Iowa's Nile Kinnick refused to 'stick to sports' and delivered a Heisman speech in 1939 that still resonates

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Editor's note: This story was originally published in Dec. 7, 2017.

The world was in turmoil, and the football star from Iowa felt a tug on his conscience.

He needed to speak out, against injustice, poverty and tyranny. He used the biggest platform of his young life to decry a war taking place a continent away.

1939 photo of Iowa Hawkeyes football star and Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick.

Seventy-eight years ago, Nile Kinnick was standing before football luminaries and reporters at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, the Heisman Trophy at his side. The University of Iowa senior gave the usual thanks to his coaches, teammates and everyone who voted for him to receive college football's most prestigious award.

Then Kinnick turned briefly from the world of sports to address the topic that was at the top of everyone's mind.

"I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe," he said. "I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win a Heisman award than a Croix de Guerre.” 

The Heisman Trophy will be handed out for an 83rd time Saturday, after an autumn in which athletes and social issues have been intertwined as never before. Kinnick's 1939 speech was a rarity in its day — a revered athlete crossing so obviously into a contentious political discussion. 

"Never before had a winner used the Downtown Athletic Club as a pulpit to deliver a message," Cory McCartney wrote in his 2016 book "The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners." 

That path became more well-worn in succeeding decades, but even today, athletes who cross into the arena of protest face losing the pubic adulation that accompanies stardom, lucrative endorsements and sometimes their playing careers.

This fall, scores of NFL players have followed the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police mistreatment of minorities. Condemnation of these actions has come from many corners, most notably President Donald Trump, who has suggested that kneeling players should lose their jobs.

Allen Lazard, another Iowa-born college football star whose intellectual interests range far beyond the gridiron, took to Twitter in September to call out the president during the height of the player protests, using the hashtag #TakeAKnee. Twitter backlash was swift and biting.

Nile Kinnick

The conflict arises because many fans desire an athletics arena free of politics or social issues, according to Louis Moore, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, whose specialties include African-American history and sports history. So fans get irritated when athletes speak their minds.

“That’s been a safe zone,” Moore said. “And Kaepernick made them uncomfortable.”

Kinnick, the only Iowa collegian to win the Heisman, would return to revered status in the pantheon of Iowa sports icons. He eventually came to support fighting Nazi aggression, registered for the draft and was killed during a training flight. His famous acceptance speech is still played before every Hawkeye home football game inside the stadium that bears his name.

But the ultimate legacy of protesting athletes is hard to predict. The turmoil over this fall's protests has been especially intense, experts say, because it centers on the topic that has scarred America's history from its founding: race.

'The kid from the corn country'

Kinnick was an Adel native and grandson of former Iowa governor George Clarke. Although he grew to just 5 feet, 8 inches, he was one of the greatest athletes the state has produced, excelling in baseball and basketball along with football. He was also a straight-A student who chafed at the stereotype of the boorish jock.

As a senior at Iowa, Kinnick led a resurgence in what had been a hapless football program. First-year coach Eddie Anderson installed Kinnick as the tailback in an offensive scheme that required that athlete to run, pass and kick. Kinnick, who also played defense, won every major collegiate award.

Nile Kinnick, third from right, stands behind a welcome sign waiting for him at Floyd Bennett airport when he arrived Dec. 7, 1939 in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Second from right is Iowa coach Eddie Anderson.

Football brought Kinnick national acclaim, but he had already made an impression in Iowa as a deep thinker with a likely future in law, politics or both. Kinnick kept up a robust correspondence from his home at 630 N. Dubuque St. in Iowa City, one that his family preserved in the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department.

Kinnick was grounded in the Christian Scientist beliefs of his mother, Francis, writing to her endlessly about his fate and posing philosophical questions like, “What is a man’s obligation to society?”

So it was not surprising that Kinnick initially opposed the world war that broke out in Europe four weeks before his final football season began. Germany invaded Poland after securing the Soviet Union’s complicity; England and France declared war in a belated attempt to check Adolf Hitler’s aggression. The five-week blitzkrieg through Poland cost 84,000 lives.

Kinnick’s Heisman speech later that year was less than 400 words and filled with gratitude. He thanked Anderson and his coaches, his teammates and everyone who had voted for him to receive “this worthy trophy.”

His final words still echo today, replayed to 65,000-plus Hawkeye fans seven times each fall. Kinnick's voice quavered slightly when speaking of the war he felt blessed to not be fighting.

After a slight delay, the crowd at the Downtown Athletic Club erupted in applause.

Associated Press writer Whitney Martin's account appeared in the Register on Dec. 8, 1939: 

"The kid from the corn country took it in stride, and when he'd finished his classic little speech and the band blared a trifle sour 'On Iowa' and 700 men and women rose and cheered and whistled, you tried to gulp down a lump in your throat.

