Wine Online: A History Lesson

Oct. 10, 2005

If you asked fans who regularly attend Iowa football games to name the captain of the 1939 Ironmen, most would probably respond by saying, “Nile Kinnick.”

They would be wrong.

Yes, our stadium is named in Kinnick’s honor. Yes, he won the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Trophy. Yes, he was clearly the catalyst on a team that captured the attention of an entire nation.

But he was not the captain. That honor belonged to Erwin Prasse, who at the age of 87, died last June.


Fans of the Iowa Hawkeyes are encouraged to wear black on Saturday, Oct. 22, when the Hawkeyes entertain Michigan in the first-ever ‘Black Out Saturday” event at the UI.

Prasse (pronounced Praw-see) was an outstanding football player in his own right. An end who often played the entire game — as did many members of the ’39 team, hence the name Ironmen) — he caught touchdown passes from Kinnick that beat Indiana and Minnesota. Both receptions were made late in the fourth quarter and produced dramatic come-from-behind victories.

Prasse was an all-around athlete who earned all-Big Ten and all-America honors in football. He also excelled in basketball and baseball. But he was no Nile Kinnick.

A sports writer asked me if Prasse was overshadowed by Kinnick. “Of course,” I answered, “and so was everyone else on the team.”

But none of them seemed to care. The Ironmen had many reunions through the years, and they often invited a few outsiders like me. I was always struck by their camaraderie, their respect for one another, and by their admiration for Nile Kinnick.

They had a genuine love and affection for their fallen leader, who died in 1943 while serving his country as a navy pilot in World War II. He was only 25 years old.

The obvious question today is why was Prasse elected Iowa’s football captain prior to the legendary 1939 season? Why did that honor not go to Kinnick?

Was the answer because Prasse won all-Big Ten honors in 1938 while Kinnick was in and out of the lineup because of injuries?

To shed light on this, I called George “Red” Frye, who played center for the Ironmen. He is now 86 years old and retired in his hometown of Albia. His voice is strong and his laugh is hearty. He says his health is good.

“I voted for Prasse,” said Frye when the 1939 captaincy came into our conversation. He said it was true that because of injuries Kinnick missed some playing time the previous season, “but I don’t think that had anything to do with the voting.”

Because Kinnick practiced Christian Science, it was difficult for Iowa’s medical staff to make an accurate diagnosis of his injuries. Al Couppee, who quarterbacked the Ironmen, once told me he believed Kinnick played some of the 1938 season on a broken ankle.

But according to Frye, that did not factor into the voting when new coach Eddie Anderson asked his players to elect a captain for the 1939 season. Frye recalls Prasse and Kinnick as “well-liked and admired” by their teammates. He said both were “outstanding athletes” who excelled in football and other sports.

But “Prasse was pool hall guy,” said Frye in describing his teammate as a regular fellow, while Kinnick was somewhat aloof (my word, not his). Frye recalls Kinnick as being friendly with everyone, but having no close friends.

“Kinnick wasn’t a prima donna, but he was an individualist and a bit isolated,” said Frye. That description would fit a young man who was a serious student and Phi Beta Kappa scholar. While his teammates were at the pool hall, Kinnick was at the library.

“We looked up to Nile Kinnick, we really did,” said Frye. “But Erwin Prasse was one of the guys.”

For the first 70 years of its football history, Iowa generally picked one player to captain the football team. The vote was made before the season and the captaincy was considered a real honor. Today captains are named game to game and they are elected (last year there were six) when the season is over.

The 1939 Ironmen elected Erwin Prasse to captain their football team. By Frye’s account, he was both a good player and a regular guy. It’s my guess that all of the captains in the first 70 years of Iowa football would fit that description.