In a decade of despair 1939 had been a comparatively upbeat year. The worst of the Depression was over. Hollywood was flourishing—Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
would all be released that year—and the big bands had an entire country dancing to the swing beat. But it was dancing in the dark, for in September, Hitler marched into Poland and Europe was at war. Kinnick told his college friends he feared America would soon become involved. "We didn't want to believe him," Prasse recalls.
Kinnick's father had not seen Iowa win in his son's first two years on the team. He reasoned that his best and possibly only chance to witness a victory would be the 1939 opener on Sept. 30 against South Dakota, the weakest opponent on a schedule that included Notre Dame and six Big Ten teams. The elder Kinnick was right—the Hawkeyes won, 41-0. Nile Jr. carried eight times for 110 yards and three touchdowns, one on a 65-yard run, passed for two more scores and drop-kicked five extra points. His 23 points scored were the most by an Iowa player since Oran (Nanny) Pape had scored 24 in 1928. Nile Sr. decided he would make the drive from Omaha to Iowa City for every home game.
The following Saturday the opponent was Indiana, whom the Hawkeyes had not beaten since 1921. The game was played in punishing 94� heat at Iowa Stadium. Indiana had a 10-0 lead in the first half, but Iowa came back to win 32-29. Kinnick rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries; he ran for a touchdown and threw scoring passes of 25, 50 and 15 yards to Prasse. He set a school record that still stands by returning nine punts for 201 yards, an average return of 22.3 yards. Kinnick also had 171 yards on kickoff returns and he quick-kicked for 73 yards. He played the entire 60 minutes.
Sportswriters of the time were rarely restrained, but Tait Cummins of The Cedar Rapids Gazette was driven to apparent distraction by Kinnick's heroics: "A new gridiron star blazed across the Big Ten horizon here Saturday, a spectacular comet with brilliant touchdown tails which cleared away the shadows of despair which have hovered over Iowa's big stadium for the last six years, and which completely eclipsed Indiana's lesser constellation in a 32-29 game never equalled in Hawkeye history."
In Ann Arbor the next week, Kinnick completed a 71-yard touchdown pass to right halfback Floyd (Buzz) Dean in the first quarter, but that was about it for the "Cornbelt Comet." Michigan won 27-7, with Tom Harmon, who would win the Heisman the following year, scoring all the points. One of his touchdowns came on a 90-yard interception return of a Kinnick pass in the flats. "I wish we could play it over," Nile wrote his father. "That is the ruthless part of this game sometimes...once it is over nothing can be done about it.... It breaks my heart to have sort of let him [coach Anderson] down."
But in their next game, at Madison, Kinnick and his teammates came from behind once again to beat Wisconsin 19-13, Iowa's first win there in 10 years. Kinnick threw touchdown passes to Couppee, to Dick (Whitey) Evans and the game-winner to Bill Green. He, Bergstrom, Hawkins, Tollefson and Enich all played 60 minutes. Anderson told the press he was coaching "Iron-men." The expression made headlines. The team was on its way to becoming a legend.
The following week against Purdue the Hawkeyes scored two safeties after blocking punts, and that was all the scoring, as Iowa beat them by the bizarre score of 4-0. Eight Hawkeyes played the entire game, Anderson using only 14 players from his traveling squad of 26. The coach was clearly reveling in the Iron-man image. His team had an identity, and he, as a Notre Dame man, knew from the Four Horsemen the value of a catchy nickname.
During halftime of the Purdue game, Anderson reviled Couppee for not using Kinnick as the ballcarrier when the team was close to the Boilermaker goal line. He embarrassed both the quarterback and the star by "introducing" them to each other before the entire squad, but the point was well-taken. On the following Saturday, when Iowa reached the Notre Dame four-yard line on a recovered fumble with only 40 seconds left in the first half, Couppee called for a rare huddle, one of perhaps three he convened all year. The Irish had been plugging the right side of the Iowa line all day, so Couppee called a run to the left. He also wanted Kinnick to carry the ball, and in the huddle he ordered the halfbacks to switch positions. Buzz Dean was furious, and captain Prasse told his quarterback not "to screw things up like this." But Kinnick got the ball and lowered his shoulder through two tacklers to score. His extra point gave the team its ultimate 7-6 win, one of the great upsets of the season.
In addition to his touchdown and extra point, Kinnick's punting was crucial to the Iowa victory. In all, he had 16 punts for 731 yards, a 45.6-yard average. The number of punts and yardage total remain school records. But it was his last punt that finally broke the spirit of the previously unbeaten Irish. With two minutes to play, Kinnick punted from his own 34, the ball going out of bounds on the Notre Dame five.
"When I saw that ball sail over the safety's head, I knew we had beaten Notre Dame," Couppee says. "I have played in 147 football games, college, service and pro, but that was the single most exhilarating moment I've ever experienced in sports." Kinnick's teammates carried him from the field.