Nile Kinnick

Tension was high before the Iowa-Minnesota game of that fall, hard feeling having developed in some quarters over the belief that the Gophers had been rough on their southern neighbors the previous year. There's no telling what might have developed had it not been for, of all things, a diplomatic pig!

The olive branch was proffered by Governor Olson of Minnestota, who wagered a pig with Governor Herring of Iowa on the outcome of the game, thus snapping the tension between the two schools with a chuckle. The pig itself was Floyd of Rosedale, a prize Iowa hog and blood brother of Blue Boy, which attained a measure of fame in the movie State Fair. It was presented in payment by Governor Herring after Minnesota won 13-6. But the incident was not to end there. At the request of Governor Olson, a bronze replica of Floyd of Rosedale was made and he became a trophy to be fought for by the football teams of the two state universities throughout the years. Floyd's blanket design allows places for scores to the season of 1969.

Iowa won but one game in 1937 and in '38, the former team having the distinction of being led by Homer Harris, first Negro player to captain a Conference football eleven. Two victories in two years afforded ample indication that Iowa football was sick enough to need a doctor's care. The physician called into consultation was Dr. Eddie Anderson and so miraculous was his medicine that his first team in '39 won six games, lost one, and tied one for second place in the Conference standings! Actually the Hawkeyes had the best over-all record in the Middle West inasmuch as Ohio State, the Conference champions, was beaten twice, once in Big Ten play and once by Cornell.

This, indeed, was a storybook ball club with a dashing, reckless, tantalizing habit of winning games in the fourth period. Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Minnesota all were fourth-quarter victims and Northwestern was tied in the same manner in the Hawkeyes' greatest exhibition of courage under pressure. They defeated Notre Dame, which entered the contest with a perfect record, and whipped South Dakota in the season's opener which was the only game against a minor opponent. Only Michigan could thwart these embattled youngsters led by Kinnick, one of the most remarkable men ever to step on the American sports stage.

The experts predicted this team of Anderson's would be lucky to win a game, for it was composed largely of players who knew nothing of victory in '38 except for one over Chicago, which was on its last football legs. Dr. Anderson had only a few players, so he had no choice but to put those few to work on a full-time basis. Their "iron man" accomplishments are unparalleled in an age of grid specialization and large squads.

Kinnick's unique talents as a ballplayer and a leader were apparent in the first game when the Hawks spotted Indiana ten points and came on to win, 32-29. His running and passing kept Iowa in a seesaw battle but with eight minutes remaining Indiana was still in front, 29-26. What's more the Hoosiers were still throwing passes trying to pile up more points. That proved their downfall, for Green intercepted one and returned seven yards to the Indiana twenty-six. Kinnick got away for sixteen, then the attack bogged until it was fourth down on the fifteen. Here Kinnick had a choice. A good kicker, he could elect to try for a field goal and an almost certain tie score, or he could gamble on a forward pass that would mean either victory or defeat. Kinnick characteristically took the gamble and his pass was a bull's-eye to Prasse in the end zone!

Kinnick scared Michigan momentarily in the next game with a sixty-nine-yard scoring pass to Dean, but Tom Harmon was enjoying one of his great days and nothing could be done to check him.

Wisconsin, in true form, was nursing a 13-12 margin as the fourth period opened with Dean intercepting a pass to give Iowa the opening for which it had been looking. Victory then was a matter of but three Kinnick passes. One went to Prasse on the Badger forty, one to Couppee on the twenty-nine, and the third to Green on the goal line. Kinnick's kick made it 19-13.

Iowa hopes were dark as the Purdue game approached, for Hank Luebcke, Jim Walker, and Diehl all had been lost through injuries. The tyro, Bergstrom, had been installed at tackle and Pettit shifted from end to guard. So thin was Iowa on manpower that only fourteen men, eight of them in the line, were used to upset Purdue by the freak score of 4-0. Enich was twice a hero, blocking two punts in the fourth period. Prasse recovered the first one on the four-yard line. Iowa couldn't score, but Jack Brown fumbled trying to get away another punt and was smothered for a safety. Five minutes later Enich again stepped into the path of a Purdue kick, the ball rolling fifteen yards into the end zone where Leon DeWitte retrieved it for another two points.

"What did you want that second safety for?" someone asked Enich.

"Insurance!" he grinned.

The Notre Dame game didn't follow the last-minute rally pattern, Iowa taking the lead and holding on grimly for a 7-6 margin. The Hawkeyes' break came when Steve Sitko fumbled when hit by Andruska, Pettit recovering the ball on the four. After two plays failed, Couppee spoke to Kinnick in the huddle.

"Shift to right half this time, Nile," he suggested, "and hit over left tackle. I think you'll score."

He thought correctly. Kinnick switched from left half to right, caught the Irish defense by surprise and crashed through for a touchdown. He drop-kicked for the point which was to prove so vital when Lou Zontini missed his kick after Matt Piepul's fourth-quarter touchdown. Any lingering hopes the Irish might have had of staging a triumphant late rally were killed by Kinnick's sixty-one-yard punt out of bounds on the Notre Dame six-yard-line.

