Nile Kinnick movie plans to film in Iowa City, host premiere at Kinnick Stadium
Listen to the full speech given by Nile Kinnick when he received his Heisman award in 1939. Audio of Kinnick's speech was provided by the University of Iowa.
The story of Nile Kinnick is the stuff of legend in Iowa.
The University of Iowa's lone winner of college football's highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, threw and ran his way into history books in 1939. His premature death in World War II four years later cemented him as one of the Hawkeye state's most beloved sons.
Now, Iowans are working to make his life and the story of the dominant 1939 University of Iowa "Ironmen" football team into a Hollywood legend with a little bit of help from an Oscar-nominated UI graduate.
"The Ironmen" is a movie in the works by producer Joe Heath. A script has been penned by Iowa writer Tom Lidd, whose 2006 historical novel "Nile" served as the basis for the film. Nicholas Meyer, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," has been hired for rewrites on the script.
Heath, in an interview with the Press-Citizen, said the plan is to shoot the film in Iowa City and then host the world premiere of the movie inside Kinnick Stadium.
"I think having the movie premiere in Kinnick Stadium would provide a wonderful setting to help tell the story," Gary Barta, UI athletics director, said in an email. "We have some really big and cool TV screens."
The goal for the premiere: break the world record for largest movie premiere audience with Hawkeye fans and football players from across the state. The goal of the movie: to educate the world about Kinnick, the "Ironmen" and give Iowans a movie they can call their own.
"Just look at The Wave. I feel like it became this amazing success because the fans knew this was ours," Heath said. "I want there to be the chance for fans to feel the same way about this movie."
Iowa fans have already helped Heath and the production in more ways than general support. Heath said their first $300,000 investment came from a Hawkeye fan in Houston who had seen a story about the movie online.
When the movie begins shooting, Heath said they'll once again lean on Hawkeye faithful.
“We want to have scenes with 10,000 extras and it's very likely we’ll be able to do that at no expense except for feeding them and putting wardrobe on them," he said. Heath asked those willing to be extras for the movie to write to email@example.com.
Heath said that the production has been working with United Talent Agency and has already done some "soft casting," but that no decisions would be made until a director was on board.
“Once we got the rock that is Nicholas Meyer, it changed everything. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster since we announced it at FryFest,” Heath said.
The two met in June and discussed the project over coffee. He got confirmation that the man nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the Sherlock Holmes movie "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" would join the production on Aug. 31.
Minutes after getting the confirmation, Heath first made the news public about Meyer working on the film at FryFest, the annual celebration of all things Hawkeye athletics, held the day before the first football game of the season.
“We were fortunate enough, through all the support from the university and the alumni to be able to get Nicholas Meyer on board to do the re-write," Heath said.
If all goes smoothly, the expected timeline includes the film being greenlit around Thanksgiving, cast, shoot the film in summer and fall, spend a year editing and premiere the movie before the 2020 season.
“There’s a story here. Even people who think they know Nile Kinnick don’t know his story, or the story of this team," Lidd said.
"It's an impressive story that needs to be told to as many people as possible," Mark Jennings, former associate athletic director at UI said.
1939 and 'The Ironmen' of Iowa
Compared to today, football was a drastically different game when Kinnick and Iowa's 1939 'Ironmen' traversed the gridirons of the Midwest.
Players played both offense and defense because any player who left the field of play could not return until the following quarter, Jennings said.
Throwing the football was also a rarity in those days. Back then, quarterbacks like Iowa's Al Couppee usually just handed the football off to a running back and blocked.
It was Iowa's star halfback, Kinnick, who led the team in both passing, with 638 yards, and rushing, with 374 yards, that year.
Most importantly, Lidd said, the players at the core of the 1939 team were born and raised during historically trying times in American history: the Great Depression.
"The team chemistry of these guys was astounding," he said. "The team was playing in post-depression, but a lot of these players grew up in the worst of it."
Despite Kinnick's prestigious family history — his grandfather George Washington Clarke was the governor of Iowa — Kinnick's land-owning dad had to sell his holdings and move to Omaha to work at a bank. Charles Tollefson, a guard for the team, spent time before going to UI homeless. Several other players on the team, Lidd said, were orphans.
"And yet, all these guys came together and were tremendous individuals and were really a part of Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation," Lidd said.
Few were expecting the 1939 team to be anything special. Doctor Eddie Anderson, a man who actually worked part-time at the UI hospital, was starting his first year as coach. The team hadn't won a Big Ten Conference game in Iowa City since 1933. Kinnick had a rather ho-hum season the year before. Team captain Erwin Prasse was the expected star of the team.
The season started off with a bang when Iowa clubbed the University of South Dakota 41-0 in front of a crowd of about 20,000 fans. Kinnick had three touchdown runs and, maybe more impressive, five successful dropkicks for extra-points.
It was in the next game against Big Ten rival Indiana that Kinnick and the Ironmen first hinted that 1939 would be historic. In 90 degree heat, they put on a show.
