The Ironmen and their indomitable little star had overnight become national heroes. They could scarcely walk between classes on the Iowa campus without being mobbed. Classrooms were empty on Monday, and impromptu rallies were held all week long. Mighty Notre Dame had fallen. But Bernie Bier-man's Golden Gophers of Minnesota were next. They led the Ironmen 9-0 in the fourth quarter; then Kinnick hit Prasse with a 45-yard touchdown pass and, with three minutes left in the game, connected with Green for a 28-yard game-winner.
"There's a golden helmet riding on a human sea across Iowa's football field in the twilight here," rhapsodized James S. Kearns of the
Chicago Daily News. "Now the helmet rises as wave upon wave of humanity pours onto the field. There's a boy under the helmet, which is shining like a crown on his head. A golden number 24 gleams on his slumping, tired shoulders. The boy is Nile Clarke Kinnick, Jr., who has just now risen above all the defenses that could be raised against him."
Kinnick had played every minute of six straight games, but not even he was indestructible. In the last game of the season, against Northwestern, he was forced to leave in the third quarter with a separated shoulder. Iowa was held to a 7-7 tie. Couppee was frantically calling pass plays near the end of the game in an effort to break the tie, but Anderson, believing incorrectly that a tie would give Iowa the Big Ten title, pulled him to the sideline and sent in substitute quarterback Gerald Ankeny with instructions to "sit on the ball." The tie gave Ohio State the Big Ten championship, and Anderson, in an unprecedented act of atonement, apologized to Couppee.
The Ironmen hadn't won the championship, but they had revived Iowa football and given a state beaten down by poverty and despair something to cheer about. This was a far larger triumph. "It was the damnedest thing you've ever seen," says Couppee. "We couldn't go anywhere without people cheering us. They even stopped movies to turn on the lights and cheer us. We were forever the Ironmen."
Their star, the most durable of them all, was heaped with honors. Kinnick was named to every major All-America team. He won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Trophy. He also won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player, by the largest margin to that date. An Associated Press poll picked him as the nation's top male athlete for 1939. He finished ahead of Joe DiMaggio, who merely hit .381 that year, and Joe Louis, who had KO'd all four challengers for his heavyweight championship.
In accepting the Heisman, Kinnick sounded more like a world statesman than a 21-year-old football player. After thanking his coaches, teammates and the sports-writers, he paused dramatically and then said, "I would like, if I may, to make a comment which I think is appropriate at this time. I thank God that I was born to the gridirons of the Middle West and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can say confidently and positively that the football players of this country would much rather fight for the Heisman award than for the Croix de Guerre."
Kinnick completed his undergraduate years with a 3.4 grade point average in the school of commerce and was one of 30 Iowa seniors elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was also elected to the school of commerce's Order of Artus honor society. He won the Iowa Athletic Board Cup for excellence in scholarship and athletics, and he was elected senior class president for the College of Liberal Arts and president of the senior class presidents of the ten colleges and schools at Iowa. His fellow students voted him Athlete of the Year, and his teammates elected him their Most Valuable Player. "There was not a man on that team who didn't like Nile," Couppee says. On June 3, 1940, he was awarded the John P. Laffey law scholarship.
Kinnick was first in the balloting for college players in the 1940 College All-Star Game against the Green Bay Packers, and he was on the cover of the game program. In the game itself, on Aug. 29, 1940, he passed for two touchdowns and drop-kicked four extra points in the All-Stars' 45-28 loss to the NFL champions. And, with that, Kinnick's football career came to a sudden end. He never played again, even though the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers drafted him and offered him $10,000, a princely sum then, to play in 1940. Dodger owners John (Shipwreck) Kelly and Dan Topping paid separate visits to Iowa, urging him to turn pro. Topping even brought along his wife of the moment, film and figure skating star Sonja Henie, for one meeting with Kinnick at the Jefferson Hotel in Iowa City. Kinnick asked Couppee, Prasse and Enich to come along and meet the glamorous couple. "My football career is over," Couppee remembers Kinnick as saying. "Law is my first priority."
In fact, Kinnick was already contemplating a future in politics. Less than a month after the All-Star Game, he appeared at a political rally in Iowa Falls and introduced presidential candidate Wendell Willkie to the crowd of 10,000. Kinnick, the grandson of a governor, later addressed a gathering of Young Republicans himself: "When the members of any nation have come to regard their country as nothing more than the plot of ground on which they reside, and their government as a mere organization for providing police or contracting treaties; when they have ceased to entertain any warmer feelings for one another than those which interest or personal friendship, or a mere general philanthropy may produce, the moral dissolution of that nation is at hand."
"We Want Willkie" was the Republican rallying cry that year, but at that particular convention, there was heard another cry: "We Want Kinnick." He was becoming the spokesman for a generation, another duty he would not shirk. Writing a year later to another politically ambitious friend, Loren Hickerson, Kinnick said, "Yes, Loren, some day I would like to meet you as a fellow senator or representative in Washington, D.C. Whether this can ever be my lot none can say now." Getting the jump on other newspapers, the Marion, Iowa, Sentinel announced after the Iowa football season that it was endorsing Kinnick for President in 1956, the first election in which he would be eligible to run for the office.