Iowa History Daily: On May 31, 1943, Nile Kinnick penned his final letter home before tragically dying during a training flight while serving as an aviator in the United States Navy during World War II. The 1939 Heisman Trophy winner and consensus All-American, the University of Iowa made Kinnick a familiar name to all Iowans across generations when they renamed their football stadium in his honor during 1972.
Born in Adel during July of 1919, the grandson of Iowa’s 21st Governor George W. Clark, Kinnick grew up in Christian Science household focused on developing discipline, hard work, and strong morals. As a child Kinnick excelled in athletics, first in Junior Legion Baseball and later as a multi-sport star at Adel High School. Known as “June” during his high school days, Kinnick led Adel to an undefeated season on the gridiron while also dropping in 485 points on the basketball court.
While a freshman in Iowa City during 1936, Kinnick’s athletic ability shined: he played football, baseball, and basketball during his freshman year. As a sophomore economics major, Kinnick showed signs of his potential with a 74-yard punt return against Michigan. The basketball court also offered insights into the athletic gifts of the Hawkeye great, and he finished second in scoring on the team. Injuries during his junior year forced Kinnick to focus solely on football in 1939.
The 1939 Iowa Hawkeye “Ironmen” finished 9th in the AP Poll with a 6-1-1 record, as Kinnick dominated the Big 10. Throwing for 638 yards on 31 passes, Kinnick also ran for 374 yards. 16 (11 passing, five rushing) of Iowa’s 19 touchdowns involved Kinnick, and he won Big 10 MVP by the largest margin in history. Also a recipient of the Heisman, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy, and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, Kinnick also shined in the classroom finishing his time in Iowa City by delivering the commencement speech after compiling a 3.4 grade point average.
After rejecting several offers to play professional football and ignoring his draft by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kinnick enrolled at the University of Iowa College of Law. Ranked third in his class following his first year, Kinnick left to enlist in the Naval Air Reserve three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Training to serve as a fighter pilot, Ensign Kinnick perished after the Grumman F4F Wildcat he flew developed a significant oil leak. With the landing area overcrowded with planes on the USS Lexington, Kinnick performed a standard military procedure emergency landing in the ocean. He died in the crash on June 2, 1943.
The final letter Kinnick wrote back home in the days prior to his death, dated May 31, 1943, mentioned his fondness for Iowa City. “That little town means so much to me - the scene of growth and development during vital years - joy and melancholy, struggle and triumph. It is almost like home.” #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar