Learn fun facts about U.S. Presidents and football in this episode of The Game before the Money Podcast. The podcast comes out weekly.
Did the President Play Football?
In many cases, the answer is yes. In fact several presidents played college football, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. President Ford had an excellent career at Michigan as part of a national champion Wolverines squad. He was even offered two NFL contracts.
Learn many fun facts about American Presidents and football in this episode of The Game before the Money Podcast.
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FOOTBALL HISTORY PODCAST
FOOTBALL HISTORY PODCAST:
Welcome to “The Game before the Money Podcast”, this episode, Presidential Football.
U.S. Presidents and their affiliation with the game.
Jackson Michael, author of football history book The Game before the Money:
Hi, everybody, welcome to “The Game before the Money podcast”, I’m Jackson Michael, author of the book “The Game Before the Money”, published by the University of Nebraska Press that’s available on Amazon.com. You can also double up and get my Houston Oilers documentary. “We were the Oilers, The Luv Ya Blue Era!” On DVD from Amazon.com. You can learn more about those titles and a lot about football history at The Game before the Money .com. The 2020 presidential election is under way. And most of you know by now I love to say football history is American history. So what better time to look at a few US presidents and their association with football.
Football gained popularity throughout the 20th century. It overtook baseball as America’s favorite sport. And so while football is America’s game, our founding fathers didn’t know it at all. They also didn’t know baseball and basketball, for that matter.
First College Football game was played in 1869
The first college football game happened in 1869. That was under the Ulysses S. Grant administration. So even Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a favorite college football team. The NFL didn’t start until 1920, the final year of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Now, most of you have probably heard the story about Teddy Roosevelt and his association with college football and making the game safer. That’s a little bit deeper of a story. And I’d like to do that in a future episode of “The Game before the Money Podcast”.
President Calvin Coolidge and Football
So we’ll press pause on Teddy Roosevelt and we’ll kick things off with a man who is likely the first president to greet the NFL in the White House. That would be Calvin Coolidge. In nineteen twenty five, George Hallis and Red Grange were invited to meet Coolidge in a video posted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Red Grange remembers being introduced to Calvin Coolidge as George Halas and Red Grange of the Chicago Bears. President Coolidge answered by saying, Oh, that’s great. I just love animal acts. Now, remember, in nineteen twenty five, the NFL was five years old, so not really well known at the time.
It was more of a regional league back then when Calvin Coolidge said that he just loved animal acts. He wasn’t kidding around. Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon in the White House.
FDR and Football
Franklin Delano Roosevelt probably knew quite a bit more about football than Calvin Coolidge. He was a second stringer in high school, according to history. Dotcom, Roosevelt liked to use sports analogies sometimes when speaking to the public. A blog post from the FDR Library noted that shortly after President Roosevelt took office, he answered a question about inflation. Using a football analogy, he stated that he was like a quarterback calling the plays and knew the general strategy to attack inflation, but couldn’t really be specific about what future play calls might be. Just like a quarterback engineering a drive on the field. A post card company put out a picture of FDR as a quarterback with a superimposed photo of him in front of the Capitol, dressed in a football uniform wearing the number thirty two as FDR was the nation’s thirty second president,
President Eisenhower and Football
Dwight Eisenhower commanded the U.S. forces in Europe during World War Two. Before that, he played football at West Point and in 1912 he played in a game against Jim Thorpe. Pop Warner was a coach in that game even. Can you guess what position Eisenhower played? He played linebacker and halfback. Now those of you who picked an offensive and defensive position remembering players played both sides of the ball back then you get extra credit for that one.
An interesting note about Dwight Eisenhower was he also played in the Army Navy game, although he never attended the game while president. I’ll cover the history of the Army Navy game more in that future. President Teddy Roosevelt episode I mentioned earlier in the show,
President Kennedy and Football
President Kennedy had numerous associations with football, starting with he played JV football at Harvard in 1962. President Kennedy spoke about college football when he delivered his famous speech encouraging the nation to travel to the moon.
