President’