THEY GATHERED AT Floyd Bennett Field on a balmy December day — at least, by Brooklyn, New York, standards — sitting on the runway outside of a US Navy plane that had just flown over Broadway. Navy officials and the Midshipmen's football captain, Al Bergner, were on board, but the contingent, led by Downtown Athletic Club director Bill Bradley was there for one reason, and it was written across the massive sign stretched out before them.
Downtown A.C. Welcomes Kinnick 1939 Heisman Football Trophy Winner.
Iowa's Nile Kinnick, the first megastar of the award's era, had arrived.
To be fair, more than a decade before Kinnick, Red Grange had captivated the nation at both the collegiate level at Illinois and in the professional ranks with the Chicago Bears and New York Yankees. In terms of Kinnick's contemporaries, Michigan's Tom Harmon was the one to appear on the covers of both TIME and LIFE magazines.
But it was what Kinnick represented in headlining an impossible turnaround for the Hawkeyes that captivated a nation.
“The city of New York and its 7,000,000 inhabitants, who rarely go overboard about anything, surrendered completely,” wrote a United Press reporter about the Hawkeye halfback and his coach, Eddie Anderson, who, a day after Kinnick received his Heisman, was honored as Coach of the Year by the New York World-Telegram. Along with his plane ride over the city and a luncheon with navy officials, Kinnick received a kiss from Mary Jane Walsh, a Davenport, Iowa, native who was appearing on Broadway as Eileen Eilers in a run of Too Many Girls. The Mutual Broadcasting System was transmitting both The Navy's Tribute to Nile Kinnick, Winner of the Heisman Trophy and the award presentation ceremony.
“He has been in New York little more than 24 hours and already he has been presented with everything but the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Trylon and Perisphere,” wrote Jack Singer in the New York Journal and American Sports. “He expects someone to try and sell him the Brooklyn Bridge, but we so secretly suspect that he is smart enough to buy it and then sell it right back at a neat profit.”
In 1938, Iowa had gone 1-6-1, but in 1939 a group that would be dubbed the “Ironmen” took down powers Notre Dame and Minnesota in consecutive weeks, allowing the team to finish 6-1-1. Kinnick played nearly every minute, including each play on offense, defense, and special teams over a five-game span.
Just 5-foot-8 and around 175 pounds, Kinnick ran for 374 yards and 5 touchdowns and hit on 31 passes for 638 yards and 11 scores. He delivered 16 of Iowa's 19 TDs and, with his kicking duties, was responsible for 107 of its 130 points.
“Nile was their leader,” Dr. William Paul, the Hawkeyes' team doctor, told the Daily Iowan in 1972. “Nobody on the team was jealous of him. They depended on him and they followed him–and most of the time, Nile did not disappoint them.”
Nor did he disappoint when addressing the press contingent at the Heisman dinner with a speech that, thanks to MBS, was broadcast across the nation.
After thanking his coach, teammates, the writers, and the Downtown Athletic Club, Kinnick said, “I would like, if I may, to make a comment which I think is appropriate at this time.”
Coming two years before the United States began its involvement in World War II, he proclaimed his beliefs that the nation would be better served by staying out of the conflict.
“I thank God that I was born to the gridirons of the Middle West and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the football players of this country would rather fight for the Heisman Trophy than for the Croix de Guerre.”
At first, those in attendance remained silent.
The year before, TCU's Davey O'Brien was praised for the humbleness he exuded in a speech in which he said, “I am certainly appreciative of the high honor, but I feel I must give credit to the men who made me; to coach Dutch Meyer who taught me all I know, to his assistants, to those great linemen, Ki Aldrich and I. B. Hale . . . I am not much at speaking so cannot begin to tell you how much it all means. But I hope this will help.”
The words of Yale's Clinton Frank, the 1937 recipient, the Associated Press reporter on hand penned, were “as calm and unaffected as the young man himself.” The halfback closed out his acceptance by saying “Football has always been a sport, a game to me, and nothing more. I was interested in it as such, I played it as such, and I leave it as such.”
Never before had a winner used the Downtown Athletic Club as a pulpit to deliver a message, and after that initial silence, the AP's Whitney Martin reported that “seven hundred men and women rose and cheered and whistled . . . You realized the ovation wasn't alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth.”
Ironically, and tragically, Kinnick's fate would lie in that war from which he wished the US to absolve itself. After a year of law school in Iowa City, he enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve, writing, “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn't fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely, no reason why we shouldn't suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.”
He was called to active duty three days after Pearl Harbor and stationed in the Caribbean. On the morning of July 2, 1943, Kinnick's F4-F Wildcat developed an oil leak over the Gulf of Paria near Trinidad. The plane plunged into the sea, and while another pilot saw Kinnick bobbing in the water, by the time a rescue boat arrived, he was nowhere to be found. He was twenty-four years old.
“He was loved by everyone who knew him; his kindness and consideration for others stamped as a typically ideal American,” Anderson said after word came from the navy that Kinnick had been killed in action. “In the uniform of his country he gave everything–that was the only way Nile Kinnick knew how to play the game.”
Kinnick's legacy runs deep at Iowa, where the football stadium is named after him (he's the only Heisman winner to hold that honor) and a fourteen-foot-bronze statue of the halfback stands in front of the facility. But in terms of the Heisman as an institution, Kinnick's impact may have ultimately been in illustrating the potential of what the acceptance speech could be.
Kinnick set the precedent, and two years after his win, Minnesota's Bruce Smith would deliver his own iconic words as a nation tried to come to grips with one of its darkest moments.
