Oh, look! It’s another documentary about 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick! And since it’s Heisman week, let’s take another look back at this Hawkeye great.
This documentary was produced in 2004 as part of a CSTV special, From Ballfields to Battlefields. It skips a little in parts, but it’s still worth a watch.
From Ballfields to Battlefields: Hero For The Ages
This documentary was narrated by Charles Gibson, the former host of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight.
From Ballfields to Battlefields: Hero For The Ages – Commentary
Again, I’m watching this from a different angle than many folks, but this documentary just gets off to a bad start with me. Thirty seconds into the documentary, Gibson hits us with this tidbit, “In 1938, the Hawkeyes were 1-7 [and] hadn’t won a Big Ten game since 1933!” Impressively, that’s two errors in the span of about five seconds. Iowa actually went 1-6-1 in 1938…and the lone victory was a Big Ten win over then-conference member the University of Chicago.
Okay, so 1-6-1 isn’t much better than 1-7, but that’s not the point. Why make a documentary if you’re not going to get basic facts right? In Gibson’s defense, what he’s trying to point out in the second tidbit is that Iowa hadn’t won a Big Ten home game since 1933, when Iowa defeated Wisconsin in Iowa City, 26-7. (That was Iowa’s only home conference win in the entire decade of the 1930s when the 1939 season opened. Yikes!) Still, omitting just that one word makes the whole statement incorrect; maybe it’s just me, but things like that always bother me.
These factual inaccuracies continue to rear their ugly heads throughout the documentary, with Gibson getting the 1939 Ironmen’s record wrong (they went 6-1-1, not 7-1-1) and the date he was called to active military duty incorrect (Kinnick was activated three days before Pearl Harbor, not three days after). The documentary also perpetuates the myth that Kinnick saved lives on the Lexington with his water landing, although Mark Wilson, not Gibson, is the one who brings up that one.
On the positive side, what makes this documentary worth watching is the input from greats like George “Red” Frye and Bob Brooks. Brooks, the legendary sportscaster who watched Kinnick in action in 1939, clearly enjoys looking back at that great season from his youth. “Eddie Anderson gave the leadership role of ’39 to Nile Kinnick, and he became Mr. Everything on the football team,” Brooks said. “This team had rather captured the imagination of the football press across the country, so consequently Nile was voted the winner of the Heisman Trophy.”
Brooks has always praised Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy speech. “The most gracious, most incisive speech that has ever been given in my view by an athlete at any award at any time,” he declared. “It was short, it was to the point, and it hit America right in the heart.”
Red Frye, Kinnick’s teammate on the 1939 Ironmen and in his later years the official spokesman of the team, remembered Kinnick’s play. “There were several players that were probably faster than Nile, but Nile was shifty and quick and very knowledgable of what he was doing,” Frye said. But Frye seemed to enjoy talking more about Kinnick the person. “Nile was not an outspoken person. He was a doer and he was working for perfection,” Frye said. “Everything he did was authentic and official and very positive. I don’t think there was a bad thought in his mind.”
My favorite part of the documentary was Frye’s recollection of December 7, 1941. “Several other football players were in the dormatory at the Fieldhouse,” Frye said. “We were listening to a professional football game [when] we were told we’d been attacked at Pearl Harbor. And of course, we couldn’t hardly believe that and we said, ‘Wow, we’re gonna have to get into this.'”
As we all know, Nile Kinnick had enlisted and was killed while training for combat. “That was a terrific shock to America. Here was a man who was the brightest and best and all of a sudden he had been taken away,” Brooks recalled. But Bob Brooks also explained why Kinnick has such a hold on Iowans almost seventy years after his death. “I think that the people in this state looked up to him as the consummate student-athlete. He was excellent in the…playing field and excellent in everything that he did,” Brooks said.
A documentary that might have been sunk by factual errors is redeemed by the great recollections of Frye and Brooks. It’s a great reminder of why Hawkeye fans should be proud to have Nile Kinnick representing the school as its only Heisman Trophy winner.
Filed under: Iowa Hawkeye Football
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