Our Iowa Heritage: Nile Kinnick – Iowa’s Heisman Winner.

Nile Kinnick Stadium – Iowa City, Iowa

On any typical Saturday afternoon (or early evening) in October, there is a gathering place in Iowa City for everyone and everything Hawkeye. With its 69,250 seats filled, this community, known better as Hawkeye Nation, gathers on the west side of the Iowa River, adjacent to the massive campus of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, making it the sixth largest city in Iowa!

The Kinnick Wave to all the kids and their families at the U of I Children’s Hospital.
Iowa Stadium – circa 1930’s.

My dad, George Boller, attended the first Iowa football games ever held here. It was 1929 and the country was about to slip into a massive depression. You can read more about those early days of Iowa Stadium here.

1939 – The Iron Men – A Season to Remember.

Ten years later (1939), my dad was a student at S.U.I., and as an avid Hawkeye fan, he made it his job to get to know many of the players on the football squad. Dr. Eddie Anderson had been brought in to rescue a team that was struggling to find its way.

The hapless Hawkeyes had accumulated a won/loss record of just 2–13–1 over the last two seasons (1937-1938), finishing among the worst three teams in the Big Ten every year during the 1930’s except 1933. Iowa had won just one conference game in the last three years, and the team they beat, Chicago, announced that they would be dropping their football program following the 1939 season.

Dr. Anderson sought to change Iowa’s fortunes immediately. He put the 85 football players who showed up for spring practice through an intense workout, but only 37 players would earn football letters in 1939 for Iowa. Anderson felt the 1939 team could be a good one if the starters played significant minutes. Before the first game, The Des Moines Register had a small note stating…

…a set of iron men may be developed to play football for Iowa.

Iowa’s Iron Men of College Football – 1939. Unlike today, college football in the Nile Kinnick era was played in a “one platoon” style – which meant the best players on the team would play on both the offense and defense. Many of the 1939 Iron Men played a full 60 minutes of football with no breaks except for time-outs.

One Average-Sized Man – One Above-Average Football Player.

Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr. – Adel, Iowa

At five-foot-eight-inches tall and 170 pounds, Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. did not stand out when walking on the campus of S.U.I. My dad told me that Kinnick was a very humble, unassuming young man, easy-going and approachable, even after his amazing football season of 1939.

Born in 1918 in a small farm community in southwest Iowa (Adel), Kinnick was not heavily recruited by college football coaches even though he did excel in sports. As a young boy, Nile played American Legion baseball, catching for future Hall of Fame baseball star 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.

Nile Kinnick – basketball player at Iowa (1936-1938). During the Great Depression, as the Kinnick family fell on hard times, Nile’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 Iowa, where he excelled academically. As a freshman, he played on the baseball, basketball, and football teams, but in his sophomore year, he dropped baseball, and as a junior he dropped basketball, in order to concentrate on his studies and football.

Nile could have graduated from high school in 1935, but his parents held him back a year to become thoroughly prepared for university studies. Some historians say that Kinnick considered enrolling at the University of Minnesota, the undisputed football champions of the 1930’s, but the on-going struggles of the Hawkeye football team just might have been the thing that really attracted Nile to Iowa. Verle Davis, Nile’s football coach at Adel, recalled that “Kinnick was determined to go to some school that was down … He didn’t want to go to Minnesota, because they were on top … He finally went to Iowa as he figured they were at their lowest ebb.”

Before the 1939 season, Kinnick’s senior year, Nile wrote…

For three years, nay for fifteen years, I have been preparing for this last year of football. I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-around back yet to hit this conference . . . I’m looking forward to showing (Coach) Anderson what a real football player looks like – so hold your hats.

With Nile as the team’s undisputed star, the undermanned Hawkeyes finished the year ranked ninth in the AP Poll with a 6–1–1 record, with Kinnick throwing for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes, and running for 374 yards. Nile was involved in 16 of the 19 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) and was involved in 107 of the 130 points that Iowa scored over eight games. In total, Kinnick played 402 of a possible 420 minutes, setting 14 school records, 6 of which still stand today.

Two Amazing Saturday Afternoons.

My dad attended every home game in 1939, and I recall the excitement in his eyes when he told me about the two most dramatic wins of the season:

November 11, 1939 – #3 Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish arrived in Iowa City with a six-game winning streak and were ranked #3 in the nation. Kinnick scored the Hawkeyes’ only touchdown and converted the crucial extra point, booting a spectacular 63-yard punt in the final minutes to pin the Irish near their own goal line, and preserving a 7-6 upset win. The University canceled classes on Monday following the big victory!

