This story first appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1987. It then appeared on Superhawkeye.com and Hawkeyenation.com, websites that Jon Miller has been involved with over the years, with permission from SI. The story was first posted on Superhawkeye.com in May of 2000, so references to times and dates need to have that taken into account.
Perhaps no athlete in the history of Iowa Sports has captured the hearts and minds of the Hawkeye Faithful than Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. It has been 62 years since Kinnick wore the black and gold 24 as the halfback, passer, punter, place-kicker, return man and Ironman for the Iowa Hawkeyes, but his legend is still capable of casting shadows on Saturday afternoons over the stadium that bears his name.
If you are an Iowa football fan, then you know who Nile Kinnick was. But do you know the full story? Do you know how truly remarkable the 1939 season was? Do you know where the nickname ‘The Ironmen’ came from? Even if you do, prepare for a good read.
In the August 31, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ron Fimrite wrote an article about the Ironmen, but primarily about "The Cornbelt Comet", Nile Kinnick.
I happened across the article through my collections of Iowa memorabilia I have aggregated over the years. The I-Club sends out a newsletter called "Hawktalk", and they sent out a commemorative edition that transcribed the story in SI. I called SI to try to order the back issue, but they no longer have the August 31, 1987 edition. So I asked them if I could transcribe the article and post it on my website. After about a half hour on hold, and three transfers later, they gave me permission to post this story on the website.
I began typing last night around 7:00pm, and stopped just after 10:00pm. Add another hour and a half very early this morning, and 12-single spaced pages at 12-point font later, and two very sore hands, you have the document transcribed. I could have scanned it, yes, and uploaded it, which I may do at some point, but I didn't want to damage the issue. I am very proud to have this in my collection.
And in the typing of the story, it's more entrenched in my memory now that it would have been, so that is a plus. I hope that you enjoy the story, as it illuminates one of the brightest seasons, teams and players in the History of the Iowa Hawkeye Football Program.
I have added some html links throughout the story so that you can learn even more about Kinnick and enjoy the story completely. Enjoy!
Nile Kinnick: With the Wartime Death of the '39 Heisman Winner, America Lost a Leader
Every few years or so, as often as they can, the Ironmen get together in Iowa City to tell all the old stories. “You remember how bowlegged old Ham Snider was,” Erwin Prasse, the team captain, is saying. “Well, my mom and dad saw me play just once, in our last game against Northwestern. My folks were bakers, and neither of them knew a football from a loaf of bread. Anyway, that Northwestern game was tough. Everybody seemed to get hurt. We were all pretty beat up. So on one play they’re helping old Ham off the field, and my mother looks down at him, and she’s horrified. ‘Oh my God,’ she says. ‘Look what they don’t to his leg.’”
Prasse, Al Couppee, Chuck Tollefson, Wally Bergstrom and George (Red) Frye are having dinner at a restaurant called The Lark. When they were all Ironmen on the University of Iowa’s legendary 1939 team, the same spot was known as Ken and Fern’s, and it was a pretty tough roadhouse where they would get into real trouble from time to time. “Hey, Tolly,” says Couppee, “remember the night the town marshal chased us out of here after we broke that slot machine and we hid in the parking lot of that funeral home?”
They are men in their late 60’s or early 70’s now, still robust and fun loving, and they are as close as any old teammates can be. “Some call it love,” Couppee says. Al was the quarterback and he still pretty much calls the signals at these casual reunions. Couppee, a semi-retired newspaper columnist and broadcaster, articulates perhaps better than the others their experience together so many years ago.
”It’s a shame,” he says in his big voice, “but my perception of this as a kid back then was so shallow. I couldn’t see beyond the surface of things. There was so much happening at once, such a combination…the Great Depression, people in breadlines…I can remember the desperation in my mom’s face when it came time to buy coal. The whole state was in a bad way. Farms were closing down, people were hungry. Then, out of the clear blue sky came this one little group of people with just the right chemistry—our team. There was almost hysterical relief at having something at last to grab hold of, to believe in. And…we had Nile…..”