Loren Schultz, sports reporter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, wrote a sterling tribute to Kinnick's athletic gifts on Oct. 7, 1939:
Only three minutes had gone by in the second quarter when Kinnick took the ball on his own 42-yard stripe, cut and weaved his way through a masse of Hoosiers to break into the open and then dragged three Indiana tacklers from the 10 to the three-yard line before he was downed. On the next play, the star Iowa halfback slashed through the line for a touchdown. He drop kicked the extra point to give Iowa a lead of 14 to 10.
Trailing Indiana with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Kinnick threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to eventual All American Prasse, securing the win.
The lone loss came in Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan, 27-7. Three Iowa starters, Coupee, center William Diehl and tackle James Walker, were injured during the game, though Kinnick did throw the scoring touchdown pass and kick the extra point.
But after that loss, Iowa rolled through the season as Kinnick's star grew to national prominence. Three Kinnick passing touchdowns sunk Wisconsin. Though neither team scored on offense, Iowa beat Purdue 4-0 with two fourth-quarter safeties.
By the time the highly touted and hugely popular Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team came to Iowa City, the word was out: Kinnick was a transcendent star and Iowa was a special team. About 50,000 fans came out to see the team, far more than the much smaller early-season crowds. With four tacklers draped around him, Kinnick scored Iowa's lone touchdown and then its lone extra point. Despite Notre Dame's touchdown in the fourth quarter, they missed the lone extra point attempt, securing an Iowa victory and setting off a gigantic party.
Iowa had beat the No. 3 nation in the country, the town celebrated. Students took a "self-declared holiday from classes," according to the Press-Citizen the following Monday. "Festivities started before 8 o'clock when student pickets refused to allow fellow classmates to attend classes. There were few objectors," the newspaper wrote.
It was Dr. Anderson's 39th birthday that day, so the students en masse marched to his house to cheer him on. "I suppose you think I am going to tell you to get back to your classes, well I'm not," exclaimed Anderson when he saw the crowd.
The hoard of hundreds of students were hard to corral, so police stopped traffic instead as students marched through town.
The following weekend, Kinnick threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Minnesota. The season was set to finish in historic fashion as they traveled to Evanston to take on a three-win Northwestern Wildcats team.
What transpired instead was a rash of critical injuries. Five starters, tackle Wallace Bergstrom, halfback Floyd Dean, fullback James Murphy, Tollefson and Kinnick all left the game with injuries. Kinnick took the field again, but could barely hold the football to kick, the Press-Citizen reported. They didn't lose, but tied Northwestern 7-7.
The Big Ten title slipped past them by half-a-game, with the Ohio State Buckeyes going 5-1 in conference.
The frenzy didn't stop for the Hawkeyes. Anderson, Kinnick and Prasse won national awards, including Kinnick's Heisman Trophy.
After he accepted the Heisman trophy in New York City in December, Iowa Citians welcomed Kinnick and Anderson back to Iowa, meeting their plane at the airport. More than 4,000 people broke police lines and stormed the plane.
"The motors of the twin-motored plane were cut for fear someone would become entangled with the propellers," the Press-Citizen reported.
It was a fitting welcome for Kinnick, who had scored 107 of the teams 130 points, and played 402 of the 420 minutes the Hawkeyes logged that season.
Throughout the entire season lurked something much darker than football, in Iowa City, throughout the country and across the world: war. The papers were filled with stories of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler taking power.
Within months of the football season ending, Germany was invading countries in Europe. The next year, Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor, and Kinnick enlisted days later.
For Lidd, the next following years are what made the 1939 team a remarkable collection of people.
Tollefsen went into the Marines. Couppee served, Jens Norgaard flew the lead plane over Utah Beach during the Normandy Invasion, Prasse landed on Omaha Beach that same day and earned the Purple Heart. George Frye flew planes in the Pacific theater of the war. Bruno Andruska won a Bronze Star. Even Dr. Anderson served in the US Army Medical Corps.
Kinnick's WWII fate is well known to Iowa fans. He died June 2, 1943 while test piloting an F4F Wildcat in the Gulf of Paria, Venezuela. An oil leak meant he could neither make it to land or the nearby aircraft carrier. He tried to make an emergency landing in the water, but died in the process. His body was never recovered.
Making the movie
Both Heath and Lidd have had the stories of Kinnick and Iowa football play huge roles in their lives.
Heath's baby photos "are of me screaming to the heavens in Hawkeye gear," he said. Lidd went to his first Hawkeye game in 1964. Lidd went to UI, Heath grew up in Iowa City. Both have been Hawkeye fans for as long as they can remember.
After heading to Hollywood in 2006 to pursue a career in movie-making, Heath immediately started pitching a Kinnick film to anyone who would listen. They were all turned down.
