Six(ish) Thoughts From The Big Ten Icons: Nile Kinnick Show


* Punting really is winning. For all the hype about Kinnick's prowess on offense (he led the team in passing and rushing) and defense (he still shares the career record with 18 interceptions, as well as the single-season record with 8 -- even more amazing when you consider how much less often teams passed back then) and kickoff returns (he led the nation with 377), there's an argument to be made that his best skill was... punting. No, really. Everyone in the Icons show raved about his punting prowess. In Iowa's epic 7-6 win over Notre Dame, Kinnick not only scored the winning touchdown (and dropkicked the game-winning extra point), he punted the way to victory -- 16 times for 731 yards. Somewhere Jim Tressel just started masturbating furiously.

* Nile Kinnick was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow was Tim Tebow. A single-wing savant who led his team in passing and rushing? Check. A dedicated and devoutly religious citizen who cared as much (if not more) about philanthrophy than football? Check. If Kinnick had emerged today and been the modern-day equivalent of the player and person he was in 1939, he would have been every bit as lauded and lionized as Tebow is today. Although he probably wouldn't have signed off on any ads as dumb as this one.

* Nile Kinnick was also Ricky Stanzi before Ricky Stanzi was Ricky Stanzi. I adore "love it or leave it" as much as the next red-blooded American, but for expressions of extemporaneous patriotism, it doesn't hold a candle to Kinnick's vaunted Heisman Trophy acceptance speech (apologies for shitty quality). Plus, Phil Haddy called Iowa's 1939 team "America's team." WHO ARE YOU TO DOUBT PHIL HADDY*? And while Stanzi rose to fame on the back of some heady fourth quarter heroics, Kinnick was doing that when Stanzi's grandparents were still in short pants: he led Iowa to a 13-9 victory over Minnesota after trailing 9-0 in the fourth quarter (and this was back when Minnesota was good, remember), one of five fourth-quarter comebacks he led that season.

* Actually, I do. A lot. But I digress...

* It's really impossible to comprehend what the "Ironmen" did in 1939. According to one of the talking heads, at one point Kinnick played 402 consecutive minutes. If you're not particularly mathematically inclined, that's over six and a half games without leaving the field for even a second. Kinnick was the most celebrated member of that team, since he ran the offense, played defense, handled return duties, punted, and served as placekicker, but there were roughly two dozen other guys that were playing both ways, too. Even a player like Stanford's Owen Marecic, who played linebacker and fullback this past season, didn't play every single snap. Football was a weird, wonderful thing back then.

* Northwestern has been a thorn in our side for a long, long time. Iowa went 6-1-1 in 1939, with the lone loss coming to a predictable foe (Michigan, quarterbacked by future Iowa coaching legend Forest Evashevski), but still had a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title heading into the final game of the season. The opponent in that game? Our purple-clad friends from the banks of Lake Michigan, of course. Iowa and jNW tied, 10-10, and Iowa had to settle for second place (behind - who else? - Ohio State), though it probably didn't cost Iowa a trip to the Rose Bowl since the Big Ten didn't really go to many bowls back then. And even though the Evil Wizgerald was decades from being belched free from Hell to wreak havoc on us, his evil tricks were at work in Northwestern's gameplan: they knocked Kinnick out of the game with a separated shoulder.

* "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse." It's a James Dean quote, but it fits the life of Nile Kinnick, too. He lived a hair under 25 years, but good lord did he pack a lot of living in those almost-25 years -- and not the drinking, doping, womanizing brand of living that guys like Dean enjoyed. He got a college degree (with honors), was a three-year starter on the football team, won the Heisman Trophy, spent a year in law school, and died while serving in the Navy. I've already outlived Kinnick, but the only accomplishment I can claim that he couldn't is a law degree (And for what it's worth, I'd trade it for a Heisman).

In his quarter-century of life he became so beloved and so influential that he wasn't just revered in his hometown of Adel or Iowa City or the state of Iowa but the entire Big Ten (who thought so highly of him that they put his face on the coin flipped at the start of every Big Ten football game and attached his name to the new Leadership trophy). Hell, how many other 25-year olds have you ever known that people were absolutely, positively convinced would be president someday? And not in the patronizing, modern parenting sense of "you can do anything" that we instill in children, but as unshakable, unassailable truth.

But death is an important part of the Kinnick mystique, too; as much as he is a symbol of incredible accomplishment, he's also a symbol of tragic loss and untapped potential. We'll never know what he would have done with the rest of his life, whether he would truly have become president or if he would have changed the world for the better -- but we'll also never know if he would have gone to lead a boring, unremarkable life. But given what he was in life, his unknowable future became the romantic unknown after his tragic death.

Other thoughts:

- The attendance in 1937 and 1938 was Ryan Field-level embarrassing. Plenty of good seats were still available to watch Iowa go 1-6 in those years.

- Colorized B&W film footage still looks weird, like someone colored in old film stock with crayons.

- Even in 1939, the fans liked to storm the field.

The Kinnick episode isn't available on Hulu yet (though it probably will be before too long), but it's being re-aired on BTN multiple times throughout the week. It's on today at 4:30 and 10:30pm CST, Friday at 5:30pm CST, and Saturday 1am, 2pm, and 10pm CST.

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