The others nod, their ruddy faces beaming in the soft blue light of the restaurant. “Yes, Nile,” says Prasse. “You know, I think about him all the time. I think of him whenever I get in a conversation about players from our time and the ones now. Everyone says how much better they are today. Sure, but I say Nile could’ve played anytime. He was so smart, he’d have found a way to play. I was never envious of Nile—he wouldn’t let you feel that way—until I saw this big scrapbook his father had kept for him. I was jealous of that scrapbook, because I never had one.”
”All the cliches fit Nile,” says Couppee. “He was Jack Armstrong and Frank Merriwell rolled into one. He was the smallest—only about 5’8”, 170 to 175 pounds—and the slowest of all our backs. Our coach, Eddie Anderson, used to say that if that man could’ve run a 10-falt 100, the Big Ten would’ve banned him. Roger Pettit was a better punter, and Bill Green was a better runner. But never in a game. In a game, you just knew he’d do something in the last minute, find a way to pull us out. In my 66 years, I’ve never met anyone who had the self-discipline that 21-year-old had. There was just an aura about him. He didn’t try to create it, it was just there. You really had the felling you were in the presence of someone very special.”
And would Nile show up at a reunion such as this?
Laughter all around, “Oh, no…”
”No, I tell you where Nile Kinnick would be right now,” says Couppee. “He’d be in the White House. And with him there, we wouldn’t have any of the junk that’s going on now. Nile would’ve been so far ahead of these people…”
Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. would have turned 69 this past July 9 (1987). He was the rarest of beings—rarer now, lamentably, than ever before—a scholar-athlete, a Heisman Trophy winner and a Phi Beta Kappa. He was truly a humble and compassionate man. “One of the few athletes who could rise to the top without making enemies,” teammate Bill Green once said. And he had the soul of a poet. “I flew up in the clouds today—tall, voluminous cumulus clouds,” he wrote in his World War II diary. “They were like snow-covered mountains, range after range of them. I felt like an alpine adventurer, climbing up their canyons, winding my way between their peaks—a billowy fastness, a celestial citadel.”
Kinnick’s Heisman acceptance speech after the 1939 season was so eloquent and touching that the audience at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York was too stunned at first to respond. But then, as Whitney Martin of the Associated Press described the scene, “seven hundred men and women rose and cheered and whistled…You realized the ovation 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 Bill Cunnignham of the Boston Post, “This country’s O.K. as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental.”
Today of course, the football part is never incidental with Heisman winners; it’s pretty much all there is. And Nile Kinnicks are getting awfully few and far between.
Iowa football in the 1930s kept pace with the national economy. It, too, was in a Great Depression. Under Howard Jones in the early ‘20s the school fielded some of its finest teams, including back-to-back undefeated Big Ten champions in 1921 and ’22 that featured such stars as Duke Slater, Gordon Locke and Aubrey Devine. But following a bitter quarrel with members of the Athletic Board, Jones left Iowa after the 1923 season and moved to Trinity College (now Duke University) and then to the University of Southern California, where his famous “Thundering Herds” won five Rose Bowl games. Iowa football declined. When the school built a new 53,000-seat stadium for the 1929 season, it soon became a monument to bad timing.
In January 1930, just before the members of the Big Ten were to meet to arrange the schedule for the following season, Iowa was suspended from the conference for alleged recruiting violations. It was reinstated only a month later, but by then 11 members of the team had been declared ineligible and only one Big Ten school, Purdue, agreed to change its schedule to accommodate the Hawkeyes.
High school athletes were shunning the university, and its teams quickly became an embarrassment to a conference that considered itself the best in the country. Between 1930 and 1938, Iowa won only 22 games, and in five of those seasons the Hawkeyes did not beat a single Big Ten opponent. The teams coached by the unfortunate Irl Tubbs in ’37 and ’38 were 2-13-1. The 1938 team was outscored 135-36 and did not score a touchdown in its last five games.
