The Legend Lives On!

Iowa Hawkeye Nile Kinnick Dared to Dream

Kyle Hendricks, Contributing Reporter

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You may or may not be familiar with the name Nile Kinnick depending on how much you pay attention to football. Nile Kinnick was the first Heisman trophy winner at the University of Iowa and one of the best college football players to ever play the game.

Kinnick was born in Adel, Iowa and attended Adel High school. After his junior year, his family moved to Omaha, Nebraska where he attended Benson High School where he was voted first team All-state in football and basketball.

Before Kinnick was an All-Big Ten running back for Iowa he seriously considered attending The University of Minnesota, a team that had quite a successful winning record. Iowa, on the other hand, was not doing well on the football field. It is said that Kinnick specifically wanted to play for a team that was down on its luck. He wanted to be able to help a team win again. Despite his small frame, being only 5 feet 8 inches and 170 pounds, during his time at Iowa he showed off his shifty running ability, which inevitably earned him the nickname “ The Cornbelt Comet.” Even with Kinnick on the team, the Hawkeyes still struggled to win games, going 1-7 and 1-6-1 in his sophomore and junior years. His senior year, the Hawkeyes went 6-1-1.

During his 1939 Heisman-winning season, Kinnick was on the field for an average of 57 of the 60-minute games, even staying on the field for 402 consecutive minutes that spanned across seven games. Only an injury kept him off the field, when he was sidelined against Northwestern University with a separated shoulder. Kinnick finished the season as a halfback and was also the team’s main passer, throwing for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passing attempts. He rushed for 374 yards on 106 carries, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. He also made 11-of-17 dropkick conversion attempts and scored 41 points. Whether it was passing, running or kicking, Kinnick was directly involved in 107 of Iowa’s 130 points scored that season. Kinnick set 14 records during the 1939 season, many of which stood for over fifty years.

At the end of the 1939 season, Nile Kinnick won virtually every major award in the country. He was a consensus First-Team All-American, and he appeared on every first team ballot to become the only unanimous selection in the AP voting. He won the Big Ten MVP award by the largest margin in history. He also won the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy. Kinnick even won the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, beating out such notables as Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson, and Joe Louis. He was the first college football player to win that award. On November 28, 1939, Nile Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy, becoming to date the only Iowa Hawkeye to win college football’s most prestigious award.

After graduation, Kinnick was drafted in the second round by the Brooklyn Dodgers and offered $10,000 to play for them but he declined because he wanted to go to law school. After one year, he ranked third in his class, but law was not his only interest. He had a grandfather who was governor so his exposure to government started at a young age. Kinnick even had the chance to be introduced to then, presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940.

After only one year of law school, Kinnick left to enlist in the Naval Air service. Before reporting to the naval base, he took one last tour of Iowa to speak to communities and then finished in Omaha to visit his parents. Kinnick then went back to Iowa City one last time to watch the Hawkeyes take on the Huskies of Washington University. During the game, word spread of his attendance and the crowd began to chant, “We want Kinnick.” He received a standing ovation as he peaked his head out of the press box window.

Sadly, Kinnick died on a training flight during his time in the Navy. A fighter pilot at this time, Kinnick crashed into the Caribbean Sea during a routine training flight. Kinnick was only 24 years old at the time of his death. Kinnick had been flying for over an hour when his Grumman F4F Wildcat developed a serious oil leak. Kinnick followed standard military procedure and executed an emergency landing in the water, but died in the process. Rescue boats arrived on the scene a mere eight minutes later, but they found only an oil slick. His body was never recovered.

After his death, Nile Kinnick was remembered in many ways, including a school and an arena being named after him. The number 24 has also been retired at the University of Iowa and their home stadium has been renamed to Kinnick Stadium.

Many people say Kinnick was the perfect representation of what college athletics should be about. Some may even go as far as to say that Kinnick is whom every man should strive to be like.