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Ron Fimrite
August 31, 1987
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August 31, 1987

Nile Kinnick


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Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. would have turned 69 this past July 9. He was that rarest of beings—rarer now, lamentably, than ever before—a scholar-athlete, a Heisman Trophy winner and a Phi Beta Kappa. He was a truly humble and compassionate man. "One of the few athletes who could rise to the top without making enemies," teammate Bill Green once said. And he had the soul of a poet. "I flew up in the clouds today—tall, voluminous cumulus clouds," he wrote in his World War II diary. "They were like snow-covered mountains, range after range of them. I felt like an alpine adventurer, climbing up their canyons, winding my way between their peaks—a billowy fastness, a celestial citadel."

Kinnick's Heisman acceptance speech after the 1939 season was so eloquent and touching that the audience at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York was too stunned at first to respond. But then, as Whitney Martin of the Associated Press described the scene, "seven hundred men and women rose and cheered and whistled.... You realized the ovation wasn't alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth." Wrote Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post, "This country's O.K. as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental."

Today, of course, the football part is never incidental with Heisman winners; it's pretty much all there is. And Nile Kinnicks are getting awfully few and far between.

Iowa football in the 1930s kept pace with the national economy. It, too, was in a Great Depression. Under Howard Jones in the early '20s the school fielded some of its finest teams, including the back-to-back undefeated Big Ten champions in 1921 and '22 that featured such stars as Duke Slater, Gordon Locke and Aubrey Devine. But following a bitter quarrel with members of the Athletic Control Board, Jones left Iowa after the 1923 season and moved first to Trinity College (now Duke University) and then to the University of Southern California, where his famous "Thundering Herds" won five Rose Bowl games. With Jones's departure, Iowa football declined. When the school built a new 53,000-seat stadium for the 1929 season, it soon became a monument to bad timing.

In January 1930, just before the members of the Big Ten were to meet to arrange the schedule for the following season, Iowa was suspended from the conference for alleged recruiting violations. It was reinstated only a month later, but by then 11 members of the team had been declared ineligible and only one Big Ten school, Purdue, agreed to change its schedule to accommodate the Hawkeyes.

High school athletes were shunning the university, and its teams quickly became an embarrassment to a conference that considered itself the best in the country. Between 1930 and 1938, Iowa won only 22 games, and in five of those seasons the Hawkeyes did not beat a single Big Ten opponent. The teams coached by the unfortunate Irl Tubbs in '37 and '38 were 2-13-1. The 1938 team was outscored 135-46 and did not score a touchdown in its last five games.

Nile Kinnick, then a junior, had played the '38 season with what was quite probably a broken ankle. No one knew for certain, because, as a practicing Christian Scientist, he would not allow the injury to be examined or treated. "I used to watch him wince in pain when he punted," says Couppee, a freshman that year. "It was amazing what he put himself through."

Kinnick had been All-Big Ten as a sophomore in '37 and, broken ankle notwithstanding, the following year he completed 43% of his passes (a respectable ratio in an era of unsophisticated passing attacks) and averaged 41.1 yards on 41 punts, fourth-best in the nation. He was healthy again for his senior year, and in a letter to his family just before the start of spring practice he wrote with uncharacteristic bravado, "For three years, nay for fifteen years, I have been preparing for this last year of football. I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-round back yet to hit this conference."

A new coach and a new system would give him the chance to fulfill the boast. Tubbs had resigned after his 1-6-1 '38 season. His team had gone scoreless against Colgate, Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska and had just a field goal against Indiana. Football gate receipts had been only $65,000, and the athletic department was in the hole by more than $10,000—big figures in the Depression. Still, the school was prepared to spend whatever was necessary to hire someone able to reverse the sorry descent of Iowa football.

The choice—for a three-year contract at $10,000 per—was the 38-year-old Dr. Edward N. (Eddie) Anderson, a native Iowan who had coached Holy Cross to a 47-7-4 record the six previous seasons. Anderson had been a star end at Notre Dame, captain of the 1921 team, a Rockne pupil and a George Gipp teammate. He had played professionally with the Chicago Cardinals while at the same time earning his M.D. from Rush Medical College. He was a urologist, but as Ironman Frye has said, "He's the only physician I've ever known who thought the cure for everything from a hangnail to appendicitis was 'running it off.' "

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