By Mike Chapman
NILE KINNICK & HAWKS CAUGHT NATION’S EYE IN LATE ’30s
(Second of Three Parts)
After a sensational high school athletic career at both Adel, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, Nile Kinnick enrolled at Iowa in the fall of 1936 and attracted attention almost immediately.
Elected co-captain of the freshman team, Kinnick ran 25 yards for one touchdown and passed 24 yards for another in a scrimmage against the varsity.
A Chicago writer predicted he would become one of the Big Ten’s brightest stars.
In order to be a standout collegiate athlete, Kinnick had to overcome his relatively small stature. At five foot, eight inches tall and 170 pounds, he was not very large.
He was, however, muscular and had a terrific athletic aptitude. He had great natural skills, worked extremely hard and was a perfectionist, spending hours on drills for passing and kicking; even teaching himself to pass with both hands, though he was not ambidextrous. In addition, he also had an innate toughness, both physically and mentally.
Erwin Prasse, who was to become Kinnick’s favorite passing target, enrolled at Iowa from a Chicago high school and recalled his first impression of Kinnick.
“When I got there and suited up, I thought I had gone to the wrong place because everyone was so big,” Prasse said decades later. “Then I saw Kinnick and I thought, ‘If this little guy can stick it out, so can I.'”
At the end of Kinnick’s freshman year, Ossie Solum was fired as head coach and Irl Tubbs became the new coach. Iowa was just 1-7 in Kinnick’s sophomore year, 1937, but the former Adel prep star made his mark. He was voted first-team All-Big Ten and third team All-American by Newspaper Enterprise Association.
Kinnick’s brightest moment came against Michigan, when he returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in a 7-6 loss. He also led the nation in punting with an average of 43 yards a kick.
His father, Nile Sr., had been a great kicker two decades earlier at Iowa State and Nile Jr. learned a lot from his father and spent hours perfecting his kicking skills.
Kinnick played basketball his freshman and sophomore years at Iowa and was a starter on the varsity his second season. As a sophomore, he averaged six points a game and helped the team with his skilled ball handling. But after the season, he gave up the sport in order to concentrate on his studies.
“I like basketball very much but I came here primarily to get an education and rather than let the sport interfere with my school work, I’ve decided to drop it,” he explained.
“Naturally, I hate to lose him but Nile knows his own mind,” said Coach Rollie Williams. “He’s serious about his studies and if he’s afraid that basketball will interfere with his scholastic ambitions, then it’s probably the best that he does not turn out.”
For the 1938 football season, Iowa finished 1-6-1. Bothered by a bum ankle, Nile missed a good portion of the season and slipped to honorable mention All-Big Ten.
And then came 1939…
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PART THREE of the Nile Kinnick story will conclude in Issue # 3: The Legacy of Nile Kinnick