IOWA CITY, Iowa — Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died while serving in the nation’s armed forces. This is the perfect time to look back at two key members of Iowa’s athletic history who gave their life to America.
While accepting the Heisman Trophy in 1939, during one of his biggest athletic moments, Nile Kinnick foreshadowed his future with one of the most famous lines in his speech.
“I thank God, that I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe,” Kinnick said.
At the time, most assumed Kinnick, the grandson of a former Iowa governor, would make his way into politics. Before he could, Kinnick left law school after one year to join the Naval Air Corps Reserves in August 1941 because he felt war was imminent. He coached the Hawkeyes that fall and reported for duty three days before Pearl Harbor.
“There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely,” he later wrote in a letter, which ESPN quoted in a biography. “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.”
Kinnick crashed off the coast of Venezuela while on a training mission on June 2, 1943. Despite a search effort, the Navy never found his body.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Kinnick earned All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore in 1937. An ankle injury limited him as a junior, but Kinnick shined as a senior. He led Iowa to a 9-1-1 record and No. 9 ranking in the Associated Press Poll. He threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns, rushed for 374 yards and converted 11-of-17 dropkick conversions. Kinnick also made 18 career interceptions.
He won the Heisman Trophy and Walter Camp and Maxwell awards in 1939. The AP named him its Male Athlete of the Year in 1939. Iowa named its football stadium after Kinnick in 1972.
Fred Becker, a Waterloo native, became Iowa’s first football All-American, earning the honors during his first collegiate season in 1916.
“No matter where he was placed, his work was a feature,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Walter Eckersall in 1916. “He was strong and powerful and quick to size up the attack of his opponents. He seldom failed to open holes for the backs and was on top of the play all year.”
The future looked bright for Becker, but he never played another college down.
Becker signed up to serve in World War I and departed on Aug. 27, 1917. After completing training in the Army, Becker was assigned to the Marines.
Shrapnel from a highly explosive shell wounded Becker during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918. About 20 days later, Becker wrote home to his family explaining the wound, according to the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Everyone wants to get into the action and all feel slighted when they are not engaged in combat when there is important work to be done,” he wrote.
He recovered and headed back to the front lines in France. He was killed in action during the Battle of Soissons on July 18, 1918. The United States awarded Becker Becker the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross. France bestowed on him the Croix de Guerre, the country’s highest honor.