Well ahead of his time, Kinnick defined heroism


Gather around to relive the glorious deeds of a real hero, the kind our old world has always had in short supply. Meet the late Nile Kinnick, who had academic ability to match his athletic achievements and a profound empathy for humane causes. A winner on the field and off.

He was the Heisman Trophy recipient of 1939 and delivered the most acclaimed of all acceptance speeches at the formal presentation. For one so young, he spoke with maturity and made those around him believe his future impact on our nation was unlimited. Some mentioned the Senate, the Supreme Court and, yes, even the presidency of the United States.

At the University of Iowa, where he was a tailback, he made every All-America team because of his talented diversity and durability. He played 402 consecutive minutes of a possible 420 in the last seven games of his senior season on a team known as the Iowa Iron Men because, for the most part, they only used 14 squad members. Kinnick was president of his class, Phi Beta Kappa and in all likelihood would have been a Rhodes Scholar, except World War II took precedence.

On the night he received the Heisman in New York, his speech was carried on a national radio network. He said he wanted to thank his teammates, listening back in Iowa City, for what they had done to help him achieve such a distinction.

He talked of what the honor meant and, with inspirational eloquence, told the gathering, "I want you to know that I am mighty, mighty happy to accept this trophy this evening. No finer bunch of boys, no more courageous bunch of boys, ever graced the gridirons of the Middle West than the Iowa team of 1939."

Then, in a grand farewell, he said with deep emotion, "I thank God I was born to the gridirons of the Middle West and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can confidently and positively say that the football players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight for the Heisman award than for the Croix de Guerre."

Moving words from a youth not yet graduated from college. What new heights would he attain, what problems would his vast intelligence allow him to solve?

He declined a second-round draft selection to play in the NFL, preferring to enter law school, where as a freshman he finished third in his class. Four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, he enlisted in the Navy and, in a diary, wrote the following: " Every man whom I've admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country's armed forces in time of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example as best I know. May God give me the courage and ability to conduct myself in every situation so that my country, my family and my friends will be proud of me."

In 1939, in the Heisman balloting he ran away from Tom Harmon of Michigan and Paul Christman of Missouri. Additionally, he was the Associated Press Athlete of the Year, finishing ahead of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis in the voting.

The Kinnick diary, found in his effects after he died when his Navy fighter plane went down in the sea during a 1943 training mission between Trinidad and Venezuela, reflected the depth of his concern for problems few others even recognized or addressed.

Writing about politics, again in his diary, he said, sage-like, "A great majority of our political and economic troubles arise from lack of candor in our leaders. They try to be too smooth and adroit. They put partisan advantage above conviction. Without self-respect, there can be no character."

While traveling in the South for the first time, en route to a military assignment, he wrote: "Have never seen so many Negroes in my life small unpainted shacks in which they live not infrequently a duplex affair with the Negro family on one side and domesticated animals on the other what a serious social problem it is -- and probably getting worse. I have never seen such poverty in the country before -- in the city, yes, but not out on the land.

"The inequities in human relationships are many, but the lot of the Negro is one of the worst kicked from pillar to post, condemned, cussed, ridiculed, accorded no respect, permitted no sense of human dignity. What can be done I don't know. When this war is over the problem is apt to be more difficult than ever. May wisdom, justice, brotherly love guide our steps to the right solution."

From the small Iowa town of Adel, he grew up playing on the same American Legion Junior Basebll team as later Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who was on a Navy ship not far from where Kinnick's plane went down. "Men came no finer than Nile," he says.

One of Kinnick's most sterling performances as the leader of the celebrated "Iron Men" of Iowa came against Notre Dame. Kinnick's punting (16 times for a 46-yard average) kept Notre Dame backed up in its territory, including a 60-yard blast inside the 5-yard line with only three minutes to play. He was to score his team's only touchdown and drop-kicked the extra point to top unbeaten Notre Dame, 7-6. It was his fifth straight game of going both ways without missing a play or drawing a rest.

Kinnick was one of the last players to utilize the drop-kick, letting the ball bounce to the ground on its point, then contacting it perfectly on the rebound.

Only 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, he epitomized the highest of personal qualities. His alma mater named the football stadium in his honor, and the reputation he created at Iowa is almost equated to sainthood.

The lessons from the life of Nile Kinnick, gone but hopefully not forgotten, would serve all men and women, in and out of sports, at any time, to raise their ambitions to the loftiest level of aspiration. All of us, adolescent and adult, can continue to learn from the perceptive young hero who was prepared to give so much and never got the chance.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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