Nile Kinnick, then a junior, had played the ’38 season with what was quite probably a broken ankle. No one knew for certain, because, as a practicing Christian Scientist, he would not allow the injury to be examined or treated. “I used to watch him wince in pain when he punted,” says Couppee, a freshmen that year. “It was amazing what he put himself through.”
Kinnick had been All-Big Ten as a sophomore in ’37 and, broken ankle not-withstanding, the following year he completed 43 percent of his passes (a respectable ratio in an era of unsophisticated passing attacks) and averaged 41.1 yards on 41 punts, fourth-best in the nation. He was healthy again for his senior year, and in a letter to his family just before the start of spring practice he wrote with uncharacteristic bravado, “For three years, nay for fifteen years, I have been preparing for this last year of football. I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-around back yet to hit this conference.”
A new coach and a new system would give him the chance to fulfill the boast. Tubbs had resigned after his 1-6-1 ’38 season. His team had gone scoreless against Colgate, Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska and had just a field goal against Indiana. Football gate receipts had been only $65,000, and the athletic department was in the hole by more than $10,000—big figures in the Depression. Still, the school was prepared to spend whatever was necessary to hire someone able to reverse the sorry descent of Iowa football.
The choice—for a three-year contract at $10,000 per—was the 38-year old Dr. Edward N. (Eddie) Anderson, a native Iowan who had coached Holy Cross to a 47-7-4 record the six previous seasons. Anderson had been a star end at Notre Dame, captain of the 1921 team, a Rockne pupil and a George Gipp teammate. He had played professionally with the Chicago Cardinals while at the same time earning his M.D> from Rush Medical College. He was a urologist, but as Ironman Frye has said, “He’s the only physician I’ve ever known who thought the cure for everything from a hang-nail to appendicitis was ‘running it off’.”
Anderson was indeed a fanatic for physical conditioning, and his spring practices were so arduous that from an original turnout of 80 or more candidates, only 35 survived into the season. Of these only about 20 would play regularly, and 12 would play the full 60 minutes in at least one of the eight games.
Anderson brought with him to Iowa City two fellow Notre Dame alums, backfield coach Frank Carideo, an all-America quarterback for Rockne in 1929 and ’30, and line coach Jim Harris. Both shared the good doctor’s obsession with conditioning. Carideo had the additional distinction of being an expert at punting and drop kicking, and Kinnick, who had learned both skills from his father, became his star pupil. Before and after every practice—Kinnick was always the first on the field and the last to leave it—the coach and player would kick to each other from various pints on the gridiron. “They were so accurate,” Couppee recalls, “it was like watching two guys playing catch.”
From Carideo, Kinnick mastered the technique of “coffin corner” punting, and he refined his skills as perhaps the last serious practitioner of the then outdated, now lost art of drop-kicking field goals and points after.
Anderson’s offensive system was the Notre Dame Box, with variations. The T-formation revolution, led by Clark Shaughnessy’s Standford Wow Boys, was a year away, and in 1939 the dominant formation was the single wing. In the Notre Dame system, the team first lined up with the backfield in a tight T, from which the quarterback called the play and the snap count. Only in an emergency would the Iowa team huddle before a play. On the quarterback’s signal, the backs shifted into the box formation, which differed from the single wing only in that the line remained balanced.
No more than 20 times during the ’39 season, and then merely for shock value, did Iowa run a play from the T. The tailback (usually the left halfback) and the fullback were the deep backs in the box. The quarterback played close to the line and was the principal blocking back. The right halfback, or wingback, was flanked outside or directly behind the end on his side. The tailback was the workhorse. He was the triple-threat man—a runner, passer and kicker. Kinnick was Anderson’s tailback.
The 1939 Iowa team was relatively small in stature even at a time when 200-pound linemen were considered ‘behemoths.” Anderson did start the season with three “big” men—260-pound guard Henry Luebcke, 212-pound tackle Mike Enich and 202-pound tackle Jim Walker. But Luebcke suffered an abdominal hernia in the second game and Walker went out with a bad knee in the third. With those big men gone, Iowa averaged 191 pounds on the line and 181 in the backfield. If the team had any advantage, it was in age. Three players—guard Tollefson, tackle Bergstrom and guard Max Hawkins—were approaching their middle 20’s. Tollefson had dropped out of school for three years to go “on the bum,” Bergstrom had shipped out on a South American banana boat and Hawkins had done a tour of duty in the Navy before starting school as a 22-year old freshman.
