He was a scholar, a law student, and an American hero. He was the embodiment of everything that was pure and good in the youth of America in the late 1930’s.
Football fans in the State of Iowa called him “The Cornbelt Comet.” A grateful nation knew him as Nile Kinnick.
Kinnick was born in Adel, Iowa in 1918. He was raised with strong values of discipline, hard work, and conducted himself with the highest of moral standards.
At 5–8, 170 pounds, he became a 3-sport star in football, basketball, and baseball. He came to the University of Iowa in 1936, at a time when Iowa football was not very good.
The Hawkeyes suffered losing seasons in 1937 and 1938.
The Consummate Hawkeye
A Swiss army knife of a star football player, Kinnick was a passer, a runner, a kicker, and a defender. He did everything and did it well. Kinnick was the Team Captain, a born leader.
He was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and President of the Senior Class at Iowa. He excelled at public speaking and was a high-volume writer.
To Kinnick’s teammates, he was motivation personified. On the gridiron, Kinnick achieved immortality.
1939 saw the Hawkeyes become the “Ironmen of Iowa” and post a 6–1–1 record, including an upset 7–6 victory over mighty Notre Dame.
The New York Yankees may have had their Ironman in Lou Gehrig, but Iowa had their own “Ironman.”
Kinnick averaged 57 minutes of play per game in 1939, and played 402 straight minutes against Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Northwestern (a game in which he suffered an injury to his shoulder that finally forced him to the bench).
As a passer, he threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns. As a rusher, he gained 374 yards. When he kicked the ball, he “dropkicked” it and converted 11 of 17 attempts.
Out of 130 total points scored by Iowa that season, Kinnick was directly involved with the scoring of 107 of those points.
When the Hawkeyes were on defense, of course Kinnick made 8 interceptions. For his career, he made 18 INTs, a school record that stood for 50 years.
In a 7–6 win over the mighty Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, Kinnick scored the winning touchdown, then converted the extra point. He also later punted the ball deep into Notre Dame territory to secure victory for the Hawkeyes.
“Warring on the gridirons of the Midwest”
For his outstanding performance in 1939, Kinnick was the recipient of the Heisman Trophy. He also won the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards. He was named 1st Team All-American.
The Associated Press (AP) named him Athlete of the Year, beating out such sports luminaries as Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson, and Joe Louis. Kinnick was the only Iowa athlete to be so recognized by the AP.
Kinnick’s Heisman acceptance speech resulted in a standing ovation and was cheered by those in attendance. It spoke of the attitude at the time of a nation wanting to stay out of the war that was raging on the continent of Europe.
After Kinnick’s emotional and inspiring speech, the clouds of war grew darker and more ominous as they moved over to the Pacific a mere two years later.
On December 4, 1941, while he was a student at the University of Iowa Law School, Kinnick joined the Navy as a Lieutenant and began pilot training.
The surprise attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, forever changed the mood of America. It was a date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.” The very next day, FDR asked Congress to declare war on Japan.
America was thrust into WWII (in both the Pacific and also in Europe). A sleeping giant was awakened. Pearl Harbor was to be avenged.
Every man who I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed forces in times of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example the best I know how. May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family, and my friends will be proud of me. — Nile Kinnick
Two years later, on June 2, 1943, Kinnick had been assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. While on a training mission off the coast of South America, Kinnick’s plane developed engine trouble, 5 miles from where the Lexington was located.
Rather than risk the lives of his fellow servicemen on the flightdeck of the carrier, Kinnick made the selfless decision to ditch his plane in the ocean. Kinnick was killed on impact. His body was never recovered.
He was 24 years old.
A Legacy Remembered to this Day
Nile Kinnick was one of the greatest of the “Greatest Generation” and his legacy lives on today.
His Heisman Trophy is on display at the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Kinnick’s image is on the Big Ten coin used in the coin flip before the start of every Big Ten football game.
In 1972, the football stadium on the Iowa campus was renamed Kinnick Stadium in his honor.
His Heisman speech is played over the public address system at every Iowa home game.
Kinnick was a humble young man who just happened to be the best football player in America, who made every effort to heap praise onto his teammates and his coaches.
He was revered and loved by Iowans everywhere and was an American hero in its truest sense.
Thanks for reading.
Material for this article was sourced from heisman.com, and a story of Nile Kinnick, by Mike Chapman, iowahistoryjournal.com
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