One of the most revered student-athletes in Iowa history was born 100 years ago today.
Nile Kinnick is the only Heisman Trophy recipient in the history of the Hawkeye football program and the Phi Beta Kappa scholar who led Iowa’s legendary 1939 Ironmen team is one of two players in the program’s history to have his number retired.
On the centennial of his birth, here are 24 things to know about the Hawkeyes’ legendary No. 24, Nile Kinnick:
1. Nile Kinnick was born on July 9, 1918 in Adel, Iowa, the son of Nile Kinnick Sr. and Frances Clarke Kinnick. The eldest of three boys in his family, his father played football for three years at Iowa State and worked as a farm manager. His maternal grandfather, Adel attorney George W. Clarke, was once a governor of Iowa.
2. A star athlete in football and basketball for three years Adel High School, Kinnick also played American Legion baseball where his roles included working as the catcher for future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller. The Kinnick family moved to Omaha prior to Kinnick’s senior year of high school and he continued to thrive in football and basketball before graduating from Omaha Benson High School.
3. The Kinnick family moved to Omaha prior to Kinnick’s senior year of high school, and he continued to thrive in football and basketball before graduating from Benson High School. Kinnick tried out for the football team at the University of Minnesota, a two-time national champ in the 1930s, but coach Bernie Bierman told him he had no room on the roster for the halfback.
4. Kinnick was a multi-sport athlete at Iowa. He participated in football, basketball and baseball as a freshman, dropping baseball after one year and leaving the basketball program after lettering in 1938 to concentrate on football and academics.
5. The senior season that Nile Kinnick enjoyed was Heisman worthy. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior had a part in 109 of the 130 points Iowa’s legendary Ironmen team scored, throwing 11 touchdown passes and leading the nation that season with eight interceptions. Kinnick’s work included throwing a game-winning touchdown pass to Erwin Prasse on the final play of a 32-29 win over Indiana and running one-yard off left tackle through a group of four Notre Dame defenders for a score and a 7-6 win over Notre Dame. He also threw two touchdown passes, including one in the game’s final minutes, to rally Iowa from a 9-0 deficit to a 13-9 win over Minnesota.
6. A 7-7 tie against Northwestern in the final game of the season cost Kinnick and Iowa a chance to share the Big Ten championship that year. Kinnick, who had played 402 consecutive minutes, exited the Northwestern game in the third quarter with a separated shoulder and the Hawkeyes settled for second in the conference. But, the win over Notre Dame helped Iowa finish rated ninth nationally, ahead of Big Ten champ Ohio State.
7. The Ironmen team Kinnick led produced one of the greatest turnaround stories in Iowa football history. The Hawkeyes had finished 1-7 in 1938 before first-year coach Eddie Anderson watched a team with limited depth craft a 6-1-1 season. From his spots at halfback and in the defensive backfield, Kinnick averaged nearly 57 minutes per game for a team nicknamed because Anderson played no more than 18 players in any game that year.
8. The football field wasn’t the only place Kinnick excelled at Iowa. He was elected as the senior class president by his peers and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the national scholastic honor society. Kinnick was a 3.4 student at Iowa, earning a degree from the College of Commerce in 1940. He was enrolled in the Iowa College of Law before enlisting the United States Naval Air Corps Reserves.
9. Kinnick received 651 votes in balloting for the 1939 Heisman Trophy. Legendary Michigan running back and 1940 Heisman recipient Tom Harmon was second with 405 votes, edging Missouri quarterback Paul Christman and his 391 votes. Tennessee running back George Cafego finished fourth with 296 votes.
10. The acceptance speech Kinnick gave as he received the Heisman Trophy on Dec. 6, 1939 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City reflected both Kinnick’s personality and the times in which they were delivered. Combining college football and the war that was underway in Europe, Kinnick received a thunderous ovation following his speech. “I thank God I was born on the gridirons of the middle west and not on the battle fields of Europe,’’ Kinnick said, following with, “I can say confidently and positively that football players in this country would much rather fight for the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.’’
