DES MOINES | His name graces the University of Iowa football stadium, is etched in the 1939 Heisman Trophy and was, apparently, scribbled on a football that, until this week, sat forgotten on a basement shelf in a West Des Moines home.
Now the football that includes Heisman winner Nile Kinnick’s name, along with the names of more than two dozen teammates and a record of the Hawkeyes’ 1939 football season, sits in a bank lockbox while its owner figures out what to do next.
How the ball got there is somewhat of a mystery, said Cindy Hahn, whose mother owns the West Des Moines home where the ball was placed, probably decades ago, next to the family washer and dryer. It’s almost as big a mystery as how it managed to stay there all these years.
“We’re not really garage sale-y people,” Hahn said Friday during a telephone call from her home in Arizona. “But we’ve had some garage sales, and neither my mother nor I am big into sports, so I’m surprised that it never ended up on a table and sold to someone in all that time.”
Hahn’s mother, who did not want to be identified, spends her summers in Iowa and winters with her family in Arizona. She, like some other snowbirds in the Des Moines metro area, rents her home to state lawmakers who need a place to stay during the legislative session.
This year, she rented to four House Republicans: Josh Byrnes of Osage, Brian Moore of Bellevue, Lee Hein of Monticello and Jeff Smith of Okoboji.
Last Monday, Byrnes was doing laundry when he spotted the ball on the shelf.
“The thing that caught my attention is the fact that it was an old football,” Byrnes said. “I’m drawn to old stuff. Like my campaign buttons were in that old style, so I saw this ball and thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty sweet.’”
Curious about the signatures on the ball, Byrnes decided to pick one out and search the Internet to see what he could find out. He chose William Gallagher, because it was printed and easier to read.
“I figured it could be a Drake ball, or a high school ball, or something I just didn’t know what,” he said.
William Gallagher was a quarterback for the 1939 Iowa team. Byrnes started looking at other names, and it dawned on him what he might have. The next day, he called his landlord to share news of the find.
“I told her that I collect old memorabilia and that she had this old football,” Byrnes said. “She offered it to me, and I told her, ‘No, you don’t understand what you have here.’”
The 1939 team was nicknamed the Ironmen. Coached by Eddie Anderson, Kinnick was the star player. The team went 6-1-1 that year, and Kinnick picked up the Heisman, was Big 10 MVP and first-team All-American, among other honors.
Kinnick was elected student body president and kept a 3.4 GPA his senior year.
“He was a hero to me. I think I’ve read every book about him ever written,” said F. Richard Thornton, a Des Moines attorney, lobbyist and 1965 University of Iowa Law School graduate. “He would have been governor of this state if he had lived, no question about it.”
Kinnick, a U.S. Navy pilot, was killed on June 2, 1943, when his plane crashed into the Gulf of Paria off Venezula. He was 24.
Tom Erickson, owner of Tom Erickson’s Autographs and Collectibles in Davenport, said he’s seen only two Nile Kinnick signatures in his life. One a friend had and one was postcard-sized one that Erickson bought at a garage sale and later sold for $2,500.
“Without seeing the condition of the signatures, it would be really hard to put a price on it,” said Erickson, who began collecting in 1959, made it his profession in 1975 and opened his shop on Davenport’s Fairmount Street in 1992.
Who signed, how dark the signatures are and if the ball can be inflated are all considerations that would be made by collectors interested in making a purchase.
Hahn thinks the ball may have come into the family’s possession through her stepfather, who played baseball with Kinnick and may have roomed with him.
Thornton said it would be a boon for any collector to have.
“Maybe the University of Iowa would like it to put with their collection,” Thornton said.
A message left with University of Iowa Development for Intercollegiate Athletics Executive Director Matt Henderson was not returned.