Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
Iowa football has a rich tradition, given its 23 consensus All-Americans, 13 national award winners, 14 College Football Hall of Fame inductees and 11 Big Ten championships. For the next two weeks, Land of 10 will unveil the top 100 football players in Iowa history with 10 appearing each weekday. Here are the 10 players for Wednesday, June 14.
Nile Kinnick, running back (1937-39)
If Iowa athletics carved a Mount Rushmore into a riverbank along the Iowa River, sculptors would mold the face of Nile Kinnick first and then call it done.
No sports figure within the state resonates with the Iowa fan base the way Kinnick does. And no one ever will. He grew up in Adel, Iowa, as the grandson of a governor before moving to Omaha, Neb., for his senior year of high school. He then opted to return to Iowa and became a towering figure in both sports and life.
In 1939, Kinnick won the only Heisman Trophy in Iowa history. He also claimed the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football as the league’s top player, as well as the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards, and was named the Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. His volume of accomplishments is mountainous, and many remain in the Big Ten record book.
Kinnick still holds the Big Ten record with 731 yards punting in a 1939 game against Notre Dame. His 16 punts that day ranks fourth. His league record for single-game punt return yards (201) lasted until 2015, when it was broken by Maryland’s William Likely.
Kinnick intercepted 18 passes, which still is Iowa’s career record and remains ninth in Big Ten annals. He set a school record with 8 interceptions in 1939, which most recently was equaled by Desmond King in 2015. In 1951, Kinnick became a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Then there were the moments in 1939. Kinnick scored Iowa’s only touchdown in a 7-6 upset of Notre Dame, of which the play is immortalized with a statue inside Kinnick Stadium. A week later against rival and national power Minnesota, the Hawkeyes trailed 9-0 in the fourth quarter. Kinnick twice led the Hawkeyes on scoring drives and passed for touchdowns of 45 and 28 yards to put Iowa in the lead. Kinnick secured the victory with an interception.
One Chicago newspaper reporter’s story began: “Nile Kinnick 13, Minnesota 9; tersely that tells the story of the most spectacular football game in modern Big Ten history.”
“The most amazing thing about that game and the Notre Dame game was they came up back-to-back,” longtime Iowa broadcaster Bob Brooks said two years ago. “In a 10-day period, with none of today’s communication, that Kinnick’s name was good enough to go across the country to get him the Heisman Trophy was absolutely remarkable.”
That year Kinnick elevated Iowa’s “Ironmen” to star status and flipped their record from 1-6-1 to 6-1-1. But football tells only a portion of Kinnick’s life. He was much bigger than a game.
Kinnick was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and served as senior class president. His Heisman Trophy acceptance speech displayed his rare oratory skills. In conclusion he said, “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.”
Kinnick enrolled in Iowa Law College and then joined the United States Navy as an ensign in World War II. He was killed during a training flight in his fighter plane off the coast of Venezuela on June 2, 1943. He was a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
His legacy remains a shining example of excellence nearly 80 years later. Iowa renamed its football stadium for Kinnick in 1972. In 2006, two statues of Kinnick were installed at a renovated stadium, including a 12-foot bronze version standing outside the south end zone featuring Kinnick wearing a letterman jacket and holding books with a helmet at his feet. The Big Ten for years used Kinnick’s likeness on its official coin flipped before kickoff. In 2011, the Big Ten commissioned the Ford-Kinnick Leadership Award.
“Nile was a person who was above everybody,” former teammate Harry Vollenweider said. “He was a gentleman. He was smart, intelligent, and, of course, two years older than I was.
“I can’t say anything bad about Nile. He was a gentleman all the way through, and on the football field, when I was with him playing, every weekend he’d make the plays that they called.”
Fred Becker, offensive line (1916)
The rules prevented Fred Becker from playing as a freshman in 1915, but that didn’t keep the Waterloo native from dominating practice so often that head coach Jess Hawley pulled him off the field. Then in 1916, under future Hall of Fame coach Howard Jones, Becker dominated the opposition and was named the program’s first All-American.
“No matter where he was placed, his work was a feature,” late sportswriter Walter Eckersall said years ago. “Becker is unparalleled in Iowa football annals.”
Becker was best known for blocking two punts in a win against Iowa State. But Becker’s football accomplishments were limited to one season. In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, and Becker enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Marines. He joined the European battlefields by that fall. On June 3, 1918, Becker was struck in the shoulder by an exploding shell. He died from his wounds July 18, 1918.
The Marine Corps report said Becker’s actions prevented “the death or injury of many men in his command.” About 5,000 people attended his funeral in 1921 when his remains were interned at Fairview Cemetery in Waterloo.
Wilburn Hollis, quarterback (1959-61)
A rough early life didn’t prevent Wilburn Hollis from becoming a college football trailblazer. Hollis was orphaned and lived at Boys Town, Neb., before he joined the Iowa football program under coach Forest Evashevski.
In 1960, Hollis led the Hawkeyes to the No. 1 national ranking for five consecutive weeks before falling in a titanic struggle with the No. 2 Minnesota Gophers. That matchup was the first prominent game among national powers that featured African-American quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes ended the season ranked No. 3 nationally.
