In the History Corner… The Iron Thirteen were the forefathers of Deion Sanders’ champions  

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Beginning in 1920, thirteen men constituted the football team at Jackson College. The 11 starters were: Henry Johnson at right end, Earl Banks at right tackle, Horace Johnson at right guard, Edgar Stewart at center, Luther Marshall at left guard, Theodore Ambrose at left tackle, Joe Boothe at left end, Roy Bolton at fullback, Percy Greene at left halfback, Horace Bolton at right halfback, and W.A. Scott at quarterback. There were two substitutes: Howard Courtney and Aurelius Scott.

Those players went through the season undefeated, winning not just the state championship for Mississippi, they were also champions for the Mississippi/Louisiana region. According to Dr. Lelia Rhodes in the book “Jackson State University: the First Hundred Years, 1877 – 1977”, the team went undefeated for three years.

They were dubbed the Iron Thirteen because of the amount of time each had to play in each game. They were literally “iron men.” President Jacob Reddix in his book, “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness,” states that every member on the team was forced to be a “sixty minute man.”

The team members organized and called their own plays. A male French teacher, Ernest Richards, was selected as their coach. This was apparently only on paper and for official institutional purposes since Richards knew nothing about football. The play-callers were the center Edgar “Tripp” Stewart and halfback Percy Greene. Coach Bragg, who had previously served as the coach, had resigned before the season began.

During that time, many Black colleges found it difficult to secure funds for intercollegiate sports programs. Jackson College’s president, Zachary Taylor Hubert, had made a sacrifice to hire John Pinkett as athletics director in 1911. There had not been much money for the program from that day forward. Therefore, the football program was quite lean, only 13 players and a volunteer coach. They proceeded as “the Iron Thirteen.”

That is pretty much the story of the team. One could add the scores of some of the games, including its first victory of 13-0 over Tougaloo, 63-0 over Utica, and 21-14 over Mississippi Industrial College. The story itself is short, but impressive. They played other Black colleges, private and public, in and out of state. 

In contemplating writing this story, the writer was very hesitant since there was so little supporting information on the Iron Thirteen. It was not the story of a well-publicized institution. The more he thought about his advice to his graduate students to write about their local stories, however, the more determined he became to share what he had learned.

Consider the fact that we would know very little about the players of the Negro baseball leagues – Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Buck Owens, and company – if we had waited for a large body of written information. It would be our continued loss.

Today, even more needs to be researched and written about the Iron Thirteen. They were and must remain a significant part of the history of JSU football. Just as the institution evolved from Natchez Seminary to Jackson College to Mississippi College for Negro Teachers to Jackson State University, without losing its birthright or identity, so too must the football program, from “The Iron Thirteen,” to John Merritt to Bob Hill to W.C. Gorden to James “Papa” Hayes to Deion Sanders, without losing its history and heritage. 

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In the History Corner… The Iron Thirteen were the forefathers of Deion Sanders’ champions  

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 5, 2022