Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday December 27, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 225: Nile Kinnick – Iowa’s legendary football player

kinnick head

A composite by the author places a helmeted Nile Kinnick bust atop the traditional Heisman trophy which 
is given annually by the New York Athletic Club to its selection of outstanding American football player. 
Kinnick earned the Heisman in 1939 playing for the University of Iowa.


By Bob Hibbs


Phi Beta Kappa law student Nile Kinnick ran, passed and kicked his way to the 1939 Heisman trophy and to University of Iowa football legend status while earning his way through college working at Iowa City’s First National Bank.

He was named the Associated Press athlete of the year ahead of Joe DiMaggio, Ben Hogan and Joe Lewis.

Kinnick died three years later when his fighter crashed into Caribbean waters on a training flight off the carrier USS Lexington, a death “mourned as a national tragedy,” writes John Gerber in his 1988 UI history. The university’s football stadium was named for Kinnick in 1974.

In unpublished material left with this reporter, the late Press-Citizen sports editor Al Grady writes of the Iowa team and coach Eddie Anderson:

“His spring practices were so demanding that about half of the already small squad quit, leaving him with 28 players for the 1939 season. What they did, a few of the front-runners, was play 60 minutes of offense and defense in most of the games, thus earning the nickname ‘The Ironmen.’ It was not unusual for seven or eight players to play an entire game without relief.

“Their 7-1-1 record is far from the best in Iowa history, nor should they be listed as Iowa’s greatest team ever, but because it was assumed they would continue Iowa’s record of football futility, because they captured the hearts of the entire nation, they remain today, almost 65 years later, as the most revered of all Hawkeye football teams.”

Grady continues: “The two games that really put them in the national spotlight were back-to-back triumphs in November against then unbeaten Notre Dame and then national power Minnesota, looking for its fourth national championship in six years.

“Kinnick, not surprisingly, was the ringmaster in both games, although certainly not without a lot of valiant help. As usual, he played the entire game (against Notre Dame). He changed a play in the huddle, switched from left to right halfback, and rammed four yards for Iowa’s only touchdown, then drop kicked the extra point.

“The next week was more of the same when the much bigger and deeper Golden Gophers rolled into town and built a 9-0 lead during three quarters, but Kinnick threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes that rescued a 13-9 victory which a Chicago reporter tabbed, “the most spectacular football game in modern Big Ten history.”

P.S. Al Grady died last week leaving a great big hole in the psyches of all who knew him. He was this reporter’s first boss out of college nearly 40 years ago when the P-C didn’t have an expected opening in the newsroom, so put us to work as Al’s assistant.

Rather than as sports fan, Al’s strongest trait for us was writing; his absolutely nit-picking insistence on correct language, spelling and punctuation, as well as sentence formation and the rest. It remains burned into us to this day.

When it came to language, Al was a perfectionist; a damn good one! He knew when to use “which” rather than “that;” when to use “during” rather than “in,” and “more than” rather than “over.” Their regular incorrect use still drives us to distraction, an outgrowth of Grady’s coaching.

Al had a gift for telling the story. We covered spring baseball for him, and even after moving to news side that fall, he insisted that we attend UI football games to help with statistics and to learn something of the game. Such tough overtime duty!ress box complex now being planned at Kinnick Stadium for him; such as Al Grady Hall. It would be a fitting tribute to a towering intellect of Iowa athletics and an All-American coach of the American language.


Next Saturday: Charles Schaeffer, among UI’s greatest presidents.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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