November 18, 1939 – Iowa Homecoming Weekend – #20 Minnesota.

The following Saturday, it’s Homecoming in Iowa City. 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. With the win, Iowa won the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the first time, securing the Hawkeyes’ fourth Big Ten win of the season, the most at Iowa since the glory days of the 1920’s. FYI: Since 1934, Floyd of Rosedale goes to the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game. One Chicago sportswriter wrote of this day…

Nile Kinnick 13, Minnesota 9; tersely, that tells the story of the most spectacular football game in modern Big Ten history.

James Kearns of the Chicago Daily News wrote…

There’s a golden helmet riding on a human sea across Iowa’s football field in the twilight here. Now the helmet rises as wave upon wave of humanity pours onto the field. There’s a boy under the helmet, which is shining like a crown on his head. A golden #24 gleams on his slumping, tired shoulders. The boy is Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., who has, just now, risen above all the defenses that could be raised against him…leading a frenzied little band of Iowa football players to a victory which was impossible. They couldn’t win, but they did.

1939 Homecoming ParadeClick here for an overview of Iowa Homecomings from 1912 to the present…

As you could imagine, my dad, and every other Hawkeye fan around the state of Iowa was ecstatic!

Nile Kinnick – All-American Everything.

Wednesday, November 29, 1939 – The Daily Iowan.

At the end of the season, Nile Kinnick won virtually every major award in the country. He was a consensus First-Team All-American, and he appeared on every first team ballot to become the only unanimous selection in the AP voting. He won the Big Ten MVP award by the largest margin in history. He also won the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy. Nile Kinnick even won the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, beating out such notables as Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson, and the famed boxer, Joe Louis. On November 28, 1939, Nile Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy, becoming to date the only Iowa Hawkeye to win college football’s most prestigious award.

December 6, 1939 – The Heisman Speech.

Today, at Kinnick Stadium, before the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” an excerpt from Nile’s famous Heisman speech is played on the massive scoreboard. Give a listen to the entire speech here:

Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post wrote in response to Nile’ acceptance speech…

This country’s okay as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental.

AP reporter Whitney Martin wrote…

You realized the ovation (after his Heisman speech) wasn’t alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth.

Nile Kinnick – After the Heisman.

Nile was elected student body president his senior year at Iowa. A member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at Iowa, Kinnick also maintained a 3.4 GPA. As he neared graduation with a degree in economics, Nile was one of thirty students selected to the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity, and the university president informed him that he would graduate “with distinction”, Iowa’s equivalent to graduating cum laude. Nile gave the commencement speech for his graduating class in 1940, and after graduation, he passed up an opportunity to play professional football, enrolling instead in law school at Iowa, contemplating a career in politics like his grandfather.

(L-0069) After graduation (1940) and winning the Heisman (1939), Nile was a hot commodity with the Madison Avenue folks. Here is a full page magazine ad for Elgin Watches featuring Nile, and of course, a couple of attractive college coeds!

During the summer of 1940, Nile was the nation’s leading vote-getter for the College All-Star Game in Chicago, while his coach, Eddie Anderson, was voted to coach the team against Iowa alum Joe Laws and the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. The Packers defeated the College All-Stars, 45–28, but Kinnick scored two touchdowns and kicked four extra points. It was noted that the All-Stars scored four touchdowns while Nile was in the game; but when he sat on the bench, they mustered just one first down!

World War II – Duty Calls.

After his first year in law school at Iowa, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps Reserve and was called to active duty three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A godly man who hated war, Nile still wrote in his diary…

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 . . . Every man whom I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed forces in times of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example the best I know how. May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family, and my friends will be proud of me.

Kinnick was training to be a fighter pilot. In his final letter to his parents before deploying in late May 1943, Nile wrote…

The task which lies ahead is adventure as well as duty and I am anxious to get at it. I feel better in mind and body than I have for ten years and am quite certain I can meet the foe confident and unafraid. ‘I have set the Lord always before me, because He is at my right hand. I shall not be moved.’ Truly, we have shared to the full life, love, and laughter. Comforted in the knowledge that your thought and prayer go with us every minute, and sure that your faith and courage will never falter, no matter the outcome, I bid you au revoir.