He uttered the famous line, “Why does Rice play Texas?”
And later said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And then just a few weeks after Kennedy spoke those words at Rice University, the two teams played to a 14 14 tie.
The Kennedy family enjoyed football quite a bit. According to the JFK Library, the Kennedys played a lot of touch football games as a family, and the family team’s name was the Kennedy Tigers. The JFK Library website has a photo of a football given to the Kennedy Tigers by the AAFC Baltimore Colts. Upton Bell, who is often on “The Game before the Money Podcast” and worked for the NFL Baltimore Colts in the 1960s, has told me that owner Carrol Rosenbloom and Joe Kennedy, who is President Kennedy’s father, were friends and the family had a good relationship with the team.
The Colts weren’t the only team with which President Kennedy had some association. He was friends with Vince Lombardi. And there’s a great story about that and Kennedy’s role in the nineteen sixty one NFL championship game, the Packers great Boyd Dowler will share in an upcoming episode of “The Game before the Money Podcast”.
And if you’ve read the book, The Game Before The Money, you’ll likely remember George Taliaferro sharing about how the Kennedy administration took steps to integrate the Washington Redskins. The last NFL team to integrate Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, told Washington owner George Preston Marshall that he couldn’t lease out a newly built stadium paid for with public dollars unless he integrated the team. Marshall resisted until President Kennedy backed up Udall on the claim in regards to the stadium that became known as RFK stadium.
U.S. Presidents on the cover of Sports Illustrated
One more note about JFK’s relationship with sports in general was that he even made the cover of Sports Illustrated as president elect. The magazine published an article of his that called for an increase in youth physical fitness.
Now, he was the first US president to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Several others have made the cover. Gerald Ford made the cover shortly before he became president in 1970. For President Ronald Reagan holds the distinction of making the cover twice. And President George Bush senior’s photo was used as an inset on a cover that depicted golfer John Daly. Unfortunately, no president has made the cover solely in relationship to football.
President Nixon and Football
Now, President Kennedy had a lot of associations with the gridiron. So did President Nixon. Kennedy’s political rival in the 1960 election is possibly the best known for his affinity for the game. Nixon played football at Whittier College, mostly as a practice player. He later became friends with George Allen. When Allen coached at Whittier College, Nixon attended several historic football games from the first game ever at Lambeau Field to the famous Texas Arkansas game in 1969. Turns out the future President George Bush senior was also at Razorback Stadium in Arkansas that day. Nixon congratulated the University of Texas team in the locker room. After the game, there’s a photo of him holding a plaque, handing it to Texas coach Darrell Royal. And the plaque stated that Texas was the best football team in the country. Nixon was a huge fan of both college and pro football. And you can hear President Nixon talk football with George Allen after a game against the Dallas Cowboys on an earlier episode of the game before the Money podcast called Richard Nixon Talks Football with George Allen. I released that episode in August of Twenty Twenty. So if you haven’t listened to it, you can go back and hear President Nixon on the phone with George Allen going over a regular season NFL game. George Allen wasn’t the only coach that President Nixon called. After a game, Nixon started the tradition of telephoning the winning locker room after the Super Bowl.
Nixon dialed up Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram in the locker room after Kansas City won Super Bowl four. That’s not President Nixon’s only ties with the American Football League. He’s actually the only president to have attended an AFL game. He went to a Dolphins Raiders game. Nixon was such a huge fan of the game that he briefly considered Vince Lombardi as his vice presidential running mate. Although Nixon didn’t choose Lombardi as a running mate, he did hire legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson on his staff as a special consultant to the president. And Wilkinson was given the assignment to review over a thousand government agencies and take notes on how to improve their effectiveness.
