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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Play brings gridiron legend Kinnick to life

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

After tossing the winning touchdown pass in the second game of the 1939 season, Iowa legend Nile Kinnick and friend and teammate Erwin Prasse grabbed their girlfriends and dashed off to a rough-and-tumble Tiffin roadhouse to celebrate.

In typical, All-American boy fashion, Kinnick and Prasse cut loose after their stunning, 32-29 comeback victory over Indiana. They joked and jitterbugged the night away, cutting thirsts with, of all things - lemonade.

Or least that's how one moment in the Hawkeye legend's life unfolds on stage in "Kinnick," a new play about the man who grew up in small town Iowa, won college football's highest honor and died a national hero four years later serving in World War II.

Commissioned by the University of Iowa Athletic Department, the play traces the life of the "Cornbelt Comet" between 1939-43. It tells Kinnick's story in vignettes that skip back and forth through time, each showing how his deeds on and off the field earned the adoration of millions during turbulent times in the nation's history.

The play is produced by Riverside Theatre and is scheduled for three performances, Sept. 1-3, at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. Iowa's home opener is Sept. 2. against Montana. University officials will also unveil a 12-foot-tall bronze statue at renovated Kinnick Stadium's south entrance.

Playwright and director Bruce Wheaton said he spent hours poring over Kinnick's letters and diaries, adding music, radio clips and historic video. "What's fascinating to me is why would people in 1939 adopt Nile Kinnick as a national hero," said Wheaton, who helped co-found the popular Iowa City theater 25 years ago.

"He seemed so polite, calm, but extraordinarily tough. He was not aggressive away from the field, but persistent in anything he did and well spoken. He was also by all accounts a pretty nice guy," Wheaton said.

A native of Adel, Kinnick, just 5-9, 170-pounds, was part of a group dubbed "The Ironmen" because they played offense and defense. The group led Iowa's 1939 team to a 6-1-1 record and a national ranking, after the team won just one game the year before.

He was honored as The Associated Press' Athlete of the Year, beating out Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis and golfer Byron Nelson.

Kinnick graduated with honors and despite lucrative offers to play professional football, Kinnick enrolled in Iowa's law school.

He enlisted in the Navy, and on June 2, 1943, Kinnick died when his plane went down in the Gulf of Paria, near Trinidad. He was 25.

"I know the mystique around Nile Kinnick," said Jackson Doran, an Iowa native who has the role of Kinnick in the play. "It's a little intimidating ... but it's also a great honor because I grew up a Hawkeye fan."

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