SMART LAD, TO SLIP BETIMES AWAY FROM FIELDS WHERE GLORY DOES NOT STAY AND EARLY THOUGH THE LAUREL GROWS IT WITHERS QUICKER THAN THE ROSE....
—To AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG
Every few years or so, as often as they can, the Ironmen get together in Iowa City to tell all the old stories. "You remember how bowlegged old Ham Snider was," Erwin Prasse, the team captain, is saying. "Well, my mom and dad saw me play just once, in our last game against Northwestern. My folks were bakers, and neither of them knew a football from a loaf of bread. Anyway, that Northwestern game was tough. Everybody seemed to get hurt. We were all pretty beat up. So on one play they're helping old Ham off the field, and my mother looks down at him, and she's horrified. 'Oh my God,' she says. 'Look what they've done to his legs.' "
Prasse, Al Couppee, Chuck Tollefson, Wally Bergstrom and George (Red) Frye are having dinner at a restaurant called The Lark. When they were all Ironmen on the University of Iowa's legendary 1939 team, the same spot was known as Ken and Fern's, and it was a pretty tough roadhouse where they would get into real trouble from time to time. "Hey, Tolly," says Couppee, "remember the night the town marshal chased us out of here after we broke that slot machine and we hid in the parking lot of that funeral home?"
They are men in their late 60's or early 70's now, still robust and fun-loving, and they are as close as any old teammates can be. "Some call it love," Coup-pee says. Al was the quarterback and he still pretty much calls the signals at these casual reunions. Couppee, a semi-retired newspaper columnist and broadcaster, articulates perhaps better than the others their experience together so many years ago.
"It's a shame," he says in his big voice, "but my perception of things as a kid back then was so shallow. I couldn't see beyond the surface of things. There was so much happening at once, such a combination...the Great Depression, people in breadlines.... I can remember the desperation in my mom's face when it came time to buy coal. The whole state was in a bad way. Farms were closing down, people were hungry. Then, out of a clear blue sky came this one little group of people with just the right chemistry—our team. There was an almost hysterical relief at having something at last to grab hold of, to believe in. And...we had Nile...."
The others nod, their ruddy faces beaming in the soft blue light of the restaurant. "Yes, Nile," says Prasse. "You know, I think about him all the time. I think of him whenever I get in a conversation about players from our time and the ones now. Everyone says how much better they are today. Sure, but I say Nile could've played anytime. He was so smart, he'd have found a way to play. I was never envious of Nile—he wouldn't let you feel that way—until I saw this big scrapbook his father had kept for him. I was jealous of that scrapbook, because I never had one."
"All the clich�s fit Nile," says Coup-pee. "He was Jack Armstrong and Frank Merriwell rolled into one. He was the smallest—only about 5'8", 170 to 175 pounds—and the slowest of all our backs. Our coach, Eddie Anderson, used to say that if that man could've run a 10-flat 100, the Big Ten would've banned him. Roger Pettit was a better punter, and Bill Green was a better runner. But never in a game. In a game, you just knew he'd do something in the last minute, find a way to pull us out. In my 66 years, I've never met anyone who had the self-discipline that 21-year-old had. There was just an aura about him. He didn't try to create it, it was just there. You really had the feeling you were in the presence of someone very special."
And would Nile show up at a reunion such as this?
Laughter all around, "Oh, no...."
"No, I tell you where Nile Kinnick would be right now," says Couppee. "He'd be in the White House. And with him there, we wouldn't have any of the junk that's going on now. Nile would've been so far ahead of these people...."