In leading a run-first attack — he completed just 22 passes for 289 yards — Hollis was named first-team all-Big Ten that year and a second-team All-American. He was drafted by teams in both the AFL and NFL.
Adrian Clayborn, defensive end (2007-10)
In the most prominent victory in the Kirk Ferentz era, no player shined brighter than Adrian Clayborn.
In the 2010 Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech, Clayborn registered 9 tackles, including 2 sacks, in a 24-14 win. Clayborn earned MVP honors that day, capping a dominant season. He was first-team all-Big Ten and had All-America consideration. He had 70 tackles, including 20 for loss, and 11.5 sacks that season. He was best known for an early season blocked punt that he returned for a touchdown to earn a win at No. 5 Penn State.
The next year, Clayborn constantly was double-teamed and fought through a leg injury but still was named a consensus All-American. He had 7 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks that season. He was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 NFL Draft. He now plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
Mike Devlin, center (1989-92)
A four-year starter, Mike Devlin was one of the most prominent offensive linemen under coach Hayden Fry.
Devlin transitioned from guard to center as a freshman and manned the middle of Fry’s final Rose Bowl squad in 1990. He became a first-team all-Big Ten selection in 1991 when the Hawkeyes finished 10-1-1. Although the team struggled in 1992, Devlin repeated on the all-Big Ten squad in 1992, was named the league’s offensive lineman of the year and earned first-team All-American honors by multiple outlets.
Offensive line coach John O’Hara called Devlin the best he’d ever coached. Devlin was a fifth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills and played seven years in the NFL, two of them culminating in Super Bowl appearances.
Joe Devlin, guard (1973-75)
A cousin of Mike Devlin, Joe Devlin enjoyed his own level of success with Iowa a generation earlier.
Devlin formed the core of the Hawkeyes’ offensive line in the early to mid-1970s. In 1975, he picked up both first-team all-Big Ten and first-team All-American honors. In 1989, he was tabbed a member of Iowa’s all-time team.
In 1976, Buffalo drafted Devlin in the second round, and he became a mainstay for the Bills for more than a decade. Devlin started 179 games over 14 seasons and was a member of the Bills’ Silver Anniversary team.
Erwin Prasse, tight end (1937-39)
As the recipient of many Nile Kinnick passes, Erwin Prasse in turn became an all-time great at Iowa.
In a 1939 game against Indiana, Prasse caught 3 touchdown passes from Kinnick, including the game-winning score with 5 minutes left. In a 13-9 upset of Minnesota, Prasse hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Kinnick.
Prasse was the team MVP in 1939 and served as captain that season. He was a first-team all-Big Ten selection in both 1938 and 1939 and was a second-team All-American in 1939.
At Iowa, Prasse was a 9-time letterwinner in three sports — football, baseball and basketball. In 1938, he was the captain of Iowa’s Big Ten championship baseball squad. He helped the Hawkeyes repeat as Big Ten baseball champions in 1939.
Jeff Drost, defensive tackle (1983-86)
A powerful lineman in the mid-1980s, Jeff Drost was a tackling machine for some of Iowa’s best teams. Drost led the Hawkeyes with 15 tackles for loss as a sophomore in 1984. A year later, he picked up 11 tackles for loss totaling 67 lost yards. He was a first-team all-Big Ten choice in 1985 and 1986.
What many might remember about Drost was his toughness. He missed four games with a torn knee ligament in 1986, but he returned in time for his home finale wearing a knee brace. He even tipped a pass that resulted in an interception. It’s no coincidence the Hawkeyes’ only three losses in 1986 came when Drost was unable to play.
Drost was an eighth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1987.
Devon Mitchell, safety (1982-85)
Only two players in Iowa history have 18 interceptions, and one of them is Devon Mitchell. The consistency with which Mitchell played is as remarkable as his interception mark. Only once did he lead the team in picks, and that was with five in 1984. Mitchell never returned one for a score. He was spectacular in his steadiness.
Mitchell came to Iowa as a walk-on and quickly made an impact, intercepting 3 passes in his first year. As a senior, Mitchell tied Nile Kinnick’s record of 18 interceptions. Mitchell reached only second-team all-Big Ten status, but he was named to Iowa’s all-time team in 1989.
In 1986, the Detroit Lions drafted Mitchell in the fourth round. He played two seasons and picked up 8 interceptions.
Brad Quast, linebacker (1986-89)
Feisty and fearless, linebacker Brad Quast was one of the Big Ten’s defensive best players in the late 1980s. Twice he was named first-team all-Big Ten, and in 1989, he was tabbed to the school’s all-time team.
He also was outspoken. Following the Hawkeyes’ 10-3 win against Iowa State in 1988, Quast was overheard by a Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter shouting at his teammates walking off the field, “Hey, we’ve got nothing to be proud of. Get your ass in the locker room.” Quast made 15 tackles that day.
Quast was tough enough to challenge Michigan State’s Tony Mandarich and nimble enough to take an interception 94 yards for a touchdown against Kansas State. Twice he led the team in interceptions. In 1990, Quast was a 10th-round draft pick of the New York Jets.