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Big Ten Countdown 24 - Red Grange Becomes A Legend, Iowa's #24 Nile Kinnick

If you visit Nebraska-oriented web sites looking for information about the Huskers playing against the University of Illinois' Red Grange, you'll find articles about how the Nebraska defense shut him down in 1925, limiting him to 41 yards in a 14-0 Husker win.

Fact is, Nebraska faced Grange twice before. In 1925, Illinois came to Lincoln for the first game of the season, but lost 9-6, with the focus being all about stopping Red Grange. The reason for the focus was the result from the previous season, when Grange made his college debut against the Huskers. He scored three touchdowns on runs of 50, 35 and 12 yards as Illinois won 24-7. It was the game that first got him noticed - a freshman running over our tough-minded Huskers?

Red Grange is arguably known as the greatest football player of all time. When the Big Ten Network (or BTN now) did their 50 Big Ten Icons series, they picked Grange at #1. Look at the names on that list and you realize that he had to be pretty darned special to get picked over the rest of them.

It was in 1924 that Grange established his legend. As I wrote in a review of "Red Grange, The Galloping Ghost" -

....his most famous day coming against a Fielding Yost Michigan team on October 18, 1924. That day Yost was determined that Grange wouldn't beat the Wolverines, ordering his team to kick the ball to Grange, then "hit him hard and see that he stays hit". Instead, Grange returned the kick 95 yards for a touchdown. He then scored on runs of 67, 56, and 45 yards, scoring four touchdowns within 12 minutes. He then left the game to rest for the second quarter and returned in the third to score on a 12-yard run. 

Grange's day ended up being one of the greatest in college football history - finishing with 402 yards, 212 rushing, 64 passing and 126 in kickoff returns. He rushed for five touchdowns and threw for a sixth. In an era in which players played both ways, he also intercepted two passes. All of this came against a Michigan team that hadn't lost in three years. It was a game that made Grange a living legend. 

Grange was largely responsible for the popularization of professional football, which at the time was known as a game for thugs and ruffians, but certainly not one that any gentleman could enjoy. Grange went on a barnstorming tour, playing 30 games in 12 weeks, while suffering ten concussions. Either men were a helluva lot tougher in those days or were too stupid to know when they were beating themselves to death. The next time you're watching a NFL game, maybe lift a glass to the Galloping Ghost.

(Incidentally, even the University of Illinois web site credits Grantland Rice for creating the "Galloping Ghost" nickname. This is incorrect. The nickname was created by Warren Brown.) 


#24 - Nile Kinnick

Iowa's football stadium is named after Nile Kinnick, nicknamed the "Cornbelt Comet". He was born in Adel, Iowa, but his family moved and as a junior in high school attended Omaha Benson. (Were they the "Bunnies" then? Probably not.) Kinnick played for the Hawkeyes during 1937-1939 - freshman not being eligible to play during his initial season in 1936.

Iowa wasn't very good during those seasons (and throughout most of the 1930s), their only win in 1938 coming against the soon-to-be-defunct University of Chicago Maroons. Then 1939 happened. Behind Kinnick, Iowa would finish second behind Ohio State in the standings at 4-1-1 in the Big Ten and 6-1-1 overall. The AP ranked them at #9. Along they way they knocked off Notre Dame and a pretty decent Minnesota team.

1939 saw Kinnick win a whole bunch of awards, including the Heisman, the Walter Camp and the Maxwell Trophy. He was a first-team All-American, and as OTE points out, he won the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year award, beating out Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson and Joe Loius. His number 24 is one of only two numbers that have ever been retired by the University of Iowa.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Kinnick attended law school at Iowa, but enlisted in the Navy at the beginning of World War II. He would be killed during a training flight shortly before his 25th birthday.

An article from a 1987 Sports Illustrated issue that's been re-posted on an Iowa web site describes what happened that caused Kinnick's death (as well as a great deal about him, the article is an extensive read):

On June 2, at 8:30 am, Nile Kinnick took off in a Grumman F4F Wildcat Navy fighter plane on a routine training flight from the deck of the carrier U.S.S. Lexington, which was then sailing in the gulf of Paria in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Shortly before 10am, another pilot, Ensign Bill Reiter, noticed that Kinnick's plane had an oil leak. He warned him of the trouble by radio and started to follow him back to the ship. About four miles from the carrier, the leak became much more serious. Kinnick could not land on the Lexington without endangering other planes on the deck, so he elected to ditch it in the water.

"He was calm and efficient throughout and made a perfect wheels-up landing in the water," Reiter wrote the Kinnick family. Reiter saw Kinnick in the water free of the plane, so he flew back to the carrier to direct the rescue craft. When the vessels reached the crash site, there was no trace of either plane or pilot. Nile Kinnick was five weeks short of his 25th birthday. His brother Ben, born 13 months after him, died 15 months later as a Marine pilot shot down over the Pacific.

Kinnick's likeness is on the coin that is flipped at the beginning of every Big Ten game. In the Big Ten Icon series by BTN, he was selected #7 and his name is part of the new leadership award.

Now you know a little bit about who Nile Kinnick was. It's no wonder he's got a stadium named after him.