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Nile Kinnick's legacy lives on, 75 years after his death in WWII

Chuck Long: 'He's one of the greatest people to ever live in this country'

Hawkeye football players pass the Nile Kinnick statue before a November 2017 game against Ohio State University at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. This year is the 100th anniversary of Kinnick’s birth and the 75th anniversary of the Heisman Trophy winner’s death in World War II, an event that was commemorated this week at Camp Dodge in Johnston. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Hawkeye football players pass the Nile Kinnick statue before a November 2017 game against Ohio State University at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. This year is the 100th anniversary of Kinnick’s birth and the 75th anniversary of the Heisman Trophy winner’s death in World War II, an event that was commemorated this week at Camp Dodge in Johnston. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A hundred years after his birth and 75 years after his death in World War II, Nile Kinnick’s legacy remains strong at the University of Iowa.

“You look at the history of Iowans and the history of people in this country, he’s one of the greatest people to ever live in this country, not just in Iowa,” Chuck Long told a gathering Thursday at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

Long, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes’ quarterback from 1981 to 1985, was asked to speak about the Heisman Trophy winner’s legacy on the 75th anniversary of Kinnick’s death.

Kinnick’s name, Long said, was “certainly the first name that was mentioned upon my arrival at Iowa. It wasn’t even when I signed at Iowa. It was on my recruiting trip.”

Long, a Heisman Trophy finalist himself, said he appreciates that Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium is the only stadium in the country named after a Heisman Trophy winner.

“It’s just been one of those representations that’s stood the test of time, based on how he was on and off the field,” Long said at the event organized by the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

Long said he believes Kinnick’s legacy laid a foundation for future Iowa football success with longtime coaches Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz.

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“Both those coaches — they’ve lasted 20 years apiece because they’ve embraced history and embraced players like Nile Kinnick.”

Kinnick, who was born in Adel in north-central Iowa, helped the Hawkeyes to a 6-1-1 record in 1939, his senior season, playing all 60 minutes of multiple games.

At just 5 foot, 8 inches and 170 pounds, the halfback was known for his role on that year’s “Ironmen” team and for playing 402 consecutive minutes before suffering a separated shoulder in his final game, according to his Heisman Trophy biography.

He was a consensus All-American.

In Kinnick’s celebrated Heisman acceptance speech, he said he was thankful for being born in the United States where people could play on football fields instead of fighting on Europe’s battlefields.

“The football players of this country had rather battle for such medals as the Heisman Trophy than for such medals as the Croix de Guerre and the Iron Cross,” Kinnick said.

Kinnick enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps Reserve after he graduated and was called to active duty as an ensign just days after the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941.

Kinnick died on a training flight June 2, 1943, when his fighter plane — which another pilot saw leaking oil — crashed during a training flight off the coast of Venezuela.

“When rescue vessels reached the crash site, there was only an oil slick, with no trace of either plane or pilot,” according to the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

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Organizers plan to celebrate Kinnick’s 100th birthday during this year’s FRYfest on Aug. 31 in Coralville.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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