The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Kinnick, Nile Clarke
(July 9, 1918–June 2, 1943)

–student, athlete, and naval airman—was born in Adel, Iowa. His father, Nile Clark Kin-nick, was a farm manager in Adel, and his maternal grandfather, George W. Clarke, was a former governor of Iowa. As a youth, Kin nick excelled in several sports. He played American Legion baseball, catching for future Hall of Famer Bob Feller, and in 1930 he led the Adel Junior High football team to an undefeated season. In three seasons of high school basketball, Kinnick scored more than 1,000 points.

    During the Great Depression, as the Kin-nicks fell on hard times, Kinnick's father found work with the Federal Land Bank in Omaha. Kinnick finished his last two years of high school at Benson High School in Omaha, then enrolled at the State University of Iowa, where he excelled academically. As a freshman, he played on the baseball, basketball, and football teams. In his sophomore year, he dropped baseball, and as a junior he dropped basketball, in order to concentrate on his studies and football. After successful freshman and sophomore football seasons, Kinnick struggled his junior year with a painful ankle injury for which, as a Christian Scientist, he refused treatment.

    In 1939, Kinnick's senior season, he became the undisputed star of a team that became known as the "Ironmen" because the roster was so thin that key players were forced to play 60 full minutes in several games. Kin-nick played an amazing 402 consecutive minutes until he was injured in the final game of the season. The undermanned Hawkeyes compiled a surprising season record of 6-1-1, highlighted by dramatic wins over Notre Dame and Minnesota. Notre Dame arrived in Iowa City with a six-game winning streak and was ranked number one in the nation. Kin-nick scored the Hawkeyes' only touchdown and converted the crucial extra point in the 7- 6 upset, and he booted a spectacular 63-yard punt in the final minutes to pin the Irish near their own goal line and preserve the win. Against the powerful Minnesota squad, the Hawkeyes fell behind 9-0, but Kinnick threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to secure the 13-9 victory.

    At the end of the season, Kinnick was named to virtually every All-American list in the country, and he won the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, and the Maxwell Award. In a poll conducted by the Associated Press, he was picked as the nation's top male athlete of the year over such notables as Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis. In his highly acclaimed acceptance speech for the Heisman, Kinnick finished by saying, "If you will permit me, I'd like to make a comment which in my mind is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football, and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest, and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country, would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win the Heisman award, than the Croix de Guerre."Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post summarized many listeners' feelings when he wrote, "This country's O.K. as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental."

    In addition to his athletic success, Kinnick had a 3.4 grade point average, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was a member of Phi Kappa Psi. After graduating with a B.A. in commerce, Kinnick passed up an opportunity to play professional football and instead enrolled in law school, contemplating a career in politics like his grandfather.

    After his first year in law school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps Reserve and was called to active duty three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On June 2, 1943, Kinnick took off on a routine training flight from the carrier USS Lexington, which was on a shakedown cruise in the Caribbean Sea. After his plane developed mechanical difficulties, Kin-nick attempted a water landing, but when rescuers reached the crash site, neither the plane nor his body was found.

    After the war, the State University of Iowa's student council voted to rename the football stadium, then called Iowa Stadium, for Kin-nick, but his father objected to the plan because he did not want his son singled out from the many young men who had died in the war. In 1972 Cedar Rapids Gazette sportswriter Gus Schrader rekindled interest in naming the stadium for Kinnick, and the elder Kinnick gave his approval.
Sources Kinnick's papers are held by the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also Paul Baender, ed., A Hero Perished: The Diary and Selected Letters of Nile Kinnick (1991); and Mark Dukes, Greatest Moments in Iowa Hawkeyes Football History (1998).
Contributor: Spencer Howard