Next week Joe Mernik's sixteen-yard field goal gave Minnesota a 3-0 halftime lead and in the third period George Franck swept seven yards around end for a touchdown, barely squeezing over in the corner without stepping out of bounds. Mernik's conversion kick was blocked but the Gophers weren't worried, for their lead was 9-0 and they had made thirteen first downs to Iowa's three. It looked like a cakewalk to victory, and so it was, but someone else took the icing from the cake.

Iowa got possession on its own twenty-yard line and in four plays went eighty yards to a touchdown. Kinnick passed twice to Dean, once for eighteen and again for fifteen, then hit the line for two yards before hurling another pass to Prasse, who caught the ball on the eight and ran over. Kinnick's drop kick made it 9-7 for Minnesota.

Three minutes and twenty-five seconds remained when Kinnick caught a Gopher punt on his own ten-yard line and came back eleven. A pass fell incomplete but another to Dean was good for seventeen and one to Prasse was ruled complete for interference on the Minnesota forty-eight. Green, the fullback, plowed for seven and Kinnick made it a first down on the twenty eight. Then as the ball was snapped back to Kinnick, Green streaked downfield wide to the left, apparently as a decoy, while Dean, right halfback, came around as though to take the ball on a hand-off. As Dean carried out his fake, Kinnick dropped back to the forty and, while tacklers closed in, arched a pass to his left. Green, just a step beyond two Minnesota defenders, caught it in the end zone for victory. Six plays had covered seventy-nine yards.

Kinnick's amazing endurance record snapped after 402 consecutive minutes when he sustained a shoulder separation against Northwestern. But even with their star gone and a 7-0 deficit facing them, these Iowans refused to quit, bouncing back with another last-period surge to earn a tie. A fumble recovered by Enich on the N.U. twenty-one-yard line was the wedge needed, and on the first play of the final quarter Dean passed to Couppee on the seven. A pass to Prasse was complete for interference only a yard from the goal and Murphy plunged over. Dean kicked the point as the final gesture of a remarkable season.

Kinnick's record was even more remarkable. Of Iowa's nineteen touchdowns, eleven were scored on passes thrown by Nile; he completed thirty-three pases in all, and one third of them paid off in touchdowns. In addition he crossed the enemy goal line five times himself, leaving only three Iowa touchdowns in which he did not have a part. He gained 374 yards rushing for an average of 3.52, passed for 684 yards, averaged 39 yards on 73 punts, returned 35 punts and kickoffs for 616 yards, drop-kicked 11 points after touchdown, scored 41 points himself and had a part in scoring 107 of Iowa's 130 total.

The end of the season was but a beginning of more honors for Kinnick. He was recognized on every All-American team; won the Maxwell, Heisman, and Camp trophies as the outstanding football player of 1939; received the Associated Press award as leading athlete in any sport during the year, and took the Chicago Tribune trophy as most valuable player in the Conference. Nor was that all. He was graduated from the college of commerce as a member of Phi Betta Kappa, won the Iowa athletic board cup for excellence in scholarship and athletics, and was a member of the Order of Artus, honorary commerce organization. He spurned lucrative offers to play professional football, not becuase he objected to the pro sport, but because he had determined to be a lawyer and felt he could not play football and study law without detriment to one or the other or both. He knew his own mind and had the courage of his convictions.

Kinnick was a sensation at the Heisman award dinner in New York. His impromptu speech of acceptance is still talked about by all who heard it. He paid glowing tribute to his teammates, saying in part, "From my personal viewpoint, I consider this a tribute to the coaching staff at the University of Iowa, headed by Dr. Eddie Anderson, and to my teammates sitting back in Iowa City. A finer man and a better coach never hit these United States and a finer team never performed on any gridiron than the Iowa team of 1939. I wish they might all be with me tonight to receive this trophy."

The nation already was plunging headlong toward war and Kinnnock finished his speech with these words: "I thank God that I was born to the gridirons of the Middle West and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the football player of this country would rather fight for the Heisman trophy than for the Croix de guerre."

Less than two years later Kinnick was in the uniform of his country, saying as he left Iowa City, "I would be lacking in appreciation for all America has done for me did I not offer what little I had to her."

He offered all and he gave all, for on June 2, 1943, Ensign Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., USNR, was lost at sea when his Navy fighter plane crashed in the Gulf of Paria some four miles from his carrier. His plane's engine had failed and he could not land aboard his ship because the deck was spotted for take-offs.

Nile Kinnick is Iowa's most revered athletic hero and a memorial scholarship in his name today perpetuates the memory of all University of Iowa men who died in service. Kinnick's impact on those who knew him was such that he was both the idol of hero-worshiping kids and the ideal of fathers who saw in him almost all of the things they would like in their own sons.


The Big Nine by Howard Roberts, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1948, pages 131-136.