"You realized the ovation wasn’t alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth.”

At Iowa, that sentiment of Kinnick remains. It's why the school replays the final passage of the speech on the Kinnick Stadium videoboard, said Dale Arens, a longtime employee in the university's athletics department whose duties include overseeing the Hawkeye sports hall of fame.

"He had this platform, and he had something to say and so he said it," Arens said. "In a weird, ironic manner he reaches more people in one season of Iowa football now than he probably did live when it happened. It probably means more now than it did in the moment, though it was certainly something in the moment."

Kinnick made national headlines for his speech. Letters poured in, most praising his words.

“Your preference for athletics over war was a grand idea,” Californian Grace Williams wrote Kinnick in February 1940.

But others questioned Kinnick for injecting current events into the realm of sports. Kinnick even hinted that his coach, Anderson, was among those, writing to a friend on Dec. 28, 1939:

“Glad to get your clippings relative to my little talk in question. I knew it was no ‘corker’ but coach made me feel as if I had committed a crime against the State U.”

After graduating with honors from Iowa in 1940, Kinnick went on a speaking tour, collecting $50 a speech. His thoughts were in such demand that people even asked him to send letters in lieu of public appearances.

Iowa football star Nile Kinnick, front middle, and coach Eddie Anderson were special guests at a 1940 convention of Des Moines Register carriers. Kinnick was himself a carrier as a boy in Adel.

Kinnick meticulously prepared his speeches, relying on handwritten notes tucked into the pocket of his suit jacket. They were always about more than football, never shying from the geopolitical storm that was gaining steam.

Kinnick was asked to give the commencement dinner address to his fellow 1940 graduates at Iowa. He reminded his "Greatest Generation" peers of the struggle that lay ahead, and of their opportunity to forge a better future for humankind.

“Injustice, oppression and war will ultimately bring on their own destruction — suffering and misery eventually awaken the human race," Kinnick declared. "But that is the long, sad unenlightened road we have taken in the centuries past. Now is the time for these problems to be solved by enlightened thought and understanding. We can accomplish much if we implement mental discipline and inspiration with a real mental courage.”

Increasingly, Kinnick turned to politics as an outlet for his fundamental beliefs. He shared a stage with Iowa Gov. George Wilson in Des Moines in 1940.

He threw his support behind businessman Wendell Willkie’s dark-horse bid to unseat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Willkie painted Roosevelt as overly eager to  get America into World War II. Willkie supported providing aid to England and its allies, but not direct military intervention.

Kinnick wrote his father for advice before introducing Willkie at a rally of 10,000 people in Iowa Falls. Dare he take such an extreme step into the political arena? His father gave his blessing. Kinnick went forward. 

A doctor from his home state wrote him an exasperated letter. Why would someone beloved by the entire population risk alienating half of his fans by sticking his nose into politics? Erwin Gottsch of Shenandoah compared the act to endorsing "a cigarette, or a liver pill."

Kinnick calmly took up pen and paper of his own in response.

“Politics are not very clean but they should be; politics need integrity and idealism; politics more often than not disillusion those who enter with those ideas. Of that I am fully aware,” Kinnick assured his critic in his response. “But that does not alter the situation. I shall proceed as best I can — and whether I lose 50 percent popular favor shall not deter me. ... I am doing what I think is the thing to do.”

Iowa was one of 10 states that Willkie won in the presidential election.

Modern players enter fray

Athletes today can relate to public criticism Kinnick faced, made easier by social media.

“I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in and what is right,” said Lazard, a senior wide receiver at Iowa State.

The player protests started during the 2016 NFL season and spread this fall to other sports at various age levels. This emotionally-charged movement has divided Americans, with a slim majority of those polled by CBS in October expressing disapproval of players kneeling during the anthem.

Lazard did not kneel during the anthem after his anti-Trump tweet, but carried the American flag onto the field before the next Cyclones game in September. Lazard faced significant social media backlash.

“Never have I ever been ashamed to be an Iowa State Cyclone. Keep politics out of sports @AllenLazard. Be a leader not a follower,” a woman tweeted. 

"Play football, shut up! And stand for the anthem or go to hell. You think your (sic) more important than the anthem, your (sic) wrong," a man posted on WHO-TV's Facebook account beneath a story about Lazard.

"You’ve just got to take that with a grain of salt,” Lazard said recently. “I would just assume that (critics) like to see players as players themselves. It’s hard when you don’t see them outside of football or outside of their sport ... you don’t get to know them as a human being. It’s hard to kind of correlate the identity of a social activist.”

Iowa State senior receiver Allen Lazard carries the United States flag as the Cyclones take the field prior to kickoff against Texas on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.

