Iowa's Ironmen remembered at Kinnick, 75 years later

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. - Nile Kinnick died more than 50 years before Bo Bower was born. But Iowa's freshman linebacker knows all about the man whose name is on the stadium he played in Saturday against Ball State.

"Just honoring him is so cool," Bower said of the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, who lost his life while serving his country. "It makes me realize how lucky we are to be playing football, and not fighting a war like he did."

The University of Iowa celebrated the 75th anniversary of Kinnick's 1939 Ironmen team Saturday. The only living member of that team, 93-year-old Hank Vollenweider of Fort Wayne, Ind., was in attendance.

Standing at mid-field during a pregame ceremony, Vollenweider got a rousing ovation when he was introduced.

Kinnick was 24 years old, his uniform number at Iowa, when lost his life on June 2, 1943. Kinnick was flying a single-seat Navy fighter during a training maneuver over the Caribbean Sea when it developed an oil leak. With the deck of the carrier Lexington crowded with men and airplanes, Kinnick attempted a water landing and perished.

Nicknamed the "Cornbelt Comet," Kinnick stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds. He had a strong upper body and an even stronger will to succeed.

Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy after the Hawkeyes completed a remarkable 1939 season. Short on depth, the team went 6-1-1. Iowa had been 1-7 in 1937 and 1-6-1 in 1938.

"If Kinnick had come along today, he would be just as great as he was then," the late Al Couppee said back in 1993. "Somehow or another, he'd find a way to be great. He was just that kind of person."

The most memorable game that season, the one that brought lasting lore to the Ironmen, was a 7-6 victory over Notre Dame. Kinnick scored the Hawkeyes' touchdown, and his point-after dropkick provided the winning edge. Eight players, including Kinnick, Couppee and captain Erwin Prasse, played all 60 minutes against the Irish.

Kinnick passed, punted, carried the ball, kicked extra points and played defense every game.

"He was a do-it-all guy," Iowa senior linebacker Quinton Alston said. "An old school-type player. That's what we're trying to embody here as football players, and as Hawkeyes."