On Memorial Day weekend, we are reminded of the sacrifices that others have made fighting for our freedom. Seventy-five years ago, a smallish halfback named Niles Kinnick from the University of Iowa would win the 1939 Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Memorial Trophy, and become an All-American. He would be a second round draft choice of the Brooklyn Dodgers football team, but he would forgo a professional football career to enroll in law school at the University of Iowa. In law school, he excelled from the start, ranking third in his class after one year, when he enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve.
“There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely,” said Kinnick at the time, “no reason why we shouldn’t suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.”
Kinnick consistently sacrificed for what he believed in. The colleges he considered playing football at were Minnesota and Iowa. According to his high school coach,”Kinnick was determined to go to some school that was down… He didn’t want to go to Minnesota, because they were on top… He finally went to Iowa as he figured they were at their lowest ebb.” He came in when Iowa was at their low and his senior year, Iowa would finish 6-1-1 with a No.9 national ranking.
In addition to playing football, Kinnick was elected the student body president, and maintained a 3.4 grade-point-average, graduating with a degree in economics. While in law school, Kinnick served as an assistant football coach for the Hawkeyes. His decision to serve his country did not come as a surprise to those that new him.
“Every man whom I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed forces in times of danger,” said Kinnick. “It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example the best I know how. May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family, and my friends will be proud of me.”
By mid 1943, Kinnick was training to be a fighter-plane pilot with a squadron that would be sent to fight at Wake Island. During a training mission off the coast of Venezuela, his plane, a Grumman F4F Wildcat, developed an oil leak, and he was forced to ditch his plane at sea. His body was never recovered.
After Kinnick died, a movement began to rename Iowa Stadium in his honor. His father, Niles Kinnick Sr., was not comfortable with the idea, stating that Nile was just one of 407,000 Americans who lost their lives in military service during World War II, including Nile’s brother Ben. Kinnick, Sr. did not think it would be appropriate to single out his son for such an honor, and the school honored his wishes. In the early 1970s, the sports editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Gus Schrader resurrected the idea, using his column to rally support for the cause. When Kinnick Sr. softened his position and indicated he would not stand in the way of putting his son’s name on the stadium, the movement began to gain support. In 1972, the stadium was officially renamed Kinnick Stadium.
Before every Iowa home game, an excerpt from Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy acceptance speech is played as the team lines up to swarm the field. The coins used for the coin toss in every Big Ten Conference game feature Kinnick on the heads side of the coin, while the helmets of the opposing teams are on the tails side.
“Finally, if you will permit me, I’d like to make a comment which in my mind, is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.