Those that died before their time

Bill Quinby remembers his shock and sadness when he heard about the death of Nile Kinnick.

“We didn’t have TV then. I remember (former Gazette sports editor) Tait Cummins wrote a very warm summary after his death,” said Quinby, 77, a former NFL official who returned to Cedar Rapids after his retirement.

“It was pretty sad then. And this is very, very sad now.”

Quinby was refering to Wednesday’s death of Ed Thomas, the Aplington-Parkersburg football coach that was shot to death at the school’s weight room.

Mark Becker of Parkersburg was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Kinnick was the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Iowa, who died as a Naval officer in 1943 when he was forced to ditch his plane that had developed an oil leak off the coast of Venezuela.

Cummins wrote: “Kinnick proved one thing, that college athletics could be beautiful. Everything that can be said that is good about college athletics he was. He didn’t represent it…he was it.”

Kinnick was the most famous Iowan involved in athletics to die before their time. Thomas was the most recent. Here’s a partial list of those who passed prematurely:


The namesake of the Iowa State University football stadium, Trice was the first black athlete at ISU. He died two days after suffering injuries in a game at Minnesota.

While there the night before the game, Trice wrote a letter to himself. It was found in his jacket pocket, shortly before his funeral:

“My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family and self are at stake. “Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will!

“My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. … Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack.”


A native of Adel, Kinnick was less than four years removed from his Heisman season at Iowa when he was killed at sea at age 24.

In 1939, Iowa finished the year ranked ninth by the Associated Press with a 6-1-1 record. Kinnick threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes and ran for 374 yards. All told, Kinnick set 14 school records.

He won virtually every major award in the country. He was a first-team All-American, won the Big Ten MVP and the Walter Camp Award.

Associated Press reporter Whitney Martin wrote of Kinnick’s Heisman acceptance speech: “You realized the ovation wasn’t alone for Nile Kinnick, the outstanding college football player of the year. It was also for Nile Kinnick, typifying everything admirable in American youth.”


O’Connor was only 44 years old when he died in an auto accident near Waterloo.

He posted a 105-54 record in seven years as men’s basketball coach at Iowa, coaching the 1956 “Fabulous Five” to the NCAA title game.

Later on, he said: “My 1956 team was one of perfection. It’s impossible to find five boys who play so smoothly together again. It was a coach’s dream team.”

Quinby was a student at Iowa from 1950 to 1954, while O’Connor was the coach.

“(His death) was quite a shock,” he said.


Later in the day that the Cyclones finished second at the NCAA meet at Milwaukee, a plane carrying seven people went down near the Des Moines airport.

All seven died, including three runners — Julie Rose and Susan Baxter of England, Sheryl Maahs of Spirit Lake — and coaches Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan.

“Some things defy explanation and understanding and require faith,” said then-ISU AD Max Urick. “I think there’s a very, very common feeling of tremendous loss.”


The junior forward on the UI men’s basketball team was killed on a January night when the car he was driving collided with a snow plow.

Street, who prepped at Indianola, was 20.

He was buried in his gold Hawkeye uniform, clutching a rose. He was averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds when he died and many predicted an NBA career.

The Hawkeyes postponed their next two games, then — fueled by inspiration and emotion — recorded unforgettable wins at Michigan State and home against Michigan’s Fab Five.

ED THOMAS (2009)

The preceding deaths of prominent Iowa athletes and coaches were accidents. Thomas died from multiple gunshots by a former player.

“To me, this was a senseless, senseless death,” Quinby said. “I met Ed Thomas once, and I could just tell he was an outstanding person. He made the world a better place through his coaching and Christian leadership.

Thomas compiled a career record of 292-84 with 19 playoff appearances and two state championships, in 1993 and 2001.

“It’s a sad day for a great man, and a sad day for life in general,” said Tom Stone, coach at Pekin High School.


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One Response to “Those that died before their time”

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