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Throwback Thursday: Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s All-American Man

Nile Kinnick was more than a football star, he was an American hero.

Iowa State v Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ stadium could not be named after a better person.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa football has a storied history. Granted, nobody would ever confuse the Hawkeyes for a true blueblood. Iowa doesn’t have any national championships. There aren’t even a ton of conference championships. We don’t have some time period before the Great Depression where we won a bunch of titles based on a single publication when a handful of teams would get to claim a title each year. But there certainly is a lot of history in Iowa City. Good history.

Perhaps none is better than that of Nile Kinnick. A native of Adel, Iowa, Kinnick was an all-American kid in every sense. He was bright, charming and a hell of an athlete.

During his time at Iowa, Kinnick player baseball, basketball and football. He is, of course, most known for his football exploits, where he won nearly every award imaginable over his career.

In 1939, Kinnick’s senior year at Iowa, the Hawkeyes went 6-1-1 and finished 9th in the nation despite not making a bowl game. Kinnick was named 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. He finished the year with 638 passing yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes to go with 374 rushing yards and 5 more touchdowns, accounting for 84% of Iowa’s total touchdowns on the year. Kinnick really did it all. He drop-kicked 11 extra points, nearly led the nation in punting, as he had done as a sophomore, and grabbed 8 interceptions in an era where teams almost never passed the ball. He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes that season, scored 107 of Iowa’s 130 points and broke 14 school records.

As memorable as the season itself was, Kinnick’s acceptance speech for the Heisman Award was every bit as memorable.

“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,” wrote Whitney Martin of the AP.

The speech came in the midst of World War II. While the US was not yet involved, Europe was very much at war, as was the Pacific. Two years later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the US was became very much at war.

Three days prior to that date which lives in infamy, Nile Kinnick dropped out of law school to enlist in the Naval Air Force Reserve, giving up his future in law and politics despite being ranked third in his class at the University of Iowa Law School. This 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.

“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

In the Naval Air Force Reserve, Kinnick trained to become a fighter pilot. On June 2, 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 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:

Nile Kinnick was a special human being. Though not physically imposing (he came in around 5’9” and under 170 pounds - small even for a defensive back today), he was larger than life. He was good at everything, yet humble and unselfish. He put his country above himself and paid the ultimate price 77 years ago.

Today we remember him as Iowa’s lone Heisman winner from one of the program’s great teams. We listen to his eloquent words before each home game and watch in awe as the grainy old footage rolls. But he was clearly more than a great player or a great speaker. Nile Kinnick was a great man.

With all the turmoil in the world today, we could use more men like Kinnick. As Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post remarked on 1939, “This country’s okay as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental.”

“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.”

-Nile Kinnick in his final letter to his family, 1943