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June 5, 2014

Heisman winner's legacy wasn't about football

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.

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 9th 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.

It was when he captured the Heisman Trophy that Kinnick wowed the crowd. He closed his speech with an observation about the likelihood of America going to war:

“If you’ll permit me,” he said, “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.”

Sensing that war was imminent, Kinnick joined the Naval Air Corps in 1941 and reported to duty. Three days later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

A true All-American and a gifted philosopher, Kinnick left his mark, playing on the gridiron while watched by thousands and in personal correspondence.

“It is the lot of our generation to serve as military men first, and then, with an idealism undaunted, to enlist with as much zeal to form a lasting peace. All will come right, our cause is just and righteous. This country will not lose,” he wrote to a friend.

On June 2, 1943, Kinnick’s plane lifted off the aircraft carrier USS Lexington on a routine training flight. About an hour into the exercise, his F4F Wildcat developed a serious oil leak. Without lubrication and losing altitude, Kinnick, 24, was forced to attempt a landing at sea - off the coast of Venezuela.

Rescue boats arrived minutes later but only found an oil slick. There was no sight of the plane or Kinnick. He was never to be seen again.

More than 420,000 Americans died in World War II. Not all were acclaimed athletes or intellectuals. But all were heroes.

As warriors and wonderers return to Normandy to honor those whose deeds rewrote history, Kinnick’s words are worth recalling:

“It will be a long and bitter road to victory, but victory there will be, and with it the U.S. will have gained the world prestige she long ago should have earned.”

They are the words of a champion and a patriot.

 Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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