The attempt to capture a life – especially an influential one with a vast reach over many decades – is so easily led in the direction of the grand and sweeping statements, the vivid word pictures, the layered attempts to describe how so many pieces fit together. Make no mistake, this is something which should be done. The full story of an influential person should be told in the course of time. Some lives are worthy of whole books, and Carl Hinkle’s is one of them.
Yet, in busy lives with cluttered schedules, how can a life’s essence be boiled down to a smaller, more concise bottom line? This is when and where the airbrush strokes of the written word fall short, and it’s a lot better to tell the simple, unadorned story. The content of actions and the simple reality of successful ventures serve to convey what a man meant to many communities – a school, a state, a military family, and a country. Carl Hinkle’s life was this large. The best way to honor his journey is to simply note what he did. The “how” of his life will flow from the substance of his achievements.
For Carl Hinkle and other great human beings, achievement was a way of life. However, for a certain subset of people, “achievements” are more things to check off on a resume, boxes to be filled so that a certain career trajectory can be fulfilled. Carl Hinkle was not that kind of person. He was a man who poured every ounce of blood and sweat into everything he did. Various commitments and pursuits were not stepping stones to other things, activities meant merely to pass the time or bridge some sort of gap while waiting for something bigger. No, Hinkle tackled everything in life (and every opposing ballcarrier at Vanderbilt) because he loved what he did in the present moment. Carrying that love of chasing excellence – and serving his country – animated Hinkle’s every waking moment. It created a life whose non-sports career exceeded its on-field dimensions… and those on-field adventures were wildly successful, beyond any boy’s realistic dreams.
The greatest sportswriter in Vanderbilt history is, of course, Grantland Rice, the man among the journalistic class who magnified the exploits of The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and Red Grange. Yes, Grange and other players most centrally gave life to college football in the 1920s and the rest of the first half of the 20th century. However, Rice’s literary voice carried those deeds to the masses. How fitting it was, then, that in the process of previewing the 1938 Rose Bowl between Alabama and California, Rice was able to pay tribute to Hinkle – a fellow Vanderbilt man – in his sports column, published on December 28, 1937:
Rice wrote of Hinkle:
“… a large part of the Tuscaloosa attack must depend on (Joe) Kilgrow’s passing. I saw Kilgrow against Vanderbilt, where only a brilliant defense, led by Carl Hinkle, prevented more than one touchdown. For Kilgrow was nailing the receiver on pass after pass with a touchdown threat in every heave.”
That game against Alabama was the most significant game Hinkle ever played in. It was a game which, had Vanderbilt won it, would have propelled the Commodores to that aforementioned 1938 Rose Bowl. VU would have taken Bama’s place against Berkeley. Hinkle did everything he could on that day against the Crimson Tide. He stemmed the Tide for most of the game, affirming his identity as the best player on the 1937 Commodores. Yet, Alabama made a late field goal for a 9-7 win. Hinkle’s team scored fewer points, but the man who walked off that field was not defeated.
Hinkle later said this about the game’s ending:
“I reached down and got the ball. I knew I couldn’t keep it. They deserved it. I handed it to Kilgrow. As I walked to the field house, I realized my playing days were over. I had to laugh a bit. I wasn’t ashamed to lose. It had to be someone – why not us? Amazingly, I felt all right. It wasn’t painful. I didn’t cry. I wished we were starting over.”
The resolute acceptance of a result can be seen in those words, and that’s why a storied playing career gave way to an even greater career in far more important matters. This is where the simple accomplishments of Hinkle’s life say a lot about the person who forged them.
On the playing field, Hinkle finished seventh in the 1937 Heisman Trophy voting. (As a side note, Kilgrow of Alabama was fifth.) Hinkle was the 1937 SEC Most Valuable Player and a First-Team All-American. That All-American status was conferred on him not just by the Associated Press, but by Grantland Rice himself.
Hinkle was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1959, the Vanderbilt Hall of Fame in 1969, and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. His reach was considerable, his imprint enduring, his presence as great as the honors he accumulated.
Yet, his next chapter in life would become far more substantial than that already-glittering playing career. It gives one pause just to contemplate that.
The following is taken from the VU Commodores website from an article published in 2007:
At West Point, Hinkle received the top military honor by being named Regimental Commander (First Captain). The honor also presented Hinkle with the General John Pershing Sword.
During World War II, Hinkle served as a pilot and won the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Citation Unit with Oak Leaf Clusters, France's Croix de Guerre, the Air Force Medal of Commendation. Hinkle would retire from the Air Force as a Colonel.
Just let the enormity of Hinkle’s accomplishments serve as the most eloquent personal testament to a life lived in full. Carl Hinkle fits the portrait of someone who was great at what he did… and managed to be even better as a person, as a man, as someone whose life was steeped in decades of service to a cause much greater than winning a football game.