Iowa Football

Finding out about Frank 'Kinney' Holbrook, Iowa's first Black college athlete

The Frank 'Kinney' Holbrook Memorial Society wants to bring awareness to an incredible story from the late 1800s

The 1896 Iowa football team, featuring Frank Kinney Holbrook (first row, far right), the university's first African-Amer
The 1896 Iowa football team, featuring Frank Kinney Holbrook (first row, far right), the university's first African-American football player. This image is from the 1898 Hawkeye yearbook, courtesy of University Archives, (Iowa)
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Start with the fact that Frank “Kinney” Holbrook was the son of a slave. The first Frank Holbrook was born in Georgia in 1851. He escaped when the Civil War broke out in the state and became close with a Union army captain who was from Iowa City.

Frank Holbrook moved into Tipton. He and his wife, Pinkey, had a son, Frank “Kinney” Holbrook. You might’ve heard of him.

Frank “Kinney” Holbrook first gained notice for athletics in 1895, according to research conducted by Neal Rozendaal, who’s written three books — including “Duke Slater: Pioneering Black NFL Player and Judge” — and presented on his website.

During his senior year at Tipton High, he led the school to just the third ever Iowa high school state track and field meet. Tipton finished second with Holbrook winning the individual state championship in the 50-yard dash and shot put.

Holbrook’s skills led to a shot to play for the University of Iowa. Holbrook went from being the first Black graduate of Tipton High School to being the first African American athlete in the history of the University of Iowa and the first documented Black college athlete in the history of the state.

Five guys from Tipton just found out about Holbrook.

“I would say the George Floyd incident,” said Duane Matthess, a Tipton High School grad who’s now a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher and head varsity football coach at Nodaway Valley in southwest Iowa. “Someone posted an article about Kinney and the issues he went through at the then State University of Iowa. You get right to the 1896 Missouri game played against a backdrop that was so hostile.”

At first, Missouri refused to play the game if Iowa brought Holbrook. Iowa head coach A.E. Bull said, “No Holbrook, no game” and the game went on. The racial strife between the two schools festered and was part of the reason the two schools didn’t play each other from 1911 to the 2010 Insight Bowl.

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George Floyd’s death during an arrest with the Minneapolis Police Department in May still is opening eyes around the world. It struck like lightning for five guys from Tipton.

In June, Matthess, Josh Meier, Chad Daedlow, John Mathias and Chris Wallace formed the “Frank ‘Kinney’ Holbrook Memorial Society.” Meier said he exchanged emails and messages with friends on the topic. He kept coming back to this conclusion:

“We found it really perplexing, all of us having grown up in Tipton, why we hadn’t heard more about him in our youth, and why still many in our hometown are unaware of his story today,” Meier said. “I probably first came across his story when Iowa played Missouri in the Insight Bowl. I remember reading an article and it mentioned Frank Holbrook from Tipton. I thought it was a misprint. I thought they meant Tiffin, so I even doubted it while I was reading it.”

The Frank “Kinney” Holbrook Memorial Society has a few missions, with raising awareness as a top goal. The group has former Iowa wide receiver Quinn Early as an at-large board member and has offered an at-large membership to current Hawkeye defensive line coach Kelvin Bell.

As a social studies teacher, Matthess is developing a curriculum piece for teachers across the state who would be interested in teaching it. Matthess has reached out to the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Hall of Pride as an outlet for the curriculum.

“I hope it’s something they take advantage of and I hope it’s something they include in more than only Black History Month,” Matthess said. “If I were a teacher in Tipton, I would include this in my lessons just because it’s so close to home.”

The Society has reached out to the UI on getting Holbrook on the UI Athletics Hall of Fame ballot. And that has happened.

According to Andy Piro, assistant athletics director and executive director of the Varsity Club, Holbrook has been nominated and will be on the next UI Athletics Hall of Fame ballot. Selections are determined by a letterwinner vote and the National Iowa Varsity Club advisory committee representing all 24 sports. Timing on hall of fame activity this fall will be determined on health, safety, and logistical considerations.

In 2010, Holbrook was elected to the Cedar County Sports Wall of Fame.

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Next up is the statue. The Holbrook Society has started a gofundme page for donations. The goal is $40,000. The timetable is open-ended.

“I’d love for the kids to be able to touch it as they walk into the stadium,” Matthess said.

The Tipton Community School District fully supports the Holbrook Memorial Society’s efforts. By the way, when Tipton High School was established in 1859, it was the first free public school west of the Mississippi.

“The TCSD is excited about the work the team is doing around developing a Frank “Kinney” Holbrook memorial statue at the stadium and the importance of his story getting the attention it deserves,” Tipton superintendent Jason Wester said in an email.

Holbrook spent two years playing football and participating in track and field at the UI. It’s unknown why he left Iowa, but he went back to Tipton, becoming a blacksmith around 1895, according to Rozendaal’s research. In 1899, he coached the Tipton High School football team. After an October victory over Mount Vernon, 6-0, the Tipton Advertiser declared, “Much of the credit of the victory belongs to Frank Holbrook, under whose skillful coaching the home players have rapidly improved in their game during the past two weeks.”

According to the Tipton Advertiser, and after moving to Los Angeles, Holbrook passed away of a sudden heart attack on October 29, 1916.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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