Preseason polls picked Iowa to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten. Bill Osmanski, the Chicago Bears fullback who had played for Anderson at Holy Cross, had no illusions about the team’s potential after helping coach at a spring practice. “Among 5,000 male students at the University of Iowa,” Osmanski said, “there are only five real football players.” But Anderson’s confidence was unshaken. In Kinnick, he said, he had potentially the best back in the country. “All of which sounds quite rosy,” Kinnick wrote home, “but I shan’t be put off my base or guard the least bit. However, I can’t deny that I was happy to hear him say this for the simple reason that I have practiced all of my life to learn to run, throw and kick and haven’t, as yet in college, had the opportunity to show myself a good single wing back.”
Kinnick was born in Adel, Iowa, on July 9, 1918, the oldest child in a farming family of three sons. Although they were far from wealthy, the Kinnick’s did have a certain station in the community because Nile’s maternal grandfather, George W. Clarke, had been governor of the state from 1913 to 1917. Nile Sr. had been a scholar-athlete at high school in Adel and at Iowa State, where he was celebrated for drop-kicking two-field goals once against Missouri. “The trouble is,” the elder Kinnick recalls, “while I was kicking field goals, they were scoring touchdowns.”
he and Frances Clarke were married on December 14, 1916, and Nile was born 19 months later. Ben came 13 months after that, and George eight years after Nile. Between farm chores , Nile and Ben learned to play every sport, but it was Nile who excelled. In the eighth grade he caught a hard throwing pitcher of his age from the neighboring town of Van Meter named Bob Feller. Nile was a superb basketball player, naturally ambidextrous, and he could do everything on a football field. He was also, it became apparent to his family and friends, an unusually sensitive boy. When one of his friends was punished by a teacher in class, Nile came home in tears. “He couldn’t tell her the answer,” he complained to his father, “because he didn’t know it.” “He has this natural sympathy for the less fortunate,” his father says.
The Depression finally forced the Kinnick family off the farm and into Omaha, where Nile Sr. found work with the Federal Land bank in 1934. At Benson High, Nile Jr. was all-state in football and basketball and graduated as an A student. At Iowa, to concentrate on football and his studies, he quit the baseball team after his freshmen year and the basketball team after two-seasons. “The athlete,” he confided to his diary before his junior season, “learns to evaluate—to evaluate between playing for fun and playing as a business, between playing clean and playing dirty, between being conventional and being true to one’s convictions. He is facing the identical conditions, which will confront him after college—the same dimensions and circumstances. But how many football players realize this?”
In a decade of despair 1939 had been a comparatively upbeat year. The worst of the Depression was over. Hollywood was flourishing—Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would all be released that year—and the big bands had an entire country dancing to the swing beat. But it was dancing in the dark, for in September, Hitler marched into Poland and Europe was at war. Kinnick told his college friends he feared America would soon become involved. “We didn’t want to believe him,” Prasse recalls.
Kinnicks father had not seen Iowa win in his son’s first two years on the team. He reasoned that his best and possibly only chance to witness a victory would be the 1939 opener on September 19 against South Dakota, the weakest opponent on a schedule that included Notre Dame and six Big Ten teams. The elder Kinnick was right—the Hawkeyes won 41-0. Nile Jr. carried eight times for 110 yards and three touchdowns, one on a 65-yard run, passed for two more scores and drop-kicked five extra points. His 23 points scored were the most by an Iowa player since Oran (Nanny) Pape had scored 24 in 1928. Nile Sr. decided he would make the drive from Omaha to Iowa City for every home game.
