Nile Kinnick

Iowa Hawkeyes halfback (1937-1939)
(July 9, 1918-June 2, 1943)

  • Heisman Trophy winner in 1939
  • Maxwell Award winner in 1939
  • Drafted in the 2nd round of the 1940 NFL Draft with the 14th pick by the Brooklyn Dodgers
  • Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951

Nile Kinnick CardNile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., was the winner of both the Heisman Memorial Trophy and the Maxwell Award in 1939 after an ironman performance which saw him play 402 of a possible 420 minutes. Those 402 minutes came in consecutive fashion from the start of the season until a separated shoulder finally forced him to the sideline in the season finale against Northwestern.

While the statistics for his Heisman-winning campaign are incomplete, it is accepted that he passed for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns while running for 374 more on 106 carries. He also made 11-of-17 dropkick conversion attempts and scored a total of 41 points. Counting his involvement in all phases of the game, Kinnick was directly involved in 107 of Iowa’s 130 points scored during the 1939 season. His dominance extended to the defensive side of the ball as well where he intercepted eight passes.

Post-career and death

Kinnick’s Heisman acceptance speech is remembered as one of the most eloquent in the history of the award as he thanked God he had been born in America “where they have football fields instead of in Europe where they have battlefields.” His speech reflected the isolationist mood in the country as the early years of World War II raged on.

Like the Heisman winners before him, Kinnick was selected in the NFL Draft as the Brooklyn Dodgers took him in the second round with the 14th pick overall. And like all the previous winners before him except Davey O’Brien, he ultimately decided against a professional football career as well. Instead, Kinnick, who had an interest in politics and was the grandson of former Iowa governor George W. Clarke, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and entered law school.

Despite his earlier Heisman speech with its isolationist roots, Kinnick dropped out of law school after one year to enlist in the Navy Air Corps just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was eventually assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as a pilot, and it was on a routine training flight in the Caribbean on June 2, 1943, that he was forced to crash land in the sea. Kinnick’s body was never recovered, and at the age of 24, he became the first former Heisman Trophy winner to perish.

A movement to rename Iowa Stadium in Kinnick’s memory was initially quelled by Kinnick’s own father who had lost another son in the war – Nile’s brother, Ben Kinnick. Their father, Nile, Sr., was reluctant to honor one brother over the other and also noted the large number of other American lives lost during the war. The issue laid dormant for years until the early 1970’s when a local sportswriter drummed up support to rename the stadium – this time with the support of Nile’s father. With the approval of the Iowa Athletic Board, Iowa Stadium was renamed Kinnick Stadium prior to the kickoff of the 1972 season opener against Oregon State. Renovations in 2006 included the addition of a bronze statue of Kinnick near the team entrance to the stadium. Kinnick Stadium remains the only stadium named for a Heisman Trophy winner.

Where’s the trophy?

The location of Nile Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy has not been determined.

Web links Biography Nile Kinnick

Reading list

A Hero Perished: The Diary and Selected Letters of Nile Kinnick
Kinnick: The Man and the Legend

Videos and highlights

A 1944 documentary of Nile Kinnick
From Ballfields to Battlefields: Nile Kinnick, Hero for the Ages
Nile Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy Speech (1939)
Nile Kinnick: Big Ten Icons #7 Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4
Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football (Nile Kinnick segment)
The Legendary Nile Kinnick & The Heisman Trophy



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