In the course of describing our favorite athletes we sometimes like to use the terms "hero" or "sports hero". And perhaps we shouldn't use it so often, so it can be reserved for real sports heroes, people like Pat Tillman, who walked away from a lucrative NFL contract to become a US Army Ranger.
And reserved for other real heroes, sports or otherwise, like Nile Kinnick.
Kinnick was born in the small town of Adel, Iowa on July 9th, 1918. He was the grandson of a governor and could have very well been a governor or even President one day himself had things gone differently with his life. He starred in several high school sports in Adel for several years, including catching for future baseball Hall-of-Famer Bob Feller on an American Legion team. Halfway through high school his family moved to Omaha, Nebraska where his finished out his junior and senior years.
After high school he then tried out for the football team for the then-powerhouse University of Minnesota, but failed to catch on with the team. So Kinnick decided to attend and play football for the University of Iowa instead. Minnesota's loss was Iowa's gain.
Kinnick performed well as a back during his sophomore and junior years at Iowa and was named all-Big Ten in his sophomore year, but the Iowa Hawkeyes still managed to only win 2 games over those two seasons. Nonetheless Kinnick's running style earned him the nickname "The Cornbelt Comet", and hopes were high for his senior season.
And indeed in 1939 things went differently for Iowa football. After a season-opening rout of the University of North Dakota 41-0, Kinnick and the Hawkeyes fell to Michigan 27-7. Iowa went on to defeat Wisconsin, Purdue, and then Notre Dame in a game that featured a remarkable 63-yard punt by Kinnick late in the game to pin the Fighting Irish on their own six-yard line. Kinnick then single-handedly passed, ran, and kicked Iowa to a 13-9 victory over rival Minnesota, the very school that had cut Kinnick. One Chicago newspaper was so impressed as to print the headline "KINNICK 13, MINNESOTA 9". Only a season-ending 7-7 tie with Northwestern University spoiled a possible coneference championship.
Iowa finished that season 6-1-1, second in the Big Ten, and ranked 9th in the Associated Press poll. That season Kinnick passed for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns as well as rushing for 374 yards on 106 carries, which comes out to a 3.5-yard-per-carry average. However, Kinnick also was the kicker, and he also made 11 of 17 dropkick conversion attempts. In total, Kinnick accounted for 107 of Iowa's 130 total points scored that season. It's also worth noting that because of the era, Kinnick also played at defensive back (racking up 18 career interceptions), punted, and often played all 60 minutes of a game.
After the season Kinnick was named Big Ten MVP, as well as winning the Walter Camp Award and Maxwell Award.
When the time came to vote for the 1939 Heisman Trophy, Kinnick won out over University of Michigan running back Tom Harmon despite being somewhat-slighted by Heisman voters in the Southwest region. And it was during his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, as World War II was just begining in Europe, that Kinnick made even more of an impression upon the country with the closing of his speech:
"Finally, if you will 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"
It was after hearing Kinnick's speech that Bill Cunningham of the Boston Globe wrote, "The country is OK as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental". Kinnick was also, not surprisingly, named 1939 Associated Press Athlete of the Year.
After his college football career Kinnick was courted by the NFL but instead decided upon pursuing a law degree at Iowa, perhaps even with political ambitions, as he was already the president of his senior class, as well as a Phi Beta Kappa and a member of the National Scholastic Honor Society.
Sadly, the words from Kinnick's Heisman acceptance speech were a foreshadowing of things to come. With World War II raging and US involvement seeming imminent he joined the US Naval Air Corps Reserve in 1941. Prior to being called for active duty he served as assistant coach for Iowa, and was called into active duty on December 4th, three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
On June 2, 1943 while assigned to the carrier USS Lexington off the coast of Venezuela for training, Kinnick's aircraft experienced an engine problem. Given the choice between a dangerous return landing on the Lexington and an emergency landing in the Carribean Sea, Kinnick chose to try to land in the sea. Though rescue boats arrived quickly, it wasn't quickly enough and Kinnick and his plane weren't found despite search attempts. He was only 24.
Nile Kinnick was a charter inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. In addition to retiring his No. 24 jersey at Iowa, the university renamed their football stadium in honor of him in 1972. To this day his likeness is on the face of the coin the Big Ten uses to start every conference football game and in 1989 Kinnick was named the Most Outstanding Iowa Football Player Ever.