The Golden Gophers star was on a train en route to the Heisman ceremony with his family on December 7, 1941, when news broke that 353 Imperial Japanese Navy planes, bombers, and torpedo planes had hit the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The attack claimed 2,403 Americans and left another 1,178 wounded.
With the help of his father, Lucius–a former Minnesota tackle–Bruce Smith (the winner of an especially tight race–554 votes to 345 for Notre Dame's Angelo Bertelli, making it the narrowest margin in the trophy's short history) went to rewriting his speech while they made their way to NYC. He tried to find the proper way to accept an award when sports couldn't seem much less important.
If there was any doubt as to the mood and the tensions the nation was dealing with, an anxious moment came as Smith stepped forward to accept the trophy, as a squadron of army planes had been mistaken for German bombers and an air raid alert was signaled along the East Coast.
“So much of emotional significance has happened in such a brief space of time,” Smith began his speech, delivered one day after the US had declared war, “that the task of responding on such an occasion leaves me at a loss to assign relative value.”
He spoke of adding his name to a list that began with Berwanger and, the year before, welcomed Michigan's Tom Harmon, and of the gratitude and appreciation he felt. Smith thanked his coach, Bernie Bierman, and his teammates, before turning his attention to the tragic attack in Hawaii that would usher in the United States' arrival in the conflict.
“In the Far East they may think American boys are soft, but I have had, and even have now, plenty of evidence in black and blue to prove that they are making a big mistake. I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off. If six million American youngsters like myself are able to take it and come back for more, both from a physical standpoint and that of morale. If teaching team play and cooperation and exercise to go out and fight hard for the honor of our schools, then likewise the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight to defend for our country.”
It was more than just a rally for the nation, as Smith–like Kinnick and Harmon–became a fighter pilot, though he wouldn't see combat and played service football for the Great Lake Navy team.
A year after his Heisman victory, he played himself in an autobiographical movie Smith of Minnesota. “See this triple-threat bolt of greased lightning hit a new high for red-blooded entertainment!” a tagline on the original poster promised, but as his wife, Gloria, would tell ESPN.com, “If they took the word ‘swell' out of the script, it would be a silent movie.” Nonetheless, after Smith's death in 1967 at age forty-seven after a long bout with cancer, a Paulist priest, Rev. William Cantwell, proposed Smith for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. The priest told the National Catholic News Service he had invoked the intercession of Smith many times on behalf of cancer patients.
Kinnick and Smith provided a measure of the strength of a nation's Golden Boys in a time when the opportunities to speak to such a vast audience were rare. They delivered words that met the moment, words both profound and galvanizing.
It's something that 2001 Heisman recipient Eric Crouch has thought about over the years.
Three months removed from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the ceremony had to be moved to the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square due to damage suffered by the DAC, which stood blocks from Ground Zero. Eleven DAC members had died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
As Crouch took the podium, he said, “A long time ago, I never thought I could do something like this, but I always believed in myself. Deep down inside you want that trophy, but win or lose I always want to be the same person–keeping my character and keeping composed.” But he made no mention of the attacks or the uneasiness felt across the country despite 9/11 weighing heavily over the proceedings.
“Maybe it was something that I missed, because if I missed it–which I did, clearly miss it on that stage–it's something that I think about a lot,” Crouch said in 2016. “Not that I missed it, but [because] of what was happening time-wise, with the United States and that huge event.
“I think part of it was just maybe not thinking that was an opportunity for me to say something, I guess I want to say, almost politically. I think I have more of an opinion about it now than I did when I was twenty-three. If I had to do it again, I would have definitely mentioned it. There's no doubt about. It affected me greatly, because I never got to experience the Downtown Athletic Club. That was the first year, because of 9/11.”
For decades, winners had the benefit of time, learning they were the Heisman recipient before even heading to New York, and could craft their speeches as such, unlike today's players, who find out at the end of America's longest-running reality show. As Wisconsin's Alan Ameche, the 1954 winner, described the growth in an interview conducted in '82: “There were maybe ninety or a hundred people in the room. Because the space was so limited, some of my relatives couldn't get in . . . I come back almost every year and it boggles my mind to see the difference. They have a big dinner at the Hilton Hotel with two to three thousand people.”
The drama of a made-for-TV-moment has largely replaced thoughtfulness with spontaneity, the culmination of months of hype thrust upon a player who is asked to go before a massive audience and have his say. It's no different than any other award show, but most other award shows aren't centered around college students.
But there's also the growth of sports and media at the center of what later players would feel was their responsibility. Kinnick and Smith spoke at a time when college football players were among the US's biggest stars–it still dwarfed the pro game in popularity and at times overshadowed the whole of sport, with Kinnick beating out the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio and boxer Joe Louis for the 1939 AP Athlete of the Year. To them, the Downtown Athletic Club presented a rare opportunity to speak on a national stage, something modern winners have on an almost daily basis.
The speeches that followed Kinnick's and Smith's weren't legendary moments with messages either political or patriotic. They, instead, delivered raw emotion.
“I wish I would have had more prepared,” Crouch said. “I really didn't expect to walk away with the Heisman Trophy that night. It's exhausting, because you're on national television, cameras in front of you. It's your opportunity and I remember the one thing I forgot to do is I was thanking everybody else but my team. Mentors and coaches and my girlfriend at the time–[who] is my wife now–parents. You thank everybody and you're up there and I just happen to forget to thank my teammates.”