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Nile Kinnick, Jr. was a college football star at the University of Iowa. He won the hearts of the United States public after winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming an All-American. Kinnick joined the Naval Air Reserve just before the U.S. entered World War II and died during a routine military training flight. The University of Iowa named Kinnick Stadium after their fallen alumni.

Youth and Family

Nile Clark Kinnick, Jr. was born in Adel, Iowa, on July 9, 1918, to parents Nile Clark Kinnick, Sr. and Frances Clarke. The Kinnick family arrived in the U.S. from Holland in the 1770s and settled in Iowa in 1854. They owned nearly 400 acres of land and his paternal grandfather operated a successful farm and served on the city council in Adel. Frances Clarke’s father, George, served as Governor of Iowa.

Nile Kinnick, Jr. grew up between the Kinnick family farm and the large city him in Adel. He and his two brothers, Ben and George, constantly worked or learned. When not in school, they performed farm chores or played football or basketball. Kinnick, Jr. started his first job, a paper route, at age 9 and started to bag groceries at age 12.[1]

Adel Junior High and High School

Nile Kinnick, Jr. attended Adel Junior High School across the street from his home. He excelled at baseball, basketball, and football and led both the basketball and football teams to undefeated seasons during his entire junior high career.[2] The same continued when Kinnick graduated on to Adel High School.[3] In 1933, the high school had their first undefeated season with Kinnick as quarterback.

Kinnick did not just overachieve on the playing field, but inside and outside the classroom as well. He maintained almost straight As throughout high school and participated in speech contests and theater productions. He received a lot of encouragement from his parents and Otto Kohl, his coach and friend.

During basketball season, Kinnick showed his skills with another kind of ball. He scored 1/3 of Adel’s total points for the season, even scoring 25 in one game alone. He continued to lead the basketball and football teams to victory during his second and third years. Kinnick would have continued through his senior year, but the Great Depression hit and the Kinnick’s lost a large portion of their wealth.[4]

Senior Year of High School

Nile Kinnick understood the value of practicing to improve one’s skills and it earned him the Heisman Trophy.

The Kinnick family relocated to Omaha, Nebraska.[5] Nile Kinnick, Jr. enrolled at Benson High School and brought the same enthusiasm and skill to the football and basketball teams at Benson. His brother, Ben, joined him on several occasion to help score goals. By the end of Kinnick’s senior year football season, he was named to the All-State’s first team.

When basketball started again in winter, the same thing happened. He brought the Benson basketball team all the way to third place at the Nebraska State Tournament. He was named a basketball All-Star for that season as well. Nile played as the catcher for Benson’s baseball team and aided in their championship win that year too.

Kinnick, Jr. maintained his straight As and found himself very popular within the school because of his athletic skills and his hard working personality. He practiced hours every day to strengthen his skills and created a well-developed ability to kick a football exactly where and how far he wanted.[6]

College Football

Nile Kinnick, Jr., first tried out for the University of Minnesota football team, but the tryout did not go well.[7] Otto Kohl then introduced him to the basketball and football coaches at the University of Iowa. They offered him a job digging ditches and he decided he liked the school’s law program.[8]

While playing at Iowa, Kinnick earned the nickname “The Cornbelt Comet” due to his unique running style. His first two seasons did not go well with the Hawkeyes with the team finishing 1-7 in 1937 and 1-6-1 in 1938. He sustained a severe ankle injury during the opening of the 1938 season which plagued him the entire year.

Eddie Anderson took over coaching for Irl Tubbs in 1939 and the team began drilling so often they became known as the “Ironmen.” Kinnick played an average of 57 minutes every game and 402 consecutive minutes against seven other universities before separating his shoulder against the Wildcats in the season’s last game.

Final Season and The Heisman

The following season, his final, Kinnick scored victory after victory. Often times he carried the team alone. During a game against the University of Minnesota, he performed so fantastically with seven completions and two 4th quarter touchdowns that a Chicago newspaper ran the headline, “Kinnick 13, Minnesota 9.”

Kinnick finished his college football career with 18 interceptions, a 39.9 yard average per punt, and more than 1,600 yards rushing. He won the Chicago Tribute’s own award similar to the Big Ten MVP as well as the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. Nile Kinnick won the coveted Heisman Trophy on December 6, 1939. His speech solidified his popularity as an outstanding athlete and a nice person. The Associated Press named him the Top Male Athlete of 1939 over legends like Byron Nelson, Joe Louis, and Joe DiMaggio.

Kinnick graduated as the senior class president and with a 3.4 grade-point average. The Brooklyn Dodgers offered him $10,000 to play in the National Football League. He turned it down to study law at the University of Iowa College of Law.[9] He ranked third in his class after one year of law school. He possessed a great interest in politics and introduced Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, at one of his campaign rallies. The local Marion Sentinel endorsed Kinnick as having a promising political future and encouraged him to run for president in 1956.[10]

World War I, Death, and Kinnick Stadium

Kinnick Stadium is named after the beloved football star, Nile Kinnick, Jr.

Nile Kinnick, Jr., left law school in August 1941 before finishing his studies. He joined the Naval Air Corps Reserve in anticipation of a war. The Reserves called him up on December 4, 1941, only three days before Pearl Harbor. Kinnick was flying a standard training mission on June 2, 1943, after taking off from the U.S.S. Lexington Aircraft Carrier. He flew along the Venezuelan coast when he started to experience engine issues.[11]

The Grumman F4F Wildcat aircraft started leaking oil and he performed an emergency landing in the water. Rescue boats arrived only 8 minutes after the crash, but they supposedly only found an oil slick. The aircraft carrier was crowded with many planes prepared to take off and he may have feared harming someone when trying to land.[12]

The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Nile Kinnick, Jr. posthumously in 1951. The Hawkeyes retired his number, 24, in his memory and renamed the Iowa Stadium the Kinnick Stadium in 1972 to honor his legacy.[13]

References

Bibliography

Chapman, M. (2009). IRONMAN: The Nile Kinnick Story. Iowa History Journal, 1(1).[1]

Flatter, R. (2000, August 6). Everybody’s All-America. ESPN Classic.[2]

Stump, D. W. (1975). Kinnick: The Man and the Legend. University of Iowa.


Footnotes

  1. Chapman, 2009
  2. Chapman, 2009
  3. Flatter, 2000
  4. Chapman, 2009
  5. Flatter, 2000
  6. Chapman, 2009
  7. Flatter, 2000
  8. Chapman, 2009
  9. Chapman, 2009
  10. Stump, 1975
  11. Flatter, 2000
  12. Stump, 1975
  13. Flatter, 2000