IRONMAN: The Nile Kinnick Story

By Mike Chapman  

At five foot eight inches tall and 170 pounds, he would hardly be noticed walking across a college campus, even back in 1939. In today’s world, he wouldn’t even be considered average in size for a 22-year-old male. Many of those who saw him on the University of Iowa campus in 1939 remembered that he was always carrying several books and that he had a quick smile for anyone who looked his way. Despite the incredible acclaim that came during his final year of college, he appeared totally unaffected. He continued in the same style that he had learned from his parents while growing up in Adel, Iowa.

Yet, what he accomplished on a football field during his career at the University of Iowa in the late 1930s has earned Nile Kinnick, Jr., a unique position in the pantheon of the state’s most honored legends. He is the only athlete from the state to ever win the coveted Heisman Trophy, given to the nation’s best college football player, and is the only Iowan to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.

While alive, Nile Kinnick was a hero the likes of which this state had seldom seen before, or since. In death, he became even larger. Word of his passing in the summer of 1943, when the world was embroiled in a terrible war, sent shockwaves throughout the state that had loved and revered him, and made headlines all across the nation.

Today, the University of Iowa football stadium is named in his honor and a huge statue of him greets visitors to the beautiful plaza outside the stadium. His Heisman Trophy is on display at the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame. School buildings in Omaha, where he spent his senior year of high school, and at the Naval Air base in Yokosuka, Japan, are also named in his honor, while Adel’s oldest city park is named for him and Bob Feller, who grew up in nearby Van Meter. Both played on the baseball field there as members of the local American Legion team.

Kinnick’s image graces one side of the official Big Ten Conference coin that is flipped before the start of every Big Ten football game in the fall. At the end of the season, each Big Ten captain receives a coin.

But his legacy far exceeds his athletic accomplishments. He was a Phi Betta Kappa scholar and president of his senior class at Iowa. When all the Big Ten presidents met at a conference, they selected Kinnick president of their group, as well. He was a powerful public speaker and prolific writer, as evidenced by his long diary and numerous letters to friends and fans around the Midwest.

His Heisman trophy acceptance speech in New York City stunned the crowd with its emotion and brilliance.

“…several hundred men and women rose and cheered and whistled,” and “you realized the ovation wasn’t alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth,” wrote an Associated Press reporter.

“This country is okay as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental,” wrote Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post.

The highest praise of all came from Ronald Reagan, in 1990: “He was a wonderful leader; I think he could have been anything, even President of the United States.” (1)

As a scholar, thinker, humanitarian and, finally, war hero, Nile Kinnick, Jr., has emerged as a larger-than-life figure, drawing words of praise from journalists, governors, senators and even a president. His memory has endured for decades and will undoubtedly cast a giant shadow over the land of Iowa for decades yet to come.

For six decades, Nile Kinnick, Jr., has been lionized by the media and leaders of this state and offered up as an example of what Iowa is all about. And it’s in large part because of the type of man he was off the field. Though he was just 24 years and 11 months old when he perished, Nile Kinnick set a standard of excellence for all Iowans who have followed in his wake.

His story begins in Adel, today a community of some 3,500 persons situated just 10 miles west of Des Moines, in prime Iowa farm country.

The Kinnick clan came to America in the late 1770s from Holland, first settling in Maryland. They journeyed west, to Indiana, and finally arrived in Iowa in 1854. The Kinnick name soon became a fixture in the Adel area in business, farming and politics. Nile’s paternal grandfather, Will, was the youngest of three boys. The two oldest brothers left to fight in the Civil War, on behalf of the Union. When his father died suddenly, Will was left alone at home to farm nearly 400 acres of prime Iowa land.

Will Kinnick married Mary Jane Stump, who lived on a farm in the Des Moines area, and they raised five children – the youngest of whom was Nile Clark Kinnick, Sr. The name “Nile” came from the Stump side of the family and has a Celtic origin which means, roughly, “courageous warrior.” It was a word that would come to have great meaning for the Kinnick clan.

Not only was Will Kinnick a successful farm owner and operator, he also owned a large home in Adel and was involved in numerous civic ventures. He served on the city council and was a member of the county board of supervisors for two terms. Even today, visitors to the courthouse in the center of Adel can read his name on the plaque inside the main entrance.

Nile Sr. was born on a farm three miles north of Adel; five years later, the family (without his mother, Mary Jane, who died two years after Nile Sr. was born) moved into a house in Adel, at 219 North 12th Street. Built in 1900, the two-story wood framed structure would be home to the Kinnick family until 1934. All three of Nile Sr.’s boys were born and raised in the home, still standing today.