Experts like Moore believe the heated backlash toward athletes this fall was also race-driven. Lazard, like most of the current protesters, is African-American. 

“We’ve created this narrative where the black athlete is supposed to be happy with what they have,” Moore said.

Sports have often been used to accentuate patriotism in America, Moore noted, pointing to the large-scale pregame ceremonies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Former NFL star Pat Tillman, who quit the league to enlist in the Army after 9/11, was held up as a national hero after he lost his life serving in Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman's family has said he would be uncomfortable with being viewed as heroic and his widow has condemned efforts to politicize his life and death. 

“That allows us to celebrate democracy, and we love that about sports," Moore said of the relationship between sports and patriotism. "It’s not a move that challenges, say, the 80 years of legal segregation in Virginia. There’s room in the NFL for that kind of dialogue. There’s not room for people who want to talk about police brutality.”

Those who do are often singled out as un-American, as Lazard was by some. Kneeling during the anthem is portrayed as an affront to the flag, or the song, or the military in general.

“They don’t understand the immense privilege that being white in this country has had. It’s hard for people to have that conversation,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “So rather than have that conversation, they deflect and make it about something else — about dishonoring the flag and military veterans.”

Lebowitz believes social activism in sports is here to stay. It’s spread from the NFL to the NBA, with stars like LeBron James and Steph Curry taking up the mantle. All are following in the footsteps of African-American athletes who fought back against repression — from track star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, to Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, to boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1967.

But it’s more coordinated and widespread now, the first time black athletes have pushed for change en masse.

“You’re talking about a movement where athletes understand their platform and power, understand the celebrity nature of the world,” Lebowitz said. “It’s kind of sad that people don’t understand it as a statement of, ‘How can we be better?’”

Owens, Robinson and Ali were all eventually viewed as heroic by most Americans. Kaepernick this week was named the winner of Sports Illustrated's Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, although he remains a polarizing figure.

Nile Kinnick in an undated photo.

Kinnick's final days, and his legacy

Kinnick's personal letters reveal a young man struggling to come to grips with the economic imbalance he witnessed coming of age during the Great Depression.

Eventually, Kinnick did an about-face in his attitude toward the war. He came to believe that the dark forces threatening the world could be halted only by combat.

Nile Kinnick, shown in military uniform in this undated photo, was killed in 1943 when he crash landed his planed during a training session.

In October 1940, one month after introducing Willkie at that rally, Kinnick took time away from law school at Iowa to register for the draft. After finishing third in his class that year, he drove to Kansas City in the summer of 1941 to sign up for the Naval Air Corps Reserve.

Kinnick reported for duty Dec. 4, almost two years to the day after his famous Heisman speech. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor three days later.

World War II claimed Kinnick in 1943. His fighter plane, leaking oil on a training mission off the coast of Venezuela, crash-landed at sea. His body was never recovered amid the oil slick. 

"He was the hero every boy dreams of being," the Register's Sec Taylor wrote days after Kinnick's death. 

In this photo from the June 5, 1943 Des Moines Register, a crowd quickly gathered in front of the Register and Tribune building as news spread of the death of Nile Kinnick, former Iowa Hawkeyes football all-American. The caption read: "Their expressions tell how the death of Kinnick, when his plane crashed into the sea, saddened these readers."

In 1972, Iowa named the football stadium after its most decorated player. A 14-foot Kinnick statue was stationed out front in 2006, suitably made of bronze, like the Heisman. It is a gathering spot for Hawkeye fans, a venerated symbol for coach Kirk Ferentz and players as they enter the stadium on Saturdays, a mute reminder of what was lost when Kinnick ditched his Grumman F4F Wildcat and never resurfaced.

Arens struck up friendships with many of Kinnick's late Hawkeye teammates decades ago and was struck by the reverence in their voices whenever his name was mentioned.

Snow falls over the Nile Kinnick statue prior to Iowa's football game against Purdue at Kinnick Stadium in November 2015.

"In the eyes of those who knew him, he sort of epitomized all that was good," Arens said. "They'd fight you to the death if you wanted to argue with them that Nile Kinnick probably, if he hadn't died, would have become, minimally, governor. And they would argue with you that he was destined to be president."

Kinnick's Heisman speech remains a blueprint for Lazard, Kaepernick and anyone who feels compelled to use the fame gained in a sporting arena to address larger issues facing the world.

Stick to sports? Kinnick would never hear of it.

It was perhaps Kinnick himself, in his own carefully constructed words, who summed up the legacy of his Heisman speech the best. 

“It is my belief that the essential thing to be gained from a college education is to learn, to think, to think for yourself, to develop an active, alert, inquiring mind.” 

Register staff writer Tommy Birch contributed to this story.