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Nile Kinnick: Everybody's All-American

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
More Info on Nile Kinnick
By Ron Flatter
Special to

Signature game
Nov. 11, 1939 - The game in Iowa City against No. 2 Notre Dame is the one old-time Iowa fans seem to remember most when recalling Nile Kinnick. A fumbled return off a Kinnick punt set up the Hawkeyes on the Irish four-yard line in the second quarter. After gaining a half-yard on two plays, Kinnick ran into the end zone on third down. Then he dropkicked the extra point to give Iowa 7-0 lead.

Even though Kinnick's legs accounted for the touchdown, the fact a punt set the score turned out to be prescient. Because it was just one of Kinnick's legs - actually one foot - that saved the game.

Leading by a point with two minutes left, Iowa was forced to punt. Facing a strong rush, Kinnick kicked what teammate Al Couppee called "the greatest clutch punt I've ever seen." The ball rolled out of bounds at the Notre Dame six-yard line, a punt of 63 yards. "The Irish safety man, Steve Sitko, stopped, reached up and ripped off his helmet and slammed it to the ground," Couppee said.

In desperation, Notre Dame was unable to do anything before the clock ran out. Using only 15 players, Iowa's "Ironmen" won, 7-6. Kinnick, who averaged 45.6 yards on his six punts, and six teammates had played the entire game.

That the contest was played on Armistice Day provided what fate would turn into a star-crossed irony for Kinnick.

Odds 'n' ends

  • Kinnick played on an American Legion baseball team in Iowa, briefly catching for future Hall of Famer Bob Feller.

  • In 1930, he led the Adel Junior High football team to an undefeated season. The team shut out every opponent.

  • As a junior at Adel High School, Kinnick scored more than a third of his team's points in basketball. In his three seasons, he scored more than 1,000 points.

  • Although Kinnick had a choirboy reputation, he was also showed at least a small dose of mischief at Iowa. Once he reportedly bought a beer for himself and two friends, like him under-aged, as he was discussing his work as an usher at the Christian Science church in Iowa City.

  • When Kinnick won the Heisman in 1939 with 651 votes, Michigan halfback Tom Harmon finished second with 405. Harmon won the Heisman the following year and, like Kinnick was a pilot, flying dozens of missions in World War II.

  • Kinnick's speech at the Downtown Athletic Club typified the way he communicated. Kinnick chose eloquence over informality, even in frequent letters written to his younger brother George.

  • About the Heisman speech, one observer said that Kinnick's remarks "tackled Demosthenes and threw Cicero for a 15-yard loss."

  • Kinnick graduated from Iowa in 1940 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

  • His last competitive football game was with the College All-Stars in a 45-28 loss to the NFL champion Green Bay Packers on Aug. 29, 1940 at Chicago's Soldier Field.

  • Typical of the greetings Kinnick received came in 1940, when the Heisman winner was sitting at a lunch counter. A stranger walked by, put his hands on Kinnick's shoulders and asked, "How's it going, Mister World?" And that was that.

  • Eight years after he died, Kinnick was immortalized in, of all places, a comic book. The January 1951 edition of Sports Action touted "the amazing story of Nile Kinnick, Iowa's greatest all-time, All-American football hero!"

  • He was also featured on a 1955 Topps football card, on which his first name was misspelled "Niles."

  • For decades, Kinnick's father resisted memoralizing his son, not wanting to single him out among those who died in World War II. Finally in 1972 he consented, and Iowa changed the name of its football field to Kinnick Stadium.

  • Kinnick's plane was located in 1996. The original plan was to take the plane back to Iowa, and have it placed as a memorial next to Kinnick Stadium, but the idea was scuttled out of concern that Kinnick's body might have been inside.

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