Nile Kinnick – Omaha Benson

Athlete–One of the most nationally known of all Omaha high school graduates, this Benson High product (Class of 35) became a football legend. His athletic skills were abundantly clear, for he starred in track & field, was named all-state in football and helped Benson nearly reach the top in Class A basketball.

Attending college at the University of Iowa, Nile Kinnick was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1939 for his outstanding efforts on behalf of the Hawkeyes. In his acceptance speech at the Heisman dinner, Kinnick reflected the prevailing isolationist mood of the country, saying he thanked God he had been born in America “where they have football fields instead of in Europe where they have battlefields.” And he added that he knew “the football players of this country had rather battle for such medals as the Heisman Trophy than for such medals as the Croix de Guerre and the Iron Cross.” Sadly, he was lost while a Naval flier during World War II. Today several gridirons in both Nebraska and Iowa bear his name as a true competitor and

Nile Kinnick is said to be one the Hawkeyes’ greatest football players. In his football career gained 1,674 yards. In his senior year, he completed 31 passes for 638 yards; over three years were good for 2,834 yards, an average of 39.9 yards per kick. His return of kickoffs and punts totaled 604 yards, and he made 11 of his 17-drop kick attempts.

Nile was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1951.

Nile Kinnick, Halfback  Iowa, 1937-1939

Much stock has been put into the legendary aspect of the player and what he meant to his school and to college football. No player in college football history meant more to a whole state than Nile Kinnick meant to Iowa becoming its most popular hero and is still today its most revered icon. If you want the ultimate model of what a student/athlete should be, Kinnick was it as a Heisman winner on the football field and a honor student and class president off of it.

The Iron man of Iron Men: Iowa football wasn’t exactly a power in the world of college football in the 1930s as its neighbor to the north, Minnesota, was busy owning the Midwest. After going 2-13-1 and scoring a total of 82 points in 1937 and 1938, Dr. Eddie Anderson took over the head coaching job and Iowa went on to have a season for the ages winning games in dramatic fashion with a group of two way players outlasting several big-time powerhouses with specialists on offense and defense. 

Kinnick had a flair for the dramatic making the game-winning play against Indiana choosing to throw for a fifteen yard touchdown pass rather than try the game-tying field goal. After an early 27-7 loss to Michigan, he took care of Wisconsin on a late touchdown pass for 19-13 win. Losing player after player to injury, Iowa had only 14 healthy players late against Purdue in the 4-0 win. Iowa upset No. 1 Notre Dame 7-6 using only 15 players with Kinnick punting 16 times for 731 yards including a 63-yard boot under a heavy rush pinning the Irish on the six-yard line late in the game. Many still consider it the greatest clutch punt in college football history. Kinnick also scored Iowa’s only touchdown. The following week the “Iron man” team of Iowa upset the might Minnesota squad 13-9. 

The Iron Man of the Iron Man team played 402 consecutive minutes before getting knocked out of the Northwestern game with a separated shoulder. Kinnick was the star of the show all year throwing for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes and ran for 374 yards. In his career he gained 1,674 yards returning kickoffs for 604 yards. As a kicker, Kinnick punted 71 times in his career for a 39.9 average and hit 11 of 17 drop kicks. In 1939, Kinnick was involved in 16 of the 19 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) Iowa scored and responsive for 107 of Iowa’s 130 points.

The Heisman speech: In perhaps the most eloquent Heisman speech ever given, Kinnick finished with this epic passage. “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 fights to win the Heisman award, than the Croix de Guerre.”

The “big” man on campus: Along with being the star of the football team, Kinnick was senior class president, a Phi Betta Kappa and a member of the national scholastic honor society.

The World War II fighter: Following his Iowa career, Kinnick chose to go to law school and join the Naval Air Corps Reserve. In 1943, Kinnick’s fighter plane went down in the Caribbean sea on a training flight. In 1972, the University changed the name of Iowa Stadium to Kinnick Stadium to honor their hero.

Honors:

  • College Football Hall of Fame – 1951
  • Heisman Trophy – 1939
  • Walter Camp Award – 1939
  • Maxwell Award – 1939
  • All-America – 1939
  • Big Ten MVP – 1939
  • No. 24 Iowa jersey retired
  • Selected the greatest player in Iowa history by the fans – 1989

Cecil McKnight – Plattsmouth

Coach. Sometime during an outstanding track career at Peru State, Cecil McKnight decided he wanted to be in the coaching profession. He started at Morrill and then moved to Plattsmouth as track and cross-country coach where he spent 38 years. His teams won four Class B championships, of which three consecutive wins were in cross-country in 1973, ‘74, ‘75 and the ‘76 state track and field championship. Also in those years he had 262 individuals qualify for the state meet and seven individual state champions.

The Blue Devil harriers finished in the top ten 14 times in 20 years at the state meet. Other coaching duties included assistant in football and basketball as well as junior high basketball coach at various times during his tenure. His retirement gift from the school: The track and field complex now bears his name, a great tribute.

Stan Parker – Bellevue

Stan Parker 2007Athlete. A 1982 graduate of Bellevue East, Parker excelled at football where he lettered for three years for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and was an Associated Press All-American Honorable Mention in 1986. At Bellevue East he excelled in wrestling and track as well, going undefeated (25-0) in wrestling in 1982 and winning the state championship. He also won the Class A discus in 1981. His throw of 191 feet, 2 inches topped the all-time charts at the time, and his throw of 194-1 in 1982 was the second-longest throw in the nation that year. He was drafted in the ninth round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants.

Dennis Smith – Papillion

Contributor. A huge, huge percentage of the credit for the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame Foundation goes to Dennis Smith. He had a vision of this organization and served the board from the organizational days of 1993. He’s been the treasurer since 1996. His 32-year career at Papillion-LaVista schools that included a position as principal from 1979-2000, netted many honors, including the naming of the annual high school track meet the “Denny Smith Invitational.” He was elected to the NSAA Board of Control for 21 years and his colleagues clearly recall his stance on most issues being “how does this affect the kids.” He was instrumental in the fundraising of more than a million dollars for the Papillion-LaVista stadium facility. He grew up in Cherokee, Iowa, and his football, basketball, track exploits drew him to Wayne State. He taught and coached at Creighton before moving to Papillion.

 

W.L. “Dutch” Zorn – Gothenburg

Coach–How to build a successful track & field program within Nebraska high schools could have been a book written by this winning coach of Gothenburg High School. The cardinal & white Swedes won the Class B state track meet five times, in 1949, 1957, 1962, 1967 and 1971. No doubt the ability to inspire a united team effort was one of his coaching secrets. Dutch Zorn also led one of the best all-class football teams in history, leading the Gothenburg players on the gridiron to 1945 glory when they topped an undefeated season by beating Creighton Prep of Omaha, 27-21.  His teams won championships in five different decades.  The school annually hosts a track meet in his name.  He and fellow 1994 inductee, Wayne Binfield of Scottsbluff, were honored by the Nebraska Coaches Association with an award in their name (Dutch & Binny Award) that bestows laurels for not just winning but for being an all-around coach.