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A Football, Nile Kinnick and Christmas

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 died during World War II.
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 died during World War II.

As the 1944 football season faded into history and Christmas approached, it wasn’t visions of sugarplums that danced in my head. No. It was a football.

During my second grade year in Guthrie Center I became fascinated with the gridiron game. I watched newsreels at the Garden Theater with All Americans Doc Blanchard and Glen Davis scoring touchdowns for the Army team, listened to the Hawkeyes on the radio, and eavesdropped on football talk at Bill Sanger’s barbershop. I even participated, in a way, in the games of older boys on the courthouse lawn, chasing loose balls and returning them with a kick.

“D’ya suppose, Mommy, that Santa Claus might bring me a football for Christmas?” I asked.

“I kind of doubt it, sweetheart. There’s a war on and Santa’s short of supplies. You know he’s on rationing, too.”

I hadn’t thought about Santa Claus with a ration book. But it made sense. Everyone else had one, including me. But I didn’t understand how footballs could help win the war. “How can footballs beat the Nazis?” I asked.

“It’s not the footballs, but the materials they’re made of,” Mom explained. “They have leather coverings and rubber insides that are vital to the war effort.”

I still didn’t understand. Mom saw my puzzled look and continued, “The Army needs leather for boots and the Navy needs rubber for life rafts.”


Now I understood, and felt guilty thinking how my football might make some soldier go barefoot or leave some shipwrecked sailor bobbing about in the ocean.

“I guess I don’t need one that bad,” I replied with a tear in my eye.

Mom noticed my disappointment. “Let’s hope the war’s over by next Christmas and Santa can bring you a brand-new football.” She leaned forward and placed her hands on my shoulders. “I’ve got an idea,” she said. “While we’re waiting for Santa to bring you a ball, we can get you fixed up with a uniform. What do you think of that?”

The corners of my mouth turned upward. “That’d be super,” I gushed.

Mom was an expert seamstress who sewed for the Red Cross, local customers, and her family. But she knew little about football. To her a “quarter back” was change at Beach’s dime store, not a football player. But she knew her limitations.

“You’ll have to help with the design of your uniform,” she advised. “I can take it from there.”

I had seen football players in full regalia, but didn’t know the details of the underpinnings. I did know, however, where to find out. I made a quick trip to Bill Sanger’s barbershop.

“Mr. Sanger, my mom told me Santa is out of footballs this year, but she’ll make me a uniform. D’ya know about that?” I asked.

The friendly man sat in his barber’s chair while waiting for another customer. “Well, let’s see,” he started while rubbing his chin. “The pants have pockets inside the legs for thigh pads and padding at the knees. They also have hip pads, but if you’re gonna be a quarterback, you can get by without those. And you’ll need some shoulder pads under a jersey. That’s about it.”

I beamed. “Gee, Mr. Sanger, thanks a lot.”

I raced home and passed along the information. Mom set to work with a rummage sale pair of corduroy pants she cut and hemmed at the knees. She took the pockets from the pants, filled them with folded cloth remnants, and made them into knee pads. The rounded sides of a Quaker Oats box served as thigh pads, and a long stocking stuffed with cotton and formed into a circle became my shoulder pads. The latter piece of equipment had more in common with a horse collar than the regulation gear, but it made my oversized hand-me-down sweatshirt puffy in the shoulders, just like the Hawkeyes. I was satisfied to near ecstasy.


I stood in front of Mom’s fitting mirror admiring my new uniform, thrilled and ready to hit the gridiron.

Mom smiled with satisfaction. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

“I don’t suppose you could make me a helmet. They’re also made of leather.”

“You can wear your stocking cap. It’ll keep your ears warm and offer enough protection.”

Mom was a genius. She had answers for everything.

With one last request I asked, “Could you put some numbers on my jersey?”

“Sure thing,” Mom replied with a big smile. “What did you have in mind?”

“I’d like to be number 24 like Nile Kinnick. Mr. Sanger says he was the best player the Hawkeyes ever had. He got killed in the war last year, ya know.”

“Yes, I do know. Very sad.”

When Christmas arrived I unwrapped my presents decked out in a new football uniform sporting number 24 on the jersey. Mom always had a special surprise after I finished opening mundane gifts like socks and underwear. “You might want to see if Santa left something else in my closet,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

I raced up the stairs, two steps at a time, and into Mom’s bedroom closet. A football lay on the floor with a note: “From Santa Claus.” I was thrilled to tears.

I picked up the football. It didn’t look or feel right. It was undersized, heavy, covered with oil cloth, and as pliable as a board. My tears of joy turned to ones of disappointment. The phony pigskin I held was nothing like the real thing I had booted on the courthouse lawn.

I had a problem. My mother knew about Santa’s football and would expect me to be pleased. St. Nick didn’t seem to know any more about football than Mom. I would have to make the best of it and conceal my unhappiness from her.


It didn’t work. When I returned downstairs Mom, as usual, read my mind. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “I thought you’d be excited about the football.”

“It’s not the real thing,” I replied with a sniffle. “Ya can’t even kick the thing.”

Mom turned serious. “We all have to make sacrifices during the war, including little boys like you. I’m sure Santa did the best he could. Football isn’t the most important thing in the world. Count your blessings.”

Mom’s words stung. She was right, and I knew it. I looked at her with tears running down my cheeks and mumbled, “I know Mommy. I’m sorry.”

My mother took me into her arms and whispered in my ear, “When the war’s over, you’ll have the best football Santa can find. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll follow in the footsteps of Nile Kinnick.”

Once again Mom was correct. The following Christmas the war had ended, and I received the cherished football.

Later, I did indeed follow in the footsteps of the Hawkeye great, but not onto the University of Iowa gridiron. No, the Kinnick path I followed led to the football field of his Adel High School alma mater, one of Guthrie Center’s rivals in the Coon Valley Conference of the time.

My footsteps into the stadium named after Nile Kinnick came later, and as a spectator. I have attended Hawkeye games from the days of Forest Evashevski to those of Kirk Ferentz and watched many exciting moments. But nothing has given me more pride in the Iowa team and its supporters than witnessing 70,000 fans wave their greetings to the young patients seated high above the stadium in the windows of the Stead Family Children’s Hospital.


The Hawkeyes will always have another season. For some of the small hands waving back, half way to heaven, this is their final season.

Again Mom was right. Some things are more important than football. And we should all count our blessings. Christmas is a special opportunity to do so.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments:

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