare that people would tell stories about him — these huge outside stories — and some of them were true,” Rozendaal said.
For as good as Jones was individually, the Hawkeyes “never really got over the hump” during his tenure, Rozendaal said.
Iowa finished the 1953 season ranked No. 9 in the country, but was unranked at the end of the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
The 1955 Hawkeyes had a losing record amid a brutal schedule. They had to play four Top 10 teams in the last five weeks, and all four were on the road. They lost all four of those games.
The NFL’s Detroit Lions drafted Jones after his Iowa career, but he chose to play in the CFL instead because of pay discrepancies between Black and white players.
“There were a lot of players who opted for Canada over playing in the NFL,” Rozendaal said.
After one year in the CFL, his life ended in a tragedy.
On his way to see his alma mater play in the 1956 Rose Bowl, Jones’ flight crashed into a mountain in British Columbia near the U.S.-Canada border.
No one survived. He died at age 23.
Many of his teammates, including Gilliam, were grieving while also preparing for a historic moment in program history.
“They couldn’t believe he was gone,” Rozendaal said of the 1956 Iowa team. “They’re trying to deal with all that, process all that, and still, by the way, play in the first Rose Bowl in team history.”
The Hawkeyes won, 35-19, and sent the game ball to Jones’ mother in Steubenville, Ohio.
Jones does not have the same level of name recognition as the other former Hawkeye to have his number retired — Nile Kinnick with his No. 24.
Even Harrison initially did not know much about his grandfather’s accomplishments.
“My father really didn’t know too much about him either because he died when my dad was roughly about 1 or 2 years old,” Harrison said.
Harrison made a point to change that, though.
Harrison and his wife — along with a Canadian documentary crew following them along — hiked to the mountain where his grandfather’s plane crashed.
“It was quite a bit more than my wife and I had bargained for,” Harrison said with a laugh. “We didn’t know how far up the mountain we were actually going to have to go.”
But in all seriousness, Harrison was very appreciative of the opportunity.
“It was absolutely well worth it,” Harrison said. “We’re just very happy, very thankful that we got a chance to do it.”
As for how to remember Jones, Rozendaal believes Iowa does “a great job on a lot of things.” But he has an idea of how to make Jones even more recognizable.
The two retired numbers “could be maybe brought forward a little bit more in some way” at Kinnick Stadium, he said.