11. The Heisman Trophy was not the only award Kinnick won following his senior season at Iowa. He was also chosen as the recipient of the Walter Camp and Maxwell Trophies as the nation’s top player. In addition to earning a spot on virtually every all-American team, he was selected as the most valuable player in the Big Ten.
12. The Associated Press named Nile Kinnick as the top male athlete in the country in 1939. He beat out Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis and Byron Nelson for the honor.
13. The last football game Nile Kinnick was a part of was the 1940 College All-Star Game played at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Pictured on the program cover that day, Kinnick threw two touchdown passes and drop kicked four extra points, but his team lost 45-28 to the Green Bay Packers, the NFL champions that year.
14. NFL opportunities were available to Nile Kinnick after his collegiate career ended, but he turned down a $10,000 offer considered lucrative at the time to enter law school, with one eye on a potential political future. Kinnick actively campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940, becoming a popular figure at Willkie’s rallies.
15. In August, 1941, with United States involvement in the war in Europe becoming imminent, Kinnick enlisted in the United States Naval Air Corps Reserves with the desire to become a pilot. Before reporting for active duty on Dec. 4, 1941, three days before Pearl Harbor, Kinnick spent the fall of 1941 as an assistant coach at Iowa. In a letter written to his parents at the time, Kinnick wrote, “Every many whom I have admired has willingly and courageously served his country’s armed forces in times of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their examples as I best know.’’
16. It was 75 years ago this summer on June 2, 1943 when Kinnick died in an airplane crash in the Caribbean Sea off to the coast of Venezuela days after he has been deployed on the U.S. S. Lexington. Shortly after leaving the carrier’s deck on what to be a routine training flight, the Grumman F-4 Kinnick was piloting started losing oil. He executed an emergency landing into the waters of the Gulf of Paria, but by the time the Lexington rescue crew reached the plane’s position 10 minutes after the crash, both Kinnick and his plane had vanished. The plane and Kinnick’s body went unrecovered.
17. Kinnick is among individuals remembered on the World War II East Coast Memorial located in Battery Park in New York City. His name is inscribed on the memorial which commemorates military personnel who died while serving their country in the western waters of the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. Listed by rank, military organization and state, Kinnick is among 4,609 individuals missing in the waters of the Atlantic listed on the memorial.
18. A prolific writer whose diaries and letters are housed as the University of Iowa library, Kinnick kept a diary of his daily thoughts after he joined the Navy. His final entry, written the day before his plane crashed into the sea, said simply, “People must come before profit.’’
19. Kinnick was selected to the charter class of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951, just over eight years after his death.
20. Iowa Stadium was renamed Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 23, 1972, decades after a change was first proposed. There was a push shortly after Kinnick’s death to rename the facility, but his family was not comfortable with the idea. Years passed, boosters and donors continued to push for a change to honor Kinnick and with eventual support of Kinnick’s father, who attended a re-dedication prior to a football game against Oregon State, the facility name was changed.
21. When captains meet at the center of the field prior to any game played in a Big Ten stadium, the referee flips a bronze coin into the air which bears the likeness of Kinnick on the “heads’’ side.
22. It’s been 79 years since Kinnick last played for Iowa, but his name can still be found in the Hawkeye record book. His nine punt returns and the 201 yards he covered while making those returns in a game against Indiana on Oct. 7, 1939 and his 16 punts and 731 punting yards in a 7-6 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 11, 1939 endure as single-game records at Iowa. He continues to share Iowa’s single-season interceptions record with eight and the Hawkeyes’ career interceptions record with 18.
23. A 12-foot bronze statue of Kinnick stands outside the south entrance to the stadium which bears his name, Kinnick wearing a letter jacket with academic books in his arms and a helmet at his feet. Erected in 2006 as part of a renovation of the facility, the statue’s finish is described as “dark traditional patina’’ and it rests on a four-foot high base covered in mosabi black granite. It has become a tradition for Hawkeye players to touch the helmet beside Kinnick’s feet as they enter the stadium on game day.
24. The south face of the granite base of the Kinnick statute is engraved with words written by Kinnick on Dec. 3, 1941, the day before he reported for active duty in the Naval Air Corps Reserves. It reads, “… give me the courage and ability to conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family and my friends will be proud of me.’’