Nile Kinnick, one of the greatest football players in collegiate history, set six school records at Iowa and was involved in nearly every scoring play of the Hawkeyes in 1939. Kinnick won the 1939 Heisman trophy, the Iowa Hawkeye to win the award, and was the first collegian to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year Award. He attended law school but left to join the Naval reserve, and was activated three days before Pearl Harbor.
Assigned to the USS Lexington (CV-16) during her shakedown cruise, on June 2, 1943 Kinnick was on a training flight off the coast of Venezuela when his fighter developed a severe oil leak; he followed procedure and ditched in the sea. A legend grew up that he decided to forego landing on the crowded deck of the carrier and risk fire, but Kinnick ditched four miles short of the Lexington. He is best remembered for his December 6, 1939 Heisman trophy acceptance speech:
Thank you very, very kindly, Mr. Holcomb. It seems to me that everyone is letting their superlatives run away with them this evening, but nonetheless, I want you to know that I'm mighty, mighty happy to accept this trophy this evening.
Every football player in these United States dreams about winning that trophy, and of this fine trip to New York. Every player considers that trophy the acme in recognition of this kind. And the fact that I am actually receiving this trophy tonight almost overwhelms me, and I know that all those boys who have gone before me must have felt somewhat the same way.
From my own personal viewpoint, I consider my winning this award as indirectly a great tribute to the new coaching staff at the University of Iowa, headed by Dr. Eddie Anderson, and to my teammates sitting back in Iowa City. A finer man and a better coach never hit these United States, and a finer bunch of boys and a more courageous bunch of boys never graced the gridirons of the Midwest than that Iowa team in 1939. I wish that they might all be with me tonight to receive this trophy. They certainly deserve it.
I want to take this grand opportunity to thank collectively all the sportswriters, and all the sportscasters, and all those who have seen fit, have seen their way clear to cast a ballot in my favor for this trophy. And I also want to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Prince and his committee, the Heisman award committee, and all those connected with the Downtown Athletic Club for this trophy, and for the fine time that they're showing me. And not only for that, but for making this fine and worthy trophy available to the football players of this country.
Finally, if you will permit me, I'd like to make a comment which in my mind, is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.