On June 2, 1943, Ensign Kinnick was on a routine training flight from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which was off the coast of Venezuela in the Gulf of Paria. Kinnick had been flying for over an hour when his Grumman F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak so serious that he could neither reach land nor the Lexington, whose flight deck was in any case crowded with planes preparing for launch. Kinnick followed standard military procedure and executed an emergency landing in the water, but died in the process. Rescue boats arrived on the scene a mere eight minutes later, but they found only an oil slick. His body was never recovered. Nile Kinnick was a month and seven days away from his 25th birthday.

Honoring Nile Kinnick.

Numerous honors for Nile Kinnick have been created since his untimely death. When the United States occupied Japan (1945), it renamed the site originally intended for the 1940 Summer Olympics “Nile Kinnick Stadium.” A high school in Yokosuka, Japan, for dependents of military personnel, is named Nile C. Kinnick High School.

Shortly after his death, a memorial fund was established at the State University of Iowa in Nile’s honor. His number #24 has been retired, one of only two Iowa football numbers so recognized (Cal Jones’ #62 is the other). Nile was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in the Hall’s inaugural year in 1951, one of two Hawkeye players honored that year, with Duke Slater being the other.

In the Big Ten conference, the coin flipped at the start of every football game bears Kinnick’s image, and each captain of a Big Ten team receives one such coin at the end of the year.

Renaming Iowa Stadium.

1929 – a brand new Iowa Stadium is built on the west side of Iowa City.

After the war, the S.U.I. student council voted to rename the football stadium, then simply called Iowa Stadium, for Kinnick, 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.

(L-0080) Game Program from Opening Day – September 23, 1972 in Nile Kinnick Stadium.

In 1972, Cedar Rapids Gazette sportswriter Gus Schrader rekindled interest in the re-naming of Iowa Stadium, and this time, the elder Kinnick gave his approval. I was a senior in the Hawkeye Marching Band in 1972 and remember well that first game played in Nile Kinnick Stadium. As you can see from the game program from that day (September 23), we also celebrated the brand new state-of-the-art AstroTurf (synthetic grass) that had been laid down in the stadium that summer. Fortunately, the name Kinnick Stadium has stuck, but the fake grass went out about two decades later (1989)!

Click here to read about Iowa’s other football hero from an earlier age (1918-1921).

Read more about the decision to re-name Iowa Stadium in 1972 and how another Iowa All-American, Duke Slater (1918-1921) was overlooked because of his skin color. Fortunately, in 2021, that injustice has now been addressed with the announcement that Kinnick Stadium will now be the home of Duke Slater Field. A decision, I’m believing, that Nile Kinnick would have strongly agreed with!

Kinnick Stadium is unique, in that it is the only college football stadium named for a Heisman Trophy winner. In 2006, Iowa finished renovations on Kinnick, and as part of those renovations, the school dedicated a 16-foot bronze statue of Nile, locating it at the new front entrance of the stadium. Included in the ceremonies was a speech by head coach Kirk Ferentz, as well as a fly-over of a replication of the plane Kinnick flew in World War II.

Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr. July 9, 1918 – June 2, 1943

Of the tens of thousands of images he created, Iowa photographer Fred Kent considered his most famous to be the now ubiquitous pose of Nile Kinnick ready to pass the football, taken in 1939, the year Kinnick was named All-American and won the coveted Heisman award.

Long-time Iowa sportscaster Tait Cummins once said of Nile Kinnick…

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.

(M-0045) 1929 – Kinnick Stadium Brick.

We just can’t say it any better. Godspeed, Nile Kinnick, Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

This amazing 11-minute film from 1949 offers some amazing resources from the 1939 Iowa Football season, and is included in David McCartney’s 2012 presentation “100 Years of Iowa Homecoming” available through the Iowa City Public Library. Click here to watch the entire presentation with the 1949 film shown at the 37:00 minute marker.

Nile Kinnick 24, Tripod webpage

Nile Kinnick Digital Collection, University of Iowa Digital Library

Nile Clarke Kinnick, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa

Nile Kinnick, Wikipedia

Coach Eddie Anderson, Wikipedia

College Football’s Floyd of Rosedale – A Brief Story, AAREG

Hawkeye Marching Band/Scottish Highlanders, November 11, 1939, University of Iowa Digital Library

Des Moines Register, Sunday, November 19, 1939

1939 Iowa Hawkeyes Football Team, Wikipedia

Nile Kinnick, Art on Campus, University of Iowa Facility Management

Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., Find-A-Grave

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