Around the same time, when Kinnick Stadium was being renovated and a statue of Kinnick was being placed in front of UI's football home. Lidd's wife, knowing he was someone who always loved to write, told him he should start writing a Kinnick book.
He started researching, drawing much of his information from four books, including Paul Baender's 1992 book "A Hero Perished: The Diary and Selected Letters of Nile Kinnick." He wrote what would become "Nile" in 11 months, edited it for about 13 months and self-published it in 2008.
The book became a favorite of the UI Athletics Department, Jennings said.
"When I got done reading it, I had learned more about early football and early Iowa football than I had ever known before," he added.
They purchased dozens of copies and gave them away at I-Club functions across the state. Many in the athletics staff read it, including Barta.
"The author did a great job providing historical information and context, and did so through great storytelling and a novel-like reading experience," Barta said.
In 2011, after returning to Iowa to marry his wife, Heath found Lidd's book, saying "it changed everything for me about the movie, honestly."
"I felt like I have a half-dozen heroes I didn't even know about and four of them are maybe even more interesting than Nile Kinnick," Heath said.
Jennings had already heard of Heath's movie idea, so he introduced the filmmaker to Lidd.
With the trio at work supporting the movie, Lidd wrote the script, Heath went out in search for producers and finical backers, while Jennings went about ensuring that UI could host a movie premiere at Kinnick.
Heath had hatched the idea after he saw FryFest attendees break the record for the world's largest group Hokey Pokey dance. Why couldn't they break a record by hosting the movie premiere for the Kinnick movie at the stadium named after him and shatter the record for the world's biggest movie premiere?
"When I got that idea in my head, I took it to the same people that shot down the Kinnick movie before," Heath said. "They started jumping on board after that."
When Jennings was approached with the Kinnick movie premiere idea, the associate athletics director knew the idea could work. With approval from Barta and other UI officials, they told Heath the premiere could take place at the stadium.
Jennings is one of the few people who knows firsthand that Kinnick Stadium could in fact host a large, non-football entertainment event. He directed the Back Porch Revival concert at Kinnick in 2016. The concert featured a slew of country stars —Blake Shelton, Big and Rich, Thomas Rhett —and drew over 44,000 fans.
"I know firsthand that if we could easily put 45,000 people in Kinnick for a concert, we could do it for a movie," Jennings said. (The current world record for the largest audience at a film premiere is 43,624 on Oct. 4, 2015, in the Philippines for the premiere of a film about Filipino religious leader Felix Manalo, according to Guinness World Records.)
"Any of the Hollywood producers can recognize that if we premiere this at Kinnick, it would be quite the national story," Jennings said. Heath said with the spectacle of a movie premiere, he hopes to draw the Big Ten Network and ESPN.
The project got its biggest boost when they signed Meyer to re-write the original script.
"Meyer is putting some meat on the character's bones," Lidd said.
Meyer has some serious Hollywood credentials that are garnering the movie more attention in Hollywood circles. With the Oscar nomination, directing the iconic "The Wrath of Khan," writing two more Star Trek movies and more, Heath sees his contribution to the project as invaluable.
Now, working with the likes of United Talent Agency to corral a cast, Heath said the next big hurdle is to find a director, secure more finical backing and then get the project green-lit. He plans to make a major announcement on how fans can get involved prior to Iowa's final game of the season against Nebraska on Black Friday.
Liz Gilman, executive of Produce Iowa inside the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, said that Heath and those working on the film have a "smart hook" with the premiere at Kinnick and enticing Iowans to literally be a part of the movie and making the movie in-state.
"They're getting a large group of Iowans in on the ground floor to build it up," Gilman said. "With him having this homegrown story of a great Iowan, I think Iowans can really rally around and support his project."
Though the film is set to shine a light on the entire roster of the 1939 team, everyone involved knows the movie will be a showcase for the legendary Kinnick, a man whose shadow every Iowa football player plays under. A man, like hundreds-of-thousands of other Americans, who died in WWII.
Lidd, throughout his research, found a kid "wise beyond his years," but still very much a young person. He points to Kinnick's now iconic Heisman acceptance speech, a speech filled with compliments of his teammates and others, but one that ended with a rather politically-conscious note:
"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."
Though he'd go on to serve, this marked what Jennings and Lidd thought were just the beginnings of a post-football political career. Kinnick would go on to give an opening speech for presidential nominee and President Franklin Roosevelt's opponent, Wendell Willkie, in Iowa Falls. He gave speeches at rotary clubs, church groups and more. He studied and loved Winston Churchill.
"Could he become governor? Senator? Probably," Lidd said.
"I think this movie will almost prove to people that he was going to end up being a national leader," Jennings said.
For Barta, its clear that the movie will be a hit for Iowans, but he's also confident it will have a much wider appeal across the nation as more learn the "folklore" of Kinnick.
"The movie will capture the hearts and minds of all Americans because the strong connection between being a great student-athlete, a mature leader beyond his years, and a war hero," Barta said.
Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.