At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

Iowa's Kinnick was more Kaepernick than Mayfield

Year of controversy brings to mind Iowa's outspoken Heisman hero

The Iowa football team touches the helmet of the Nile Kinnick statue as they arrive at Kinnick Stadium for their game against Illinois in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Iowa football team touches the helmet of the Nile Kinnick statue as they arrive at Kinnick Stadium for their game against Illinois in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Football has been mired in all the wrong kinds of controversy this year.

National Anthem protests by dozens of NFL players draw harsh criticism from the media and political elites, including President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the sports community named its Heisman Trophy winner this past weekend, an Oklahoma quarterback with a long list of indiscretions, including fleeing police in this past offseason and making an obscene gesture at opponents during conference play. The politicians and pundits aren’t grumbling much about that.

I can’t help but think of Iowa’s own Heisman hero, 1939 honoree Nile Kinnick. He was much more Colin Kaepernick than Baker Mayfield.

He was the most decorated collegiate athlete of his day, earning the Heisman, Maxwell, and Walter Camp awards. However, what launched Kinnick into the ranks of legends was not just football, it was his refusal to stick to sports, as modern detractors would have it. Dozens of speeches and letters preserved by the University of Iowa show a passionate young Iowan who felt a responsibility to use his celebrity status to promote the social and political causes he cared deeply about.

Kinnick delivered his most memorable words during the Heisman ceremony. With World War II gripping the planet, he felt compelled to speak out for peace.

“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,” Kinnick said.

As the U.S. entered the war, Kinnick came to see it as a necessary evil. He volunteered to serve in the Navy, and was killed during a training flight in 1943.

I have no doubt Kinnick would have made important political contributions if he hadn’t died too young.


Kinnick’s maternal grandfather was George W. Clarke, a Republican legislator, governor and lieutenant governor in the early 1900s. After college, Kinnick spent part of the year campaigning for Wendell Willkie, the Republican running against former President Franklin Roosevelt.

Iowa sports historian Mike Chapman reported he asked President Ronald Reagan in the early 1990s about Kinnick. Reagan followed Iowa sports in his early career as a Des Moines sportscaster, and though he never met Kinnick, he apparently followed the young Iowan’s short career in sports and politics.

“I think he could have been anything he wanted, maybe even President of the United States,” Reagan reportedly said

Kinnick could not have anticipated the cultural and political battles facing our country 70 years after his death, yet he seemed to speak to them. Shortly before joining the military, he warned fellow Iowans in a 1940 speech that free expression must be defended.

“[Democracy] is an understanding that man has certain inalienable rights, that he is entitled to justice, to worship the way he pleases, to say what he pleases, to write as he sees fit,” Kinnick said.

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