The following Saturday the opponents was Indiana, whom the Hawkeyes had not beaten since 1921. The game was played in punishing 94-degree heat at Iowa Stadium. Indiana had taken a 10-0 lead in the first half, but Iowa came back to win 32-29. Kinnick rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries; he ran for a touchdown and threw scoring passes of 25, 50 and 15 yards to Prasse. He set a school record that still stands by returning nine punts for 201 yards, an average of 22.3 yards. Kinnick also had 171 yards on kickoff returns and he quick-kicked for 73 yards. He played the entire 60 minutes.
Sportswriters of the time were rarely restrained, but Tait Cummins of The Cedar Rapids Gazette was driven to apparent distraction by Kinnick’s heroics: “A new gridiron star blazed across the Big Ten horizon here Saturday, a spectacular comet with brilliant touchdown tails which cleared away the shadows of despair which have hovered over Iowa’s big stadium for the last six years, and which completely eclipsed Indiana’s lesser constellation in a 32-29 game never equaled in Hawkeye history.”
In Ann Arbor the next week, Kinnick completed a 71-yard touchdown pass to right halfback Floyd (Buzz) Dean in the first quarter, but that was about it for the “Cornbelt Comet.” Michigan won 27-7, with Tom Harmon, who would win the Heisman the following year, scoring all the points. One of his touchdowns came on a 90-yard interception return of a Kinnick pass in the flat. “I wish we could play it over,” Nile wrote his father. “This is the ruthless part of this game sometimes…once it’s over nothing can be done about it…It breaks my heart to have sort of let him (coach Anderson) down.”
But in their next game, at Madison, Kinnick and his teammates came from behind once again to beat Wisconsin 19-13, Iowa’s first win there in 10 years. Kinnick threw touchdown passes to Couppee, to Dick (Whitey) Evans and the game-winner to Bill Green. He, Bergstrom, Hawkins, Tollefson and Enich all played 60 minutes. Anderson told the press he was coaching “Ironmen.” The expression made headlines. The team was on its way to becoming a legend.
The following week against Purdue the Hawkeyes scored two safeties after blocking punts, and that was all the scoring, as Iowa beat them by the bizarre score of 4-0. Eight Hawkeyes played the entire game, Anderson using only 14 players from his travelling squad of 26. The coach was clearly reveling in the Ironman image. His team had an identity, and he, as a Notre Dame man, knew from the Four Horsemen the value of a catchy nickname.
During halftime of the Purdue game, Anderson reviled Couppee for not using Kinnick as the ball carrier when the team was close to the Boilermaker goal line. He embarrassed both the quarterback and the star by “introducing” them to each other before the entire squad, but the point was well-taken. On the following Saturday, when Iowa reached the Notre Dame four-yard line on a recovered fumble with only 40 seconds left in the first half, Couppee called for a rare huddle, one of perhaps three he convened all year. The Irish had been plugging the right side of the Iowa line all day, so Couppee called a run to the left. HE also wanted Kinnick to carry the ball, and in the huddle he ordered the halfbacks to switch positions. Buzz Dean was furious, and captain Prasse told his quarterback not “to screw things up like this.” But Kinnick got the ball and lowered his shoulder through two tacklers to score. His extra point gave the team its ultimate 7-6 win, one of the great upsets of the season.
In addition to his touchdown and extra points, Kinnick’s punting was crucial to the Iowa victory. In all, he had 16 punts for 731 yards, a 45.6 average. The number of punts and yardage totals remain school records. But it was his last punt that finally broke the spirit of the previously unbeaten Irish. With two minutes to play, Kinnick punted from his own 34, the ball going out of bounds on the Notre Dame five.
”When I saw that ball sail over the safety’s head, I knew we had beaten Notre Dame.” Couppee says. “I have played in 147 football games, college, service and pro, but that was the single most exhilarating moment I’ve ever experienced in sports.” Kinnick’s teammates carried him from the field.
