From The Gridiron To The White House
Gerald Ford, the only unelected President in American history, spent more time working the gridiron in college than managing the country in the White House. The 38th commander in chief played 4 seasons with the Michigan Wolverines but served less than 3 years at the nation’s highest office.
Ford wasn’t the only U.S. President to embrace the ruffian sport. It was Teddy Roosevelt in the early part of the 20th century who intervened for safer rules in the game and helped create what would become the NCAA.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first football player to reach the White House, running the gauntlet at his West Point alma mater. John Kennedy played briefly at Harvard but didn’t get past JV due to ailments.
Richard Nixon joined his college squad but showed more enthusiasm on the bench than on the field. Former actor Ronald Reagan carried the football to the big screen in his 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All American”.
Even Donald Trump had a stint with the sport, but as a suited businessman instead of a uniformed player. The New York real estate investor ventured into the USFL in 1984 by buying the New Jersey Generals. The league lasted only three years and folded in 1986.
But Gerald Ford outshined them all as the only gifted footballer to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The athlete scholar graduated in the top 5% of his high school class in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was considered one of the best centers in the state.
He joined the University of Michigan Wolverines and was a member of their national championship teams during his sophomore (1932) and junior years (1933); in his senior year, he was voted MVP.
Under the guidance of coach Harry Kipke, Michigan posted an 8-1-1 record during Ford’s freshman year. The following season, the Wolverines lost two of their All-American stars to graduation and the press predicted doom for Kipke and his squad.
However, their performance was nothing short of a stupendous achievement. Michigan claimed a perfect 8-0 season, winning both the Big 10 Conference and the national championships.
Ford was the back-up center on the team and though he didn’t start in any of the games, he earned the Mayer Morton Award as the most improved player in spring practice.
Michigan’s current head coach, Jim Harbaugh, took home the same accolade in 1984 when he quarterbacked for the Wolverines.
Ford’s junior year saw the future President enter his first game as a substitute in Week 2 against Cornell, one of Michigan’s oldest rivals. In front of a home crowd of 45,000 fans, the Wolves took down the Big Red in a 40-0 wipeout.
By the time he graduated, Ford started in all 8 games of his final year at Michigan, though the team sunk to the bottom of the charts after turning in a wretched 1-7 season.
The Wolverines’ only win was a 9-2 outcome over Georgia Tech, a match played on October 20, 1934 and notoriously remembered for its racial controversy.
Scheduled to face off against their northern opponents at their home turf in Ann Arbor, the Yellow Jackets refused to play as long as Michigan fielded Willis Ward, their only black player. Ford was prepared to quit when it was announced that Ward would be benched, but Ward talked him out of it.
The two were best buddies on the squad, rooming together when the team was on the road. They remained life-long friends and when Ward ran for Congress in 1954, Congressman Gerald Ford came to Detroit to campaign.
Despite the miserable results Michigan football put out in 1934, Ford’s athletic talents did not go unnoticed by the pros. Both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers came calling with a contract, but the politician-to-be had other plans.
He ended up taking a job as the boxing coach and assistant varsity football coach at Yale, eventually earning a law degree from the Ivy League university.
Lawyer, Congressman and then Vice-President, the former college snapper found himself thrust into the White House following the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Serving only 895 days in office, the circumstantial President failed to secure an election when his term was done. But looking back, he always had football.
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