Stories You Should Know: Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr.

Born in Abel, Iowa on July 9th, 1918. Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. was raised in a happy family, with high standards and a strong will to serve. His maternal grandfather, George W. Clarke, had been governor of Iowa from 1913-1917. 

Nile was an outstanding student at Abel High School, but also excelled at both basketball and football. He led the football team to an undefeated State Championship in Iowa his junior year. In basketball he was a key player on a team that made it to the district finals. His father moved the family to Omaha, Nebraska after his junior year. The 5’8”, 170 pound senior took no time establishing himself in his new surroundings, becoming first team All-State in football and basketball and teaming with his brother Ben, leading Benson High School to the Omaha City Baseball Championship. His first love was football, and that’s what drove his college search.

He started his college career at Minnesota, but, due to his lack of size, he failed to make the team. He quickly transferred to Iowa for the 1937 season. Kinnick, proving that size is often overrated, He became known as  “The Corn Belt Comet”. He was named all-Big 10 that first season, but the Hawkeyes struggled to a 1-7 record. 1938 wasn’t much better, when Kinnick struggled following an ankle injury in their opening game, he as well as the team had another miserable season (1-6-1).

1939 would be different. Kinnick was everywhere. He played just about every down, being on the field for 402 consecutive minutes, including all 60 against Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Notre Dame, and Minnesota. The streak ended against Northwestern when he separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. He played 57 out of the total 60 minutes for the season. He was a halfback who was also the leading passer on the team. He passed for 638 yards and threw 11 touchdown passes. He ran for another 374 yards and converted 11 dropkick conversions. Of the 130 points the Iowa Hawkeyes scored that season, he was directly responsible for 107. As a defensive back he had eight interceptions. Iowa made a dramatic improvement reversing their 1938 1-6-1 record to an astounding 6-1-1. Fellow Hawkeye, Al Couppee said in a Sports Illustrated (8/31/87) article nearly 50 years later, “Then, out of the clear blue sky came this one little group of people with just the right chemistry-our team. There was an almost hysterical relief at having something at last to grab hold of, to believe in. And we had Nile!” 

The highlight of the year was Kinnick’s long touchdown run late in the game to beat Notre Dame, 7-6. It was reported, and not denied by anyone involved in the play, that he had broken three ribs on the play before. 

At season’s end he would be named the Big 10’s Most Valuable Player, and later the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner. His speech accepting the Heisman Trophy reflected the views of his countrymen in 1939.

 “Finally, if you’ll 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.”

 He participated  in the College All-Star Game against the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers after the season, but despite his two touchdowns, Green Bay prevailed 45-28. Kinnick was on the field for all four of the All-Stars scores. 

The NFL Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a $10,000 contract upon the completion of his college eligibility, but he had other plans and enrolled in law school at the University of Iowa the following year. His grandfather, the former Governor, was a graduate of that school in 1878 and Nile was also eyeing a political career. He even introduced Wendell Wilkie to a throng of supporters at the University of Iowa in 1940. That wasn’t to be either. 

He changed his plans again the next year as the United States geared for war. He chose to suspend his schooling to enlist in the United States Navy three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The change of heart reflected a change of the world situation. “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely. No reason why we shouldn’t suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.”

Deployed on the Aircraft Carrier Lexington, he became a flyer. He loved the majesty; “I flew up in the clouds today, tall, voluminous cumulus clouds. They were like snow-covered mountains, range after range of them. I felt like an alpine adventurer, climbing up canyons, winding my way between peaks, a billowy fastness, a celestial citadel.” He wrote in his journal. 

His motivation for serving sounded cliche, but was a true reflection of the young man, “Every man whom I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed service in times of danger.” 

In June, 1943 he was engaged in a training mission off the coast of Venezuela when his F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak. His wingman, Bill Reiter, confirmed that his oil leak was serious, and Kinnick was forced to ditch the aircraft in the ocean about four miles from the Lexington. A rescue mission was immediately launched, arriving at the scene in less than ten minutes,  but neither his plane nor his body were ever found. He’s officially listed as killed in action.

Kinnick was posthumously elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. The University of Iowa honored Kinnick by renaming their football stadium after him in 1972. Nile Kinnick Sr., who lost a second son to the war 15 months later (Ben) was the guest of honor. Iowa is the only school that’s stadium is named after a Heisman Trophy winner. 

There were many young men lost in the war, but was the impact of Kinninck’s loss greater than most?  Was there a future in pro football if he had gone in that direction? His Iowa teammate, Erwin Prasse opined in a Sports Illustrated article (8/31/87), “Yes, Nile, you know I think about him all the time. I think of him whenever I get in a conversation about players from our time and the ones now. Everyone says how much better they are today. Sure, but I say Nile could’ve played anytime. He was so smart, he’d have found a way to play.” 

He had already decided not to sign with the NFL, but his teammates were convinced that he would have succeeded. Political leadership seemed to be his intended destination

We’ll quote Couppee again when asked whether Kinnick would attend reunions, “No, I tell you where Nile Kinnick would be right now. He’d be in the White House. And with him there, we wouldn’t have any junk that’s going on now. Nile would’ve been so far ahead of these people.” 

Sound far fetched? Maybe not. Remember another young World War II Navy flyer from another politically connected family that wound up having a very prominent political career. George H.W. Bush was shot down in the Pacific in 1945. He was rescued and went on to be a Congressman, Vice-President, and then the 41st President of the United States.

Kinnick’s life was best summed up by Iowa Sportscaster Tait Cummings, “Kinnick proved one thing, that college athletics could be beautiful. Everything that can be said that is good about college athletics he was. He didn’t represent it….he was it.”

“I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand. I shall not be moved,” said Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr. Remember him and thousands of others on this Memorial Day. 

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