The Ironmen and their indomitable little star had overnight become national heroes. They could scarcely walk between classes on the Iowa campus without being mobbed. Classrooms were empty on Monday, and impromptu rallies were held all week long. Mighty Notre Dame had fallen. But Bernie Bierman’s Golden Gophers of Minnesota were next. They led the Ironmen 9-0 in the fourth quarter; then Kinnick hit Prasse with a 45-yard touchdown pass and with three minutes left in the game, connected with Green for a 28-yard game-winner.
There’s a golden helmet riding on a human sea across Iowa’s football field in the twilight here,” rhapsodized James S. Kearns of the Chicago Daily News. “Now the helmet rises as wave upon wave of humanity pours onto the field. There’s a boy under the helmet, which is shining like a crown on his head. A golden number 24 gleams on his slumping, tired shoulders. The boy is Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., who has just now risen above all the defenses that could be raised against him.”
Kinnick has played every minute of six straight games, but not even he was indestructible. In the last game of the season, against Northwestern, he was forced to leave in the third quarter with a separated shoulder. Iowa was held to a 7-7 tie. Couppee was frantically calling pass plays near the end of the game in an effort to break the tie, but Anderson, believing incorrectly that a tie would give Iowa the Big Ten title, pulled him to the sideline and sent in substitute quarterback Gerald Ankeny with instructions to “sit on the ball.” The tie gave Ohio State the Big Ten championship, and Anderson, in an unprecedented act of atonement, apologized to Couppee.
The Ironmen hadn’t won the championship, but they had revived Iowa football and given a state beaten down by poverty and despair something to cheer about. This was a far larger triumph. “It was the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen,” Couppee said. “We couldn’t go anywhere without people cheering us on. They even stopped movies to turn on the lights and cheer us. We were forever the Ironmen.”
Their star, the most durable of them all, was heaped with honors. Kinnick was named to every major All-America team. He won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Trophy. He also won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player, by the largest margin to that date. An Associated Press poll picked him as the nation’s top male athlete for 1939. He finished ahead of Joe DiMaggio, who merely hit .381 that year, and Jo Louis, who had KO’d all four challengers for his heavyweight championship.
In accepting the Heisman, Kinnick sounded more like a world statesman than a 21-year-old football player. After thanking his coaches, teammates and the sportswriters, he paused dramatically and then said, “I would like, if I may, to make a comment which I think is appropriate at this time. I thank God that I was born to the gridirons of the Middle West and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can say confidently and positively that the football players if this country would much rather fight for the Heisman award than for the Croix de Guerre.”
Kinnicki completed his undergraduate years with a 3.4 grade point average in the school of commerce and was one of 30 Iowa seniors elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was also elected to the school of commerce’s Order of Artus honor society. He won the Iowa Athletic Board Cup for excellence in scholarship and athletics, and he was elected senior class president for the College of Liberal Arts and president of the senior class presidents of the ten colleges and schools at Iowa. His fellow students voted him Athlete of the Year, and his teammates elected him their Most Valuable Player. “There was not a man on the team who didn’t like Nile,” Couppee says. On June 3, 1940, he was awarded the John P. Laffey law scholarship.
Kinnick was first in the balloting for college players in the 1940 College All-Star Game against the Green Bay Packers, and he was on the cover of the game program. In the game itself, on August 29, 1940, he passed for two touchdowns and drip-kicked four extra points in the All-Stars’ 45-28 loss to the NFL champions. And, with that, Kinnick’s football career came to a sudden end. He never played again, even though the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers drafted him and offered him $10,000, a princely sum then, to play in 1940. Dodger owners John (Shipwreck) Kelly and Dan Topping paid separate visits to Iowa, urging him to turn pro. Topping even brought along his wife of the moment, film and figure skating star Sonja Henie, for one meeting with Kinnick at the Jefferson Hotel in Iowa City. Kinnick asked Couppee, Prasse and Enich to come along and meet the glamorous couple. “My football career is over,” Couppee remembers Kinnick as saying. “Law is my first priority.”
