Seventy years ago on Sunday, Nile Kinnick’s plane went down in the Caribbean Sea during a routine Naval training flight.
The Adel native son, University of Iowa football standout and 1939 Heisman Trophy winner was lost forever.
Yet, even 70 years after his death, Nile Kinnick’s name lives on in legend far beyond Adel’s city limits, far beyond the borders of his native Iowa. Kinnick is remembered not just for his prowess on the football field, but because he was a gentleman as well as scholar, a brilliant example of everything good about American youth.
And, Kinnick will always be youthful in our minds.
He was just more than a month shy of his 25th birthday when he died.
Kinnick’s death on June 2, 1943 off the coast of Venezuela drew headlines across the nation. A Navy lieutenant, Kinnick was on a routine training flight when his plane developed an oil leak. His attempt at landing on the USS Lexington — his home ship — was thwarted because the deck was filled with other plans preparing for takeoff.
Kinnick turned away from the ship and made a forced landing at sea. Even though a rescue ship arrived within eight minutes, all that remained was an oil slick where the plane went down.
About 10 years ago, a California lawyer with Iowa ties searched for Kinnick’s plane. Believing he’d found the plane, he made plans to raise it from 110 feet of water. He wanted to restore the plane and put it on display either at the football stadium in Adel, or at a location at the University of Iowa.
But, Kinnick descendants believe that Kinnick’s remains may still be in the plane and discouraged those plans, believing it would be akin to "digging up a grave."
What exactly happened on that June day 70 years ago will forever remain a mystery.
Not only was Kinnick an athletic star in Adel, he excelled in the classroom, as well. He led Adel to an undefeated football season in 1935 and a football from that season is among many trophies proudly displayed in a trophy case at what has now become Adel-DeSoto-Minburn High School.
Eight years ago, a 70-year reunion of that great local grid team was held; only a few team members remained, but all recalled their most famous teammate and had Kinnick tales to tell.
Kinnick went on to attend the University of Iowa and to play football there. So outstanding was Kinnick that he was honored by New York’s Downtown Athletic Club with the Heisman Trophy, symbolic of the best college football player in the nation.
He never lost sight of the fact that, foremost, he was at Iowa to earn an education.
He maintained a 3.4 grade point average and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Kinnick was elected student body president his senior year at Iowa.
Although the United States was still months away from becoming involved in World War II, that great battle was surely on Kinnick’s mind as he accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York City.
Made about two years before the U.S. entered the war, Kinnick’s acceptance speech is regarded as one of the most eloquent and moving ever given.
While Kinnick gave accolades to his coach (Dr. Eddie Anderson) and his teammates back in Iowa City and wished they could "all be with me tonight to receive this trophy. They certainly deserve it."
But, it was his closing remarks that have marked his Heisman speech for eternity.
Kinnick closed by saying, "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."
Finally, though, like many young men of his generation, Kinnick was drawn to Military service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He joined the Navy in 1941 and was commissioned a lieutenant. His death came on that fateful training flight in 1942.
There was little doubt that Kinnick was prepared to die for his country. In a 1942 letter to his parents, he wrote:
"We are not a people apart; 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 than it is anyone else. And it is a matter of self-preservation right this very minute … May God give me courage to do my duty and not falter."
To his grandmother just four days later, he wrote:
"It is very sobering to realize just what the future holds for boys my age. On the other hand it is a practical challenge to a man’s courage and personal integrity. A man who talks but is afraid to act, who sacrifices principle to expediency whenever real danger threatens is not worthy to keep and enjoy what he has. He is not worthy of his background and heritage who kowtows to tyranny in order to cling to his temporary safety and comfort. I trust that I will have the courage to act as I speak come what may."
Had he lived, there’s much speculation that, one day perhaps, Kinnick might have been a candidate for president. At least, many feel, he may have become Iowa’s governor.
He came from good political stock. His grandfather, his mother’s father, was George W. Clarke, who served two terms as Iowa governor, having been elected in both 1912 and 1914. After that, Gov. Clarke was the Dean of the Drake University law school.
In just a few short years from his time in Adel, leading his high school football team to an undefeated season, catching the fastball of Bob Feller in youth baseball, and frolicking with school friends, Kinnick went on to become the most recognizable name in college football.
Kinnick’s name will always be remembered. The main street through Adel is now named "Kinnick." The University of Iowa now plays its football games in Kinnick Stadium, so named in 1972.
Even greater than that, Kinnick will always be remembered as a man with integrity and conviction, a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country.