Saluting Nile Kinnick This Memorial Day Weekend

The Heisman Trophy honors all servicemen and servicewomen this Memorial Day weekend, remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Also on Memorial Day, we specifically remember and honor Iowa’s 1939 Heisman winner Nile Kinnick, the only Heisman winner to die in service and the first to die. 

Kinnick the football player was a standout. Kinnick the person was just as admirable.

As a Hawkeye senior, he was on the field an average of 57 minutes per game. He played 402 consecutive minutes against Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Northwestern before a separated shoulder forced him to the sideline.

A halfback who was the team’s main passer, Kinnick threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 374 yards on 106 carries. He also made 11-of-17 dropkick conversion attempts and scored 41 points. By passing, running or kicking, Kinnick was directly involved in 107 of Iowa’s 130 points that season. He also made eight interceptions.

Kinnick, the Hawkeyes’ student body president as a senior, finished his career with 1,674 yards rushing, 18 interceptions (an Iowa record that lasted half a century) and an average of 39.9 yards per punt. He won the Heisman in a close vote over Michigan’s Tom Harmon, who won it a year later.

Kinnick entered law school in the fall of 1940 but left after one year and enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve, reporting for induction three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On June 2, 1943, Kinnick was on a routine training flight from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington — this ship’s initial voyage — when his F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak. Kinnick was forced to execute an emergency landing in the water four miles from the ship, but he died in the process, five weeks shy of his 25th birthday.

Nile Kinnick

Per a biography called Kinnick: The Man and The Legend, he once wrote: “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely, 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’s legacy lives on in many ways. Iowa renamed its football stadium Kinnick Stadium in 1972. The Hawkeyes had wanted to honor Kinnick this way for some time, but his father initially didn’t want Kinnick singled out as many other students gave their life during World War II as well.

In 2016, a 16-foot statue of Kinnick was unveiled outside the stadium and players still touch the statue for luck before every home game.

In 1962, the Big Ten introduced a new coin to be flipped before every conference football game. The coins bear a portrait of Kinnick on the “heads” side and they have been used in more than 4,000 games.

There is also a high school in Japan called Nile C. Kinnick High School that serves U.S. military families serving in the country.

He’s still well represented in the Hawkeye record books, too, and stands atop the program’s career interception list with 18.

In this rare recording, you can hear an interview of Kinnick with an Iowa student journalist below.