President Ford and Football
Although President Nixon is often associated with football, President Gerald Ford might quietly assert himself as the most associated with football. Ford had a pretty solid college football career at Michigan. Ford played center and linebacker at Michigan. In nineteen thirty two, the Wolverines went undefeated. Ford won them Meyer Morton Award, which Michigan gives out to recognize a player who shows the greatest development and most promise during spring practice. One thing about the nineteen thirty two team is they only gave up a total of thirteen points in eight games. That team posted six shutouts. Ford also played on the nineteen thirty three Michigan Wolverines team that also went undefeated and won the national championship.
So pretty safe to say that Ford is the only president to play on a national championship college football team. Nineteen thirty four Michigan football dropped considerably. They finished one in seven. But that wasn’t at the fault of Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford got this was named most valuable player of the Michigan football team in nineteen thirty four. And then he went on to play in the college all star game and played against the Chicago Bears, who still had Bronko Nagurski on their team. So he had Eisenhower playing against Jim Thorpe. You had Ford playing against Nagurski. That’s a formidable competition there for the two future presidents.
And the Gerald Ford Library points out that although he did not receive all American honors, President Ford received two contract offers from NFL teams, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. 40 instead went to law school at Yale and was hired by Yale football coach Ducky Pond to be in an Assistant coach and during Ford’s time there to Yale, players won the Heisman Trophy, Larry Kelley won the award in nineteen thirty six. Clint Frank won the award in nineteen thirty seven. So Gerald Ford had a deep connection to college football. President Ford also had a connection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He attended the 1963 enshrinement ceremony. That was the inaugural ceremony of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also spoke at the nineteen sixty seven and nineteen seventy four induction ceremonies.
Here’s something really interesting about Ford speaking at that 1974 Hall of Fame induction. He was vice president on that Saturday, July twenty seventh, 1974. Two weeks later, on Saturday, August 10th, 1974, Gerald Ford was President of the United States just a couple of weeks after he spoke at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
President Carter and Football
And although President Ford had a tremendous connection with football, his successor, President Carter, started the tradition of inviting Super Bowl champions to the White House. President Carter invited the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers to the White House after their victory in Super Bowl 14 over the Rams. The World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates also joined in the celebration. There’s a photo online of Jimmy Carter holding a Pittsburgh Pirates cap while someone else waves a terrible towel right next to him. So that’s a fun photo that you can find online.
President Reagan and Football
I mentioned earlier the President Nixon was the first president to call the winning locker room after the Super Bowl and that President Carter first invited the winning team to the White House. President Ronald Reagan also got into the Super Bowl action. Reagan performed the coin toss live from the White House before Super Bowl nineteen. Between the Forty Niners and Dolphins, Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny told the president that Dolphins Captain Dwight Stephenson called heads. President Reagan flipped the coin at the White House live via satellite.
The result was tails. San Francisco won the coin toss and ultimately won the game. I will embed a video of that on The Game before the Money .com. In the stories of the game category.
Ronald Reagan apparently love sports, although he’s likely more commonly associated with baseball. His football roots also run deep. He played college football at a small college called Eureka College in Illinois. He was a lineman on that team. More famously, he played George Gip in the movie Newt Rockne All American and uttered the famous line “Win one for the Gipper”. President Reagan also worked as a radio announcer. Many of you might remember that he announced Chicago Cubs games, but he also did some Big Ten football. Reagan announced a few Iowa Hawkeye games in the nineteen thirties before he started his Hollywood career.
President Obama and Football
President Barack Obama and President Reagan actually own a connection with each other in regards to the Super Bowl. President Reagan invited the nineteen eighty five Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears to the White House. That visit, however, was postponed because of the space shuttle Challenger exploding. The Visit with President Reagan was never rescheduled. And when President Obama recognized that as a huge fan of the Chicago Bears, he invited the eighty five Bears to the White House. Mike Ditka presented Obama with a Bears jersey featuring the number eighty five and Obama’s name on the back. Now, Bears fans out there might remember that eighty five was Dennis McKinnon’s number in nineteen eighty five.