In fact, Kinnick was already contemplating a future in politics. Less than a month after the All-Star game, he appeared at a political rally in Iowa Falls and introduced presidential candidate Wendell Willkie to the crowd of 10,000. Kinnick, the grandson of a governor, later addressed a gather of Young Republicans himself: “When the members of any nation have come to regard their country as nothing more than the plot of ground on which they reside, and their governments as a mere organization for providing police or contracting treaties; when they have ceased to entertain any warmer feelings for one another than those which interest or personal friendship, or a mere general philanthropy may produce, the more dissolution of that nation is at hand.”
”We Want Willkie” was the Republican rallying cry that year, but at that particular convention, there was heard another cry: “We Want Kinnick.” He was becoming the spokesman for a generation, another duty he would not shirk. Writing a year later to another politically ambitious friend, Loren Hickerson, Kinnick said, “Yes, Loren, some day I would like to meet you as a fellow senator or representative in Washington D.C. Whether this can ever be my lot non can say now.” Getting the jump on other newspapers, the Marion, Iowa, Sentinel announced after the Iowa football season that it was endorsing Kinnick for President in 1956, the first election in which he would be eligible to run for the office.
Kinnick finished his first year of law school third in a class of 103, then enlisted in the Naval Air Corps Reserve. He was called to active duty three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “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,” he wrote in one of the black notebooks he kept as a record of his war service.
Those words, thousands of them, that he wrote on those lined pages serve as a vivid testimony of what might have been. They reveal a much more complicated and vulnerable man than the All-American boy he seemed to be. On these pages, he is sometimes a man in pain. Conditions in the South, which he witnessed while undergoing flight training in Florida, appalled him. “The inequities in human relationships are many,” he wrote, “but the lot of the Negro is one of the worst…Kicked from pillar to post, condemned, cussed, ridiculed, accorded no respect, permitted to no sense of human dignity. What can be done I don’t know…When this war is over the problem is apt top be more difficult than ever. May wisdom, justice, brotherly love guide our steps to the right solution.”
Despite the rigors of flight school, he read and wrote with the prodigious energy of man racing to fulfill himself. “Finished Sandburg’s Prairie Years on Lincoln. Want to get started on War Years soon…” “Picked up a biography of Mr. Churchill just recently written by Philip Guedalla. Read it straight through…” “Finished St. Exupery’s book Wind, Sand and Stars…” “Did some Science reading for an hour and a half. Read more in Pringle’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt…” “Started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the greatest novel ever written. It is 1350 pages long…” These entries were made between May 21 and June 22, 1942. War and Peace took him a few weeks.
He somehow found time to go to the movies—Mrs. Miniver was a favorite. The Maltese Falcon was not—and to the theater. He was enraptured by a Marian Anderson performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. “Miss Anderson was dressed in a beautiful, full-length velvet gown of quiet green with a splash of silver extending diagonally across the front from waist to hem…Her powerful heartfelt rendition of Sometimes I fell Like a Motherless Child was marvelous. I could hear the moan and wail of the Negro soul echoing through the centuries…The perfection of her tone and interpretation swelled out over her listeners and we all closed our eyes and felt as if we were in church.”
He listed his favorite swing records: Elmer’s Tune, Moonlight Cocktail, Blues in the Night, Chattanooga Choo-Choo. And he, who had scarcely a free night in college for dating, in his diary sounded very much like the young man he was. “I must admit that there is nothing I enjoy more than the companionship of a beautiful woman who also possesses breeding, grace, charm and wit. There have been a few such women in my life but not enough…I shall not consider my mortal existence complete until I have loved and won a woman who commands my admiration and respect in every way. It looks as if it will be some time before that comes about. “
Kinnick, self-assured boy wonder, was, his diaries disclose, afflicted on occasion with a nagging self-doubt. “More than once in the past few months, speeches that I have made have come to mind. It is strange that what I considered then a pretty good talk now seems naïve, unimpressive, possessing little merit. Sometimes I momentarily feel embarrassed—I wonder what others thought. Would it all have been better unsaid?” “Feel kind of low today. Used to worry about getting into a field of life endeavor that would be sure to press my capabilities. Now I am wondering whether I didn’t have a rather exalted idea of the extent of those capabilities.”
