By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kenny Arnold deserved better.
The former Iowa basketball player deserved more from life, but life isn’t always fair.
Why Kenny Arnold had to spend more than half of his 59 years battling serious health issues before passing away this past Saturday is a question to which there is no definite answer.
He was just unlucky, a tragic result of life’s randomness and cruelty.
But Arnold was also a Hawkeye hero for how he battled his illnesses for over three decades, and for how he coped with adversity with power and grace.
His courage and resolve helped to inspire others, including his best friend and former Iowa teammate, Mike “Tree” Henry.
“So many people say Kenny was blessed to have me in his life, but the reality is I was just as blessed to have him as a friend, brother, and teammate for life,” Henry said. “I will miss him like crazy, but I know he is in a better place and is watching over all of us. Rest easy KA!!! I love you my brother!!!!
Kenny Arnold now belongs in a special group of Hawkeye heroes, a group that has now grown to five members.
They are my version of Iowa’s Mount Rushmore for Hawkeye heroes, just with five instead of the traditional four because I couldn't bring myself to eliminate one from the list.
There is no right or wrong with this kind of list. It's just my opinion about five former Hawkeye legends who inspired us with their talent, but more so with their courage, and toughness and for what they sacrificed.
Here are my five in no particular order:
Kenny Arnold, men’s basketball: The Chicago native endeared himself to Hawkeye fans forever by leading Iowa to its last Final Four appearance in 1980 as a sophomore.
Arnold switched from shooting guard to point guard after Ronnie Lester was injured, and yet, Iowa continued to roll and advanced to the Final Four without its best player being healthy.
Arnold was more steady than spectacular on the court. His game as a 6-foot-3 guard had more substance than style.
He did whatever it takes to win, and Iowa won frequently during Arnold’s four seasons in the program, finishing first, fourth, second and second in the Big Ten under head coach Lute Olson.
It was a glorious time for Iowa basketball, and the soft-spoken Arnold was a big part of it.
He was also close to making it in the NBA when his life took a sad and scary turn when Arnold was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1985.
His life never would be same as Arnold also suffered from several strokes that affected his speech and mobility.
But he never felt sorry for himself and never quit fighting to live, one day at a time.
“From the time he was diagnosed with his tumor, he never complained,” Henry said. “.After the initial shock the first day, he told me the next day in a matter of fact way, "I'm beating this," and that was all we focused on. There was never a "why me" or this isn't fair attitude. He taught me how to LIVE each day and appreciate the things we have, no matter how big or small.
“When I find myself complaining about some day to day issue I'm not happy with, I realize I really can’t have a bad day when I think about what Kenny battled for 35 years. I just smile and move on. I's all good by comparison. The gift of perspective is invaluable.”
Arnold told his former Iowa teammates that God had picked him to suffer because God knew that he could handle it, and that Arnold would use it to inspire others.
And that is exactly what Kenny Arnold did until his body, ravaged by years of serious illnesses, finally succumbed to the damage.
Nile Kinnick, football: With the threat of World War II looming, Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner left law school after one year and enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve. After traveling throughout the state on a speaking tour of Iowa communities and visiting his parents in Omaha, Kinnick reported for induction three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“There is no reason in the world why we shouldn't fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely, no reason why we shouldn't suffer to uphold that which we want to endure,” Kinnick said of his decision to enlist. “May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.
“Every man whom I've admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country's armed forces in times of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example the best I know how. May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family, and my friends will be proud of me.”
Those words describe the true essence of Nile Kinnick. He was a gifted and determined athlete, but even a better person.
He turned down what almost certainly would have been a successful career as a lawyer, or as a politician, to defend his country during a time of need. It was the ultimate display of courage and unselfishness, but it also led to Kinnick making the ultimate sacrifice.
Kinnick was on a routine training flight on June 2, 1943 when his Grumman F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak and crashed off the coast of Venezuela in the Gulf of Paria.
Many have said that Kinnick would’ve gone on to become the Governor of Iowa or even something bigger than that in politics.
His death at such a young age, and while serving his country, coupled with his star-status as a football player made Kinnick a legend that continues to grow to this day.
Kinnick’s 1939 season was the stuff of legends as he led the Ironmen to a 6-1-1 record by doing virtually everything.
Kinnick threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 31 passes and ran for 374 yards. He was involved in 16 of the 19 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) that Iowa scored and was involved in 107 of the 130 points that Iowa scored that year. He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes that season. All told, Kinnick set 14 school records, six of which still stand over 65 years later.
Kinnick Stadium was named in his honor in 1972, his jersey No. 24 is retired and his now-famous Heisman Trophy speech is played on the video board before each home game.
Nile Kinnick died far too soon, but he lives in the hearts of Iowa fans forever.
Fred Becker, football: The Waterloo native was Iowa’s first All-American in any sport, achieving first-team honors in football in 1916.
That would prove to be Becker’s only season on the Iowa football team as he enlisted within a month after the United States had entered World War I.
After completing an accelerated training course, Becker sailed to France in September 1917 at the age of 21. He was soon on the front lines and then wounded by artillery in the opening stages of the Battle of Belleau Wood on June 3, 1918.
He only needed a month to recover before returning to battle as the commander of a lead platoon. Becker was killed in action during the Battle of Soissons on July 18, 1918 at the age of 22.