Nile Sr. and Frances Clarke met during their school days and quickly became a steady pair. Her father, George Clarke, was a highly-respected Adel lawyer who eventually became governor of Iowa. Nile Sr. and Frances finished one-two in the Adel High School class rankings (she was first, he was second), graduating in the spring of 1912. She attended Drake College in Des Moines at first, then transferred to Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, where she studied voice. It was also in Evanston that she became a Christian Science devotee.

Nile Sr. graduated from Iowa State University in 1916 with a degree in agronomy. While at Iowa State, he played three years of collegiate football, though weighing just one hundred and thirty five pounds. He was a quarterback and was adept at drop-kicking, a trait that would be keenly developed by his son during his football days at the other college down the road, in Iowa City, two decades later.

Though Frances had her heart set on a career as a professional concert singer, she gave it up to come back to Adel and marry Nile Sr. They moved into the Kinnick family house on North 12th Street in December of 1916 and eventually had three sons – Nile Jr., Ben and George. The boys didn’t have far to go to high school. In fact, all they had to do was cross the street. Adel High school was just a football toss away, and remained the high school until ?, when it became Adel Middle School.

When The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Nile Sr. assumed he would be drafted and sent overseas. His number was never called, however, and he stayed busy with the farming chores.

“…his part in the war was typical of many young men in the granary of the nation – to produce all he could to feed the troops and the hungry of the world,” wrote D.W. Stump in his 1975 biography, Kinnick: The Man and the Legend. “A deep sense of responsibility, throughout preparation and diligent execution of one duties (a Kinnick family tradition) was put to work in the service of the nation.” (2)

Among the thousands of Iowans who did serve in World War I were two famous athletes. Earl Caddock, the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world, came off a farm near Anita and saw considerable front-line action in France. He suffered lung damage but returned home to resume his mat career. In 1916, Fred Becker of Waterloo became the very first University of Iowa football player to earn All-American first team honors. He served in France with the U.S. Army and died on July 18, 1918, in the battle of Chatteau-Thierry.

NILE KINNICK, Jr.,, was born on July 9, 1918, the eldest of the sons. Ben followed just thirteen months later, while George appeared on October 19, 1926. It was a rather idyllic childhood for the Kinnick boys, growing up in a loving family environment where everyone was encouraged to work hard and dream big. Life was split between the large house in town and doing chores on the family farms, owned and operated by uncles and cousins.

Nile’s youth was one of constant activity, work and learning. When not in the schoolroom, he handled some farm chores, worked various jobs and participated in rough-and-tumble football games in the Kinnick front yard. In the winter, he played basketball in a barn where his dad had rigged up baskets, and went ice skating on the Raccoon River with family and friends. He played marbles in the spring and baseball in the summer. He also worked to earn money. At age nine, he took on a newspaper route for the Des Moines Register; at age 12, he was a bagger at a grocery store and also earned money by cutting weeds and shoveling grain.

All the time, the Kinnick household was filled with conversation after supper, with the parents engaging their children in lively discussions about a wide variety of subjects. In the Kinnick home, thinking and conversing were every bit as important as playing sports.

At Adel Junior High School, Nile was a three-sport star, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. He helped the team to undefeated seasons in both football and basketball. He continued the same success in high school, and in 1933, his junior year, Adel posted its first undefeated season ever in football.

The Des Moines Register, the same paper that Nile used to deliver on Adel doorsteps, reported thusly: “Kinnick, who directed the Adel team from the quarterback position, liked the rough going and he played fiercely in every tilt of a 12-game schedule. Kinnick was versatile…and carried the ball brilliantly in the open field. His passing and punting figured prominently in every Adel game.”

Adel was voted the state mythical title, and today a football signed by every member of the Adel team of 1933 can be seen in the Adel-Desoto-Minden High School trophy case.

Nile was involved in far more than athletics at school. Encouraged by his and one of his favorite coaches, Otto Kohl, as well as his parents, he participated in both speech contests and drama and worked very hard in the classroom. He maintained a near straight-A average all through high school.

When basketball season rolled around, Kinnick proved he was just as skilled on a court as he was on the football field. He scored one-third of the team’s points that season as it fought its way to the finals of the district playoffs. He scored 25 points in a losing cause and drew rave reviews from the newspapers. As great as was his junior year in both football and basketball, it looked like his senior year would be one of the finest in the history of Iowa high school athletics.

