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Remembering Hawkeye Great Nile Kinnick & All American Heroes

Memorial Day is a time for remembering falling heroes. For Iowa fans, nobody embodies that more than Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick.

Normandy Veterans Gather For The 69th Anniversary Of The D-Day Landings
Hawkeye legend Nile Kinnick gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Today, we remember him and all those like him.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Memorial Day Weekend is a time to be with friends and family, either taking advantage of time off of work for a vacation or just enjoying time around the grill at home as Summer Break officially kicks off. With all the fun and sun, it’s easy to lose sight of what Memorial Day is truly all about - remembering those who have fallen so we can enjoy our freedoms. The University of Iowa has one such fallen hero in its lore who is the embodiment of all that is good in the world. So today, we’re taking a moment to remember Hawkeye great Nile Kinnick.

Kinnick is an icon in Iowa fan circles. It’s a household name with generations of Hawk fans baring his namesake (I’ve come across a good number of canine friends who bare it as well). Even the stadium is now named after Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner.

For those Hawkeye fans who aren’t up on their history, Kinnick May be most famous (other than the stadium, of course) for his Heisman acceptance speech, which plays before every home game.

That speech was given after the 1939 season. It was Kinnick’s senior year and his first not playing multiple sports for the University of Iowa (at one point he was playing both basketball and baseball in addition to football). The Hawkeyes went 6-1-1 with the Ironmen finishing 9th in the final AP poll.

Despite the team finishing second in the conference and not making a bowl game (!!!), Kinnick took the college football landscape by storm. When it was all said and done, the Hawkeye halfback took home just about every major award you can name. He was named the Big Ten MVP, First Team All-American, AP Male Athlete of the Year, Walter Camp Trophy Winner, Maxwell Award Winner, and of course, Heisman Trophy Winner. The award we’re all well-deserved. Kinnick finished the year with 638 passing yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes. He ran for 374 yards and 5 more touchdowns. He accounted for 84% of Iowa’s total touchdowns on the year, playing 402 of a possible 420 minutes that season. It was an incredible, record-setting season (Kinnick broke 14 school records on the year).

While That tremendous performance nearly made him a household name nationally by season’s end, it was that Heisman speech that endeared him in the hearts of Americans nationwide. AP reporter Whitney Martin wrote, “You realized the ovation (after his Heisman speech) wasn’t alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth.” Meanwhile, Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post had this to say, “This country’s okay as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental.” Nearly 80 years later, it still rings true.

Kinnick’s accomplishments were national headlines.
Kinnick images via the University of Iowa Digital Library, which has a tremendous collection of photos and documents you can view here:

Kinnick’s speech came at a time when much of the word was at war. The Japanese Empire was wreaking havoc all over the Pacific while Nazi Germany was marching on Europe. The US was not yet engaged in the war, but Americans could sympathize for their counterparts around the world and the message from Kinnick resonated.

Two years later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the US was thrust into World War II. That came three days after Kinnick had dropped out of law school to enlist in the Naval Air Force Reserve. That’s right, Kinnick decided to give up his future in law and politics despite being ranked third in his class at the University of Iowa Law School to serve his country before the rush of young men made the same decision based on the Pearl Harbor attack. This came just a year after foregoing a $10,000 a year (roughly equivalent to $175,000 in today’s dollars) contract from the Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL to enter law school.

It was a courageous decision from an incredible human being. His reasoning was simple: it was the right thing to do. He wrote, There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely, no reason why we shouldn’t suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter... Every man whom 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 training to be a fighter pilot in the Naval Air Force Reserve.
Kinnick images via the University of Iowa Digital Library, which has a tremendous collection of photos and documents you can view here:

Once enlisted, Kinnick began training to be a fighter pilot. It was something he seemed both to enjoy and feel a great sense of duty in doing. In a letter to his parents less than two years into his service, Kinnick wrote, “The task which lies ahead is adventure as well as duty, and I am anxious to get at it. I feel better in mind and body than I have for ten years and am quite certain I can meet the foe confident and unafraid. ‘I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand. I shall not be moved.’ Truly, we have shared to the full life, love, and laughter. Comforted in the knowledge that your thought and prayer go with us every minute, and sure that your faith and courage will never falter, no matter the outcome, I bid you au revoir.”

A few short weeks later, Nile Kinnick was dead.

On June 3, 1943, Kinnick departed the USS Lexington on a routine training mission off the coast of Venezuela. In the midst of his flight, his Grumman F4F Wildcat began leaking oil. Eventually, it went dry and Kinnick was caught too far from the coast and too far from his aircraft carrier to make a safe landing. He followed procedure, attempting a water landing, but did not survive. His body was never recovered. He was 24 years old.

Nile Kinnick is remembered as an Iowa and American hero. He was a tremendous football player and an even better person. He gave up his hopes and aspirations to serve his country and he have his life doing so. But he isn’t the only one. Across this great state and this great nation, there are millions who have lost their lives while serving. That’s what today is all about.

We enjoy our time with friends and family, our barbecue and maybe an adult beverage, but please take time today to remember all those who have made it possible, including Hawkeye legend Nile Kinnick.

We all know someone who’s given the ultimate sacrifice. If you have a story you’d like to share or someone you’d like remembered this Memorial Day, please leave a note in the comments below.