McKinnon had a pretty good year that year too. He scored seven touchdowns. The eighty five bears weren’t the only legendary team that Obama invited to the White House, he also hosted the 1972 Miami Dolphins as well. They presented him with a Dolphins jersey with the number seventy two and the word undefeated on the back. A fun moment from the Dolphins visit came when Obama noted that he had previously called the eighty five bears the greatest team ever and then noted that the Bears lost one game in nineteen eighty five, which prompted Don Shula to shout out who made them. And that created a lot of laughter because, of course, it was a Don Shula coached Miami Dolphins team that gave that eighty five Bears team their only loss of the season. President Obama also invited current Super Bowl champions to the White House during his presidency and continued being an ardent supporter of the Chicago Bears. In fact, he said he planned to become the first sitting president to go to the Super Bowl if the Bears defeated the Packers in the 2010 NFC championship game. He was quoted as saying, if the Bears are going, we’re going. That prompted Packers defensive back Charles Woodson to have some fun. He sent Obama an autographed Packers jersey and a note that said, We’ll see you at the White House, Mr. President. Predicting not only a Packers NFC championship win, but a Super Bowl win as well.
That prediction came true and the Packers won the Super Bowl. And per usual, Obama invited the Super Bowl champions to the White House. Good natured fun. Also in that visit, President Obama noted that it hurt a little bit, hosting the Bears legendary rivals. The Packers in turn handed Obama a legitimate stock certificate for part ownership in the publicly owned franchise with an estimated one hundred thousand co-owners. Obama responded to that by playfully suggesting that the Packers trade Aaron Rodgers to the Chicago Bears. So you had the commander in chief as a part owner in an NFL franchise.
President Trump and Football
But President Obama isn’t the only president who owned a stake in a pro football team. President Donald Trump was the outright owner of the New Jersey General’s franchise of the USFL during the nineteen eighty four and nineteen eighty five seasons. The Generals roster included Herschel Walker. When Trump gained ownership of the team, Trump added quarterback Brian Sipe to the roster. There are some trivia for you — and the nineteen eighty four New Jersey Generals finished fourteen and four before a loss in the first round of the USFL playoffs. In nineteen eighty five, future President Trump signed Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie to a seven million dollar contract, making Flutie the highest paid player in pro football, including the NFL. The signing marked the third straight season at the Heisman Trophy winner signed with a USFL team.
And here’s an interesting footnote to this whole story. The Buffalo Bills owned the top pick in the NFL draft that year. And The Los Angeles Times reported the Bills owner Ralph Wilson would match Flutie’s contract with New Jersey if they decided to draft him. Buffalo, however, ultimately decided to draft another player with the top pick in the draft. They drafted some kid out of Virginia Tech named Bruce Smith. Yes, all time sack leader Bruce Smith.
President Trump’s Generals, when 11 and seven in nineteen eighty five and the USFL folded before the 1986 season, a season in which Jim Kelly was slated to be the General’s quarterback, he instead went to the Buffalo Bills. Ironically, Doug Flutie also wound up on the Bills in the late 90s and in 2014 future President Trump was one of the last three investors in the running to purchase — Yes, the Buffalo Bills.
Lyndon Johnson and Joe Washington
We can go on all day about presidents and football. In fact, we could go a long time about the presidents we’ve already covered. There’s also a great story about Lyndon Johnson attempting to recruit running back Joe Washington for the University of Texas. And I can hear all of you Oklahoma sooner fans out there reminding us that Washington chose Oklahoma over Texas, although things worked out OK for the Longhorns, who won the services of Earl Campbell shortly thereafter. But that’s another story for another day.
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NOTE: Photos below show President Eisenhower playing football at Army, President Ford playing football at Michigan, President Kennedy with 1960 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino, President Reagan playing “quarterback”, and President Obama with the 1985 Bears.Embed from Getty Images
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PHOTO BELOW: President Nixon with Johnny UnitasEmbed from Getty Images