Presidents have long ties to gridiron

sports@macon.comNovember 5, 2012 

Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who will face off in Tuesday’s presidential election, played college football.

But we have had five former Commanders in Chief who did, including, surprisingly, the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Carter was a member of the Naval Academy’s Lightweight or Sprint squad. To be eligible to participate on that team, players could weigh no more than 172 pounds. Navy still has a Sprint team today, and it competes in the College Sprint Football League along with Army, Princeton, Penn, Cornell, Mansfield University and Post University.

The 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a starting running back and linebacker in 1912 for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His career was cut short by a knee injury suffered in a 27-6 loss to the Carlisle Indians and their star Jim Thorpe. Eisenhower later became a cheerleader for the Black Knights.

Richard Nixon, the 37th president, played at Whittier College in California. He was a 155-pound reserve end and tackle for the Poets and saw only limited playing time. Nixon said that his college coach at Whittier, Wallace “Chief” Newman, impacted his life more than any other person except his father.

Gerald Ford, the 38th president, is the most decorated of the football playing presidents. He was a standout center at Michigan in the early 1930s, playing on unbeaten and national championship teams in 1932 and 1933. He was the Wolverines’ team captain and team MVP in 1934 when they won just one game. Ford played in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 1, 1935 and then in the second College All-Star game against the Chicago Bears in August of that year. His No. 48 jersey was retired by Michigan, making him just one of five players so honored by the school.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, was a guard for Eureka College in Illinois in the 1930s. Like Eisenhower, he later became a cheerleader for the Red Devils. Reagan starred more on the silver screen in football than he did at Eureka. He played Notre Dame football legend George Gipp in the movie “Knute Rockne All America,” which featured Pat O’Brien in the title role. Reagan’s other involvement in football came as an announcer of Iowa games for which his starting salary was $5 per broadcast.

Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president who is still the youngest ever elected, also never played college football, but without his support the game probably wouldn’t exist today. The public was calling for an end to the game, saying it was too violent after 18 players died playing in 1905. Roosevelt called representatives from Yale, Harvard and Princeton, where the game started and which established the first rules, and got them to change the standards to make the game safer. Among the changes made were the introduction of the forward pass, changing the length of a first down from 5 to 10 yards, and all mass formations and gang tackling were banned. The NCAA, which was formed in 1910, quickly adapted additional measures to help reduce violence on the gridiron, such as requiring pads and helmets.

Roosevelt knew the value of football since 10 members of the “Rough Riders,” the group he served with in the Spanish American War, gave their occupations as football players when they enlisted.

Contact Bobby Pope at

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