Time Machine

Time Machine: When Nile Kinnick was the Cornbelt Comet

The Iowa Hawkeyes star excelled, on and off the football field

Nile Kinnick, who won the 1939 Heisman Trophy as college football’s finest player, remains dear in the hearts of University of Iowa football fans. Kinnick, who died during World War II, has been chosen by Iowa City Gazette staffers as one of Iowa City’s key personalities of the century. Gazette archive
Nile Kinnick, who won the 1939 Heisman Trophy as college football’s finest player, remains dear in the hearts of University of Iowa football fans. Kinnick, who died during World War II, has been chosen by Iowa City Gazette staffers as one of Iowa City’s key personalities of the century. Gazette archive
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Correction: Nile Kinnick was killed in June 1943 when his plane crashed off the coast of Venezuela. A previous version of this story had the incorrect location. Updated Dec. 2, 2019, at 5:45 p.m.

In the spring of 1938, newspapers around the country carried an Associated Press story predicting what the world would be like in 1965. One of the predictions was for a “Cornbelt Comet,” a streamlined wonder train that would glide across the prairie.

The following year, the nickname was appropriated and applied to a phenomenal University of Iowa football player named Nile Kinnick, winner of the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor.

Kinnick played high school football in Adel, in central Iowa, before moving to Omaha for his senior year.

He came back to Iowa to play college football in 1936. Kinnick — the grandson of George C. Clarke, Iowa’s governor from 1913 to 1917 — was a UI freshman quarterback.

As a sophomore, he was a halfback and good enough to be named to AP’s second team. He also was named outstanding sophomore player in the Big Ten.

He injured his ankle and sat out more of his junior year.

Year of ‘Iron Men’

Then came Kinnick’s senior year, 1939, when the Hawkeyes went from cellar dwellers to No. 2 in the Big Ten — the year of the “Iron Men,” the team that would upset top-ranked Notre Dame in one of Iowa’s most famous victories.

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It was Oct. 15 that the first reference to Kinnick as the “Cornbelt Comet” appeared in The Gazette’s sports pages when sports writer Tait Cummins analyzed each of the Iron Men in his “Red Peppers, Hot Sports Chatter” column.

For Kinnick he wrote, “An introvert. Concentrates harder on the task at hand than any man on the squad. Attacks the game with a fierceness which is apparent even in practice. ... His respect for Coach Anderson borders on adoration. Extremely approachable, Kinnick nevertheless keeps admirers at arm’s length until he’s sized them up. ... Popular with his mates, which possibly is the best tribute.”

The Hawkeyes’ destiny seemed sealed by the seventh game when Bill Green’s pass landed in Kinnick’s hands for the winning touchdown over a favored Minnesota team. For the first time since the tradition started in 1935, the bronze pig, Floyd of Rosedale, came home with the Hawkeyes.

As a senior, Kinnick had a hand in 107 of the 123 points the team had scored by the Minnesota game. He also was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, held a 3.8 grade average and did about two hours of clerical or janitorial work every day.

‘Courageous Best’

The last game of the season at Northwestern was the one that could give the Hawkeyes the Big Ten crown.

There was a rally before the team left for Evanston. Coach Eddie Anderson later told a reporter, “Kinnick was called upon for some words. He was perfectly at ease as he stood there. Then he said something which impressed me. ‘I’ll promise you this,’ he told that gathering, ‘we’ll do our level best, our most courageous best.’ Our ‘most courageous best’ — I had never heard that phrasing and yet it is something so typical of Kinnick.”

The battle with Northwestern in Evanston, on a cold, windy, overcast day, ended in a 7-7 tie that gave Ohio State the championship and Iowa second place. The brutal game ended for Kinnick in the third quarter when he suffered a shoulder separation.

Both teams cheered for Kinnick as he left the field.

The Heisman

On Monday, Nov. 27, when the Big Ten coaches picked their all-star football team, only one player was a unanimous pick: Nile Kinnick. On Dec. 6, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.

When he received the Walter Camp Memorial trophy in Washington, D.C., as the “best football player of the year” in January 1940, Kinnick again impressed his audience by saying, “Thank God, I’ve been dodging tacklers instead of bullets and throwing footballs instead of hand grenades ... thank God for America.”

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Kinnick, who stayed at Iowa to study law, gave up a job as assistant coach to enlist in the Navy in December 1941, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.

Ensign Kinnick graduated from the naval air base in Miami in September 1942. He was back in Iowa to toss as few footballs before the Hawks played Washington University.

He was assigned to an aircraft carrier in the spring. On June 4, 1943, 24-year-old Nile Kinnick was killed in action when his fighter plane crashed off the coast of Venezuela. His body was not recovered.

His brother, Ben, would die in a year later in the South Pacific.

A Naval air station fieldhouse in Olathe, Kan., was named for Kinnick in August 1943. Tokyo’s Meiji stadium was renamed in his honor in 1946.

Iowa students pushed to rename the football stadium in his honor, but a scholarship was established instead. The honor finally came his way in 1972, when the site of his football heroics was renamed Kinnick Stadium.

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