An Rx for U.S. leadership: more ex-football players

January 21, 2007|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to The Sun

President Gerald R. Ford was a center, Tom Brokaw said at his funeral this month. He was talking about his football-playing days at the University of Michigan. "Center is a position that seldom receives praise," he said. Yes, and that is as true in politics as well. Brokaw could have been -- probably was - talking about Ford's positions on the issues.

But was Ford really a centrist? Yes and no. Shortly after his death, several conservatives claimed him as one of their own in a symposium on National Review Online.

"He was a man of very conservative instincts," said Richard Brookhiser, a National Review senior author.

James Rosen of Fox News said Ford "earned high ratings from Americans for Constitutional Action over the years."

Steven F. Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, summed him up as "a solid Midwestern conservative of the old school."

Ford described himself in his memoirs as "a moderate in domestic affairs and a conservative on fiscal policy."

I'd say the proper football metaphor for Ford's politics is right guard, who lines up next to the center.

Most presidents never played enough football to be thought of in football terms. Only four played in college, and only two of those showed any real skill. And only one of those two played enough college ball to get a national reputation.

That would be Ford. He was helmet and shoulder pads above the rest.

John F. Kennedy made the freshman football team at Harvard. He tried to make pass receiving his specialty and became a right end. He was not very good. He wanted to make the varsity after his freshman year, but failed. "He couldn't make the grade. He was not strong enough or heavy enough to stand the gaff," one biographer wrote of him.

Richard Nixon was a "scrub" or bench-warmer at little Whittier College. He loved the game and became the biggest fan ever in the White House.

Ronald Reagan played football at another small college, Eureka. In his post-presidency, he says in a memoir with what may be both self-deprecation and exaggeration that his play (as a guard) was such that "my expectation of becoming an overnight football sensation was, to say the least, not fulfilled." He did play three seasons, rising from fifth string to first, he says.

Dwight D. Eisenhower may be best known for his golf game, but he was a jock. Football was, at least for a time, his favorite sport. He was a running back on offense and a linebacker on defense. In his second year at the U.S. Military Academy he was good enough to be described in The New York Times as "one of the most promising backs in Eastern football."

In that second year he suffered a serious, painful leg injury in a game with Tufts. He was in and out of the dispensary for several weeks, and that was the end of his football career.

Gerald Ford was a true football star and hero. He was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game, and, later, played on a college all-star team against the professional Chicago Bears. He was good enough to be offered contracts with the professional Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.

Relatively few presidents - and other people holding high political office - have football credentials. That is too bad, according to Ford and Eisenhower.

Eisenhower believed it would be good for the nation if more football players played significant roles in national life. He wrote this in his memoir At Ease: "Thirty years after [his West Point injury], I found myself in the midst of war. I had to be on the constant lookout for natural leaders. ... I noted with real satisfaction how well ex-footballers seemed to have leadership qualifications." Then he reeled off a list of such men, including names like Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton, and added that they "among others measured up. I think this was more than coincidence. I believe that football, perhaps more than any other sport, tends to instill in men the feeling that victory comes through hard - almost slavish - work, team play, self-confidence, and an enthusiasm that amounts to dedication."

For Ford, having played football is particularly helpful to public servants in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. He wrote in his memoir, A Time To Heal: "Looking back, I realize I was lucky to have competed in sports. As a football player, you have critics in the stands and critics in the press. Few of them have ever centered a ball, kicked a punt or thrown a touchdown pass with 100,000 people looking on, yet they assume they know all the answers. Their comments helped me to develop a thick hide, and in later years whenever critics assailed me, I just let their jibes roll off my back."

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer.

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