The final entries, in the spring of 1943, are pithy, hurried, epigrammatic, the words, prophetically, of a man who seemed to be running out of time. “Yesterday’s gardenias…” “It is a real mistake to try to be head man in everything you attempt…” “Freedom another name for hunger?…” “sans culotte…” “Tolstoy claims there is no such things as chance or genius…” “How I wish I could sing and play the piano…” And, on June 1, 1943, the last entry: “People must come before profits.” The rest of the pages are blank.
On June 2, at 8:30 am, Nile Kinnick took off in a Grumman F4F Wildcat Navy fighter plane on a routine training flight from the deck of the carrier U.S.S. Lexington, which was then sailing in the gulf of Paria in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Shortly before 10am, another pilot, Ensign Bill Reiter, noticed that Kinnick’s plane had an oil leak. He warned him of the trouble by radio and started to follow him back to the ship. About four miles from the carrier, the leak became much more serious. Kinnick could not land on the Lexington without endangering other planes on the deck, so he elected to ditch it in the water.
”He was calm and efficient throughout and made a perfect wheels-up landing in the water,” Reiter wrote the Kinnick family. Reiter saw Kinnick in the water free of the plane, so he flew back to the carrier to direct the rescue craft. When the vessels reached the crash site, there was no trace of either plane or pilot. Nile Kinnick was five weeks short of his 25th birthday. His brother Ben, born 13 months after him, died 15 months later as a Marine pilot shot down over the Pacific. Their father, Nile Sr., now a vigorous 94, has outlived his two elder sons by 43 years.
The face on the coin tossed by officials at the start of every Big Ten game is Nile Kinnick’s. The Iowa football team, a true Big Ten power now, plays in Nile Kinnick Stadium. IN the lobby of the Ironmen Inn on the outskirts of Iowa City, there is a giant oil reproduction of the photograph of Kinnick scoring the winning touchdown against Notre Dame. Portraits of all the Ironmen are there. Kinnick, photographed in a frazzled practice jersey, looks, with his cropped sandy hair, wide eyes and dimpled chin to be no more than 15 years old. There is a sort of shrine to Kinnick in the players’ lounge downstairs from the football offices on campus. Another picture of the winning touchdown run against Notre Dame is there also, and so, in a glass case, are the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award. By pressing a button below this trophy case, a visitor can hear Kinnick’s recorded voice accepting the Heisman. It is a firm, confident voice, a voice older than the man. His number 24 has been retired. Two books have been written about Kinnick and the Ironmen—Kinnick, The Man and the Legend by D.W. Stump and The Ironmen by Scott M. Fisher.
In 1989 the surviving Ironmen will return to the campus in Iowa City for the 50th anniversary of their team. They will be honored in the stadium named for the man whose memory they keep alive. He is like a friendly ghost to them. “I could not believe it when they said this indestructible man was dead,” says Couppee. “ I can’t recall ever being more emotionally upset. I still find it hard to believe.”
Those who knew him have long wondered what this exemplary human being might have accomplished. He had energy, ambition, intelligence, courage, and sensitivity. “offhand, it is hard to think of any good quality which Nile Kinnick did not possess in abundance,” Eric C. Wilson wrote in The Daily Iowan after Kinnick’s death. “And now he is gone, and his dreams with him,” Whitney Marton of the AP wrote. “Why does war have to take such really human humans? It doesn’t seem fair.”
And yet, almost 50 years after his success, Nile Kinnick remains a presence on the green hills and riverbanks of the Iowa campus. He is not forgotten there and that is only just because he would never have forgotten it. “It is almost like home to me,” he wrote a friend visiting there. “I love the campus, the people, the trees, everything about it. And it is beautiful in the spring. I hope you strolled across the golf course just at twilight and felt the peace and quiet of an Iowa evening, just as I used to do.”
NOTES: This story first appeared in Sports Illustrated August 31st, 1987. It was written by Ron Fimrite. This issue is no longer printed or available from Sports Illustrated. I asked for and received permission to transcribe the article and publish it on Hawkeyenation.com.