If you’ve heard of Nile Kinnick, you’ve never forgotten his story. If you haven’t, it’s a relatively short one with a sad ending.
I’ve been thinking about Kinnick as I read about preparations for the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion — the greatest military operation in history. The Allies’ surprise attack along a 50-mile stretch of French shoreline changed the course of World War II and the history of the world. The anniversary was Friday.
Kinnick’s story is similar to those of other brave young men who willingly went to war to battle for something more important than a weekend football game or a fraternity party.
Kinnick was a student-athlete in the truest sense. He was honored for outstanding play at the University of Iowa. He received accolades for his classroom achievements as well.
It was odd that Kinnick picked Iowa. The Hawkeyes weren’t very good, and Minnesota, a Big Ten power, was a possibility. But Iowa offered a chance to reverse the fortunes of a losing program. Kinnick’s decision was an early sign of his determination.
Neither championships nor victories were part of his initial years in Iowa City, but the 1939 season was going to be different. Kinnick all but guaranteed it.
“For three years, nay for 15 years, I have been preparing for this last year of football,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-around back to hit this conference.”
The Hawkeyes finished with a 6-1-1 record. Kinnick was involved in 16 of Iowa’s 19 touchdowns, and the team finished No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll. He won most major sports awards handed out that year — including AP’s Male Athlete of the Year, for which he beat out Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson and Joe Louis.