Truth, we are told, can be stranger than fiction. In Nile Kinnick’s case it was also more impressive. The spellbinding exploits of Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong and other fictional sports heroes of the early 20th century had nothing on the real-life accomplishments of Kinnick, who with his fellow Ironmen pretty much rescued University of Iowa football during a magical 1939 season that still stirs the imagination 71 years after it took place. There’s a reason the Hawkeyes’ home field bears Kinnick’s name.
All of Iowa was hit hard by the Great Depression and its aftermath, and Kinnick’s proud, hard-working family was one of thousands forced to vacate its farm. Iowa’s pride-of-the-state football program was also affected by the economic turmoil, trouble that was exacerbated by coach Howard Jones’ departure following an internal dispute over control of the team. Taking over as coach before that 1939 season, former Notre Dame standout and Knute Rockne disciple Eddie Anderson inherited a floundering, dispirited squad that had gone 2-13-1 over the previous two years, with just one Big Ten victory.
Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr., grandson of a former Iowa governor and a true student-athlete, was one of the holdover halfbacks. He wasn’t especially big (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) or exceptionally fast, but Anderson saw in him the attributes of a single-wing tailback. Kinnick, with ambition to match his ability, seized the opportunity with customary zeal.
In the season opener, he gained 110 yards on just eight carries, scored three touchdowns and passed for two in a victory over South Dakota. The following week he ran for 103 yards, scored one touchdown, passed for three more and averaged 22.3 yards on nine punt returns as the Hawkeyes beat Indiana for the first time since 1921.
Michigan interrupted Iowa’s joy ride with a 27-7 victory in which the great Tom Harmon scored all 27 points, but the Hawkeyes bounced back to beat Wisconsin behind Kinnick’s three touchdown passes and Purdue on two safeties. Their turnaround was beginning to attract national notice, in part because of the manner in which it was being achieved. Only about 35 players survived Anderson’s rigorous preseason training camp, which emphasized conditioning and rooted out those unwilling to “pay the price.” Only about 20 of the remaining 35 players were regular on-field contributors, so it wasn’t uncommon for Kinnick and other starters to play all 60 minutes. Hence the Ironmen nickname.
A victory over Notre Dame in Week 6 may have been the season’s most memorable. Kinnick scored the Hawkeyes’ only touchdown on a four-yard run and drop-kicked the decisive extra point in a 7-6 win. In a grim defensive struggle, punting was the difference, and Kinnick gave the Hawkeyes a decided edge, averaging 45.6 yards on 16 kicks, including a 51-yarder that sailed out of bounds at the Notre Dame five-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, sealing Iowa’s victory. His jubilant teammates carried an exhausted Kinnick off the field at the final gun.
A week later the Hawkeyes improved to 6-1 when Kinnick threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to overcome Minnesota. They needed to beat Northwestern in the season finale to win the Big Ten title, but settled for a 7-7 tie as the Ironman role finally took a toll on Kinnick. After playing 60 minutes in six straight games, he left the NU game in the third quarter with an injured shoulder.
Still, the Hawkeyes’ remarkable transformation was the big story in college football, and Kinnick reaped the benefits: He won the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies as National Player of the Year and the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as Big Ten MVP. The Associated Press named him its Male Athlete of the Year, over Yankees great Joe DiMaggio and heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis. At the Heisman dinner in New York, 700 men, women and children rose to their feet to salute his rousingly patriotic speech. “This country’s OK as long as it’s producing Nile Kinnicks,” Bill Cunningham wrote in the Boston Post. “The football part is incidental.”
Kinnick thought so to and disdained several lucrative pro offers in favor of law school. “My football career is over,” he said after throwing two TD passes against the Green Bay Packers in the College All-Star Game in the summer of 1940. “Law is my first priority.”
An honors grad, a distinguished scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa at Iowa, Kinnick had decided to pursue a political career as he enrolled in law school at Iowa, but World War II intervened. He enlisted in the Naval Air Corps, and his unit was activated three days before Pearl Harbor. Eighteen months later, on a routine training flight from the carrier U.S.S. Lexington off the coast of Venezuela, Kinnick was forced to make an emergency water landing in the Caribbean when oil began leaking from his plane. Neither pilot nor plane was recovered. Nile Kinnick was 24 when he was lost at sea.
“I could not believe it when they told me this indestructible man was dead,” teammate Al Couppee said. “I can’t recall ever being more emotionally upset.”
Thirteen months later, Kinnick’s younger brother Ben, a Marine fighter pilot, was killed in action, shot down over the South Pacific.
The late Ron Fimrite wrote a remarkable profile of Kinnick in the Aug. 31, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated. The title, “Nile Kinnick: an American Hero,” was most appropriate. In it, Couppee summed up “the Kinnick effect” that is still present on the Iowa campus, where Kinnick’s No. 24 has been retired and where the Hawkeyes play in the stadium that bears his name.
“All the clichés fit — he was Jack Armstrong and Frank Merriwell all rolled into one,” Couppee said. “You just knew he’d do something in the last minute, find a way to pull us out. There was just an aura about him. He didn’t try to create it; it was just there. You really had the feeling you were in the presence of someone special.”