BUT IT WASN’T TO BE. With the Great Depression in full swing, the economy bottomed out all across the Midwest. The Kinnicks lost much of their wealth and the family farms were, in the words of Nile Sr., “swept away.” He accepted a position as a farm appraiser for the Federal Lank Bank in Omaha, about 120 miles to the west. Suddenly, young Nile was saying goodbye to Adel, where he had spent all previous seventeen years of his life. He was destined to become a Benson Bunny!

At Benson High School, Nile treated Nebraska fans and sportswriters to the same sort of shows he had given Adel. He was a sensation on the football field, several times hooking up with brother Ben for scoring strikes. In a 27-0 victory over Fremont, he ran wild on the field and he scored numerous other times during the season on dazzling runs. At the end of the season, he was named first team all-state.

That winter, he led the basketball team to third place in the Nebraska state tournament and wound up being named first team all-state in that sport, as well.

“He was a sight to behold,” said a player from Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs. “I had never seen a basketball player of his abilities up ’til that time. His dribbling with either hand and all-around ball handling, (and his) ability to change speed and direction were uncanny, to say nothing of his accurate shooting.” (3)

Nile also was the catcher on the Benson baseball team and helped it win the city championship. He had always done well in baseball, dating all the way back to the time he played American Legion summer baseball, on an area team that also included Bob Feller, of nearby Van Meter. In fact, most of the time when Feller was pitching, Kinnick was the catcher. Within a few years, they would be two of the most celebrated athletes in the entire nation, and future hall of famers in their respective sports!

While playing three sports at Benson, Nile was maintaining the straight A grade-point average he had brought with him from Adel. He was also very popular off the field, showing as much attention to the second and third-team players as he did to the starters.

“I am sure that those of us who grew up with Nile were aware we were with an outstanding individual, who let his actions and deeds speak for him,” recalled Randy Mortimer, an Adel teammate, years later. “He was humble, almost to the point of being shy, where his abilities were concerned.”

Although Kinnick was a gifted natural athlete, those who knew him well understood that he worked extremely hard to hone his skills.

“Nile was the leader, organizer and coach,” said Mortimer. “He was always working to improve and perfect his talents and abilities in all sports. Nile took part in other school activities, such as plays and speech contests. He was a leader in the classroom just as he was on the field of sports.” (4)

He followed in the footsteps of his father when it came to using a football. He spent hours kicking the ball, and developed extraordinary control of the trajectory. It was a skill that would play a huge role in Iowa’s incredible triumph over Notre Dame several years later in Iowa City. He also worked so hard at throwing a football that he could toss it equally well with either hand, though he was not ambidextrous by nature.

With high school behind him, Nile decided it was time for a big summer trip. He and Ben took off in the family’s 1929 Ford Coupe, and spent two weeks on the road in the West. They drove through Colorado, sleeping in farmer’s fields a couple of nights, and down into New Mexico, then over to Los Angeles and up the coast to Seattle, visiting relatives. During the long drive, Nile had plenty of time to contemplate his upcoming college years. Recruiting was nothing at all like it was to become in the decades ahead, and college coaches confined their efforts to a letter or two and maybe a visit in the home, if the prospect was really sensational.

Both Drake University and Iowa State showed interest in the son of their graduates, but Nile was intrigued by the possibility of playing at Minnesota. Under coach Bernie Bierman, the Golden Gophers had won two national titles in the 1930s and were considered, along with Notre Dame, one of the top two football schools in the country.

“When Nile was a senior, Bernie Bierman was top dog in the Big Ten, so Nile drove up to Minneapolis to see if the Gophers had any interest in him,” said Nile Sr., in an exclusive interview with Maury White of the Des Moines Register. “They didn’t, not at all. Not many people know that. So he came back to Cedar Rapids….

“Otto Kohl, who had been his coach at Adel, took Nile to Iowa City and introduced him to Rollie Williams, the basketball coach whom he knew well, and to Ossie Solom, the football coach. They offered him a job and he worked a few weeks there that summer, digging ditches. Nile chose Iowa because of the law school.” (5)

Bierman’s decision would come back to haunt him in a stunning fashion four years later. However, looking back with the perspective of time, it simply seems that Nile Kinnick was destined to become a Hawkeye – and destined to become the most honored football player in Iowa history!

Next Issue: Part two of the Nile Kinnick Story: Hawkeye Heroism

1. Personal conversation with the author on Oct. 30, 1990, in Dixon, Illinois.
2. Kinnick: The Man and the Legend, by D.W. Stump, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1975, page 12.
3. Ibid, page 26
4. Ibid, page 24
5. Des Moines Register, August 6, 1989, story by Maury White.