He is credited with saving many men of his unit by moving forward of his men and attacking machine gun nests, one of which he destroyed by himself. Shortly thereafter, while leading his platoon, Becker was killed by an artillery shell that also wounded his friend Elliot D. Cooke, who was standing next to him.
For his courage and valor in battle, Becker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America's second highest wartime honor, Silver Star, and France awarded him the Croix de Guerre, their highest honor.
As a player, Becker was a force on the line of scrimmage. He blocked two punts against Iowa State to secure a 19-16 victory.
Davis was honored for his play when Walter Eckersall named him to first all-American team.
In writing about Becker, Eckersall said:
"No matter where he was placed, his work was a feature. He was strong and powerful and quick to size up the attack of his opponents. He seldom failed to open holes for the backs and was on top of the play all year."
Ozzie Simmons, football: An electric running back from Fort Worth Texas, Simmons was the inspiration behind Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze statue of a pig that goes to the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game.
Floyd now ranks as one of the most recognizable traveling trophies in college football, but its origin is rooted in racism and violence.
Simmons has been described as one of the most exciting running backs to ever play for Iowa. He earned All-America accolades for the Hawkeyes, and was nicknamed the “Ebony Eel” for his slippery running style, although, such a nickname would be considered highly inappropriate and insensitive today.
But it’s what Simmons had to endure as a black man playing a white man’s game in the 1930s that made him a trailblazer, and a legend.
Iowa was one of few schools at the time that allowed blacks to play football, but that opportunity came with a heavy price.
Iowa’s opponents, including Minnesota, resented having to play against blacks and the opposing players took their anger and frustration out on Simmons with verbal and physical abuse.
“The refs would call it if a white player got hit late, but they weren’t as quick to blow the whistle if you black,” Simmons said in a book titled “Black and Gold Memories” and written by former Iowa Sports Information Director George Wine. “I guess they wanted to see if I could take it.”
Simmons took it over and over, and the Gophers were extremely rough on him.
The 1934 game between Iowa and Minnesota in Minneapolis had been filled with controversy and tension over the way Simmons was treated by the Minnesota players.
Simmons was one of few black players at the time, and the Gophers made him pay with late hits, cheap shots and verbal abuse. He had to leave the 1934 game several times with injuries, and Minnesota cruised to a 48-12 victory.
Tensions still were high a year later and Iowa Governor Clyde L. Herring helped to fuel the animosity by issuing a disturbing warning the day before the game in Iowa City.
“If the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't,” Herring said to the media.
Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson came up with an idea to ease tensions and he sent Herring a telegram on the morning of the game that read:
"Dear Clyde, Minnesota folks excited over your statement about the Iowa crowd lynching the Minnesota football team. I have assured them that you are a law-abiding gentleman and are only trying to get our goat. The Minnesota team will tackle clean, but, oh! how hard, Clyde. If you seriously think Iowa has any chance to win, I will bet you a Minnesota prize hog against an Iowa prize hog that Minnesota wins today. The loser must deliver the hog in person to the winner. Accept my bet thru a reporter. You are getting odds because Minnesota raises better hogs than Iowa. My best personal regards and condolences.”
Cooler heads would prevailed in the 1935 game and one of college football’s best tradition was started.The real pig was replaced by a statue, and that statue currently resides in Iowa City.
Simmons persevered and helped to blaze a trail that led to fairness and equality.
He wanted very much to play professional football, but in the 1930s the NFL had an unwritten rule that prohibited players of color.
Simmons would go on to become an elementary teacher in Chicago, where he died on Sept. 26, 2001 at the age of 87.
Chris Street, men’s basketball: The Indianola native was an emerging star as a 6-8 forward and hugely popular with fans when he was killed in an automobile accident on Jan. 19th, 1993, midway through his junior season at Iowa.
Where his career would’ve gone is now left for the imagination, and that is part of Street’s mystique.
He was known for his fiery personality and for his competitiveness. But Streeet was also a gifted athlete, and was showing rapid improvement.
He could bang on the boards with the best of them, but also had a soft shooting touch as evidenced by his accuracy from the free throw line. Street had set a school record at the time of his death by having made 34 consecutive free throws.
Current Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon had a chance to break the record against Northwestern in 2018, but missed his free throw on purpose.
“That's not my record to have,” Bohannon said at the time. “That record deserves to stay in his name. It's been on my mind for a while….life is a lot bigger than basketball."
Street's death happened during my first year on the Iowa beat for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The newspaper's office was just down the road from the accident seen on the outskirts of Iowa City.
I will never forget parking my car and climbing up a frozen hill near the accident scene and fearing the worst. The look of devastation on the face of Iowa coach Tom Davis is also something that I will never forget from that tragic night.
Life is a lot bigger than sports, and these five Hawkeye icons are examples of that for different reasons.
Kinnick and Becker are the ultimate heroes in that they paid the ultimate price while serving their country. They died with honor, dignity and grace, but far too soon.
Street also died far too soon and didn’t have a chance to realize his vast potential.
Simmons played at a time when racism was widely accepted, but he suffered so others wouldn’t have to in the future.
Arnold also suffered for over 30 years, but did so in a way that inspired others. Even during his worst moments, Arnold worried more about his family and friends than about himself.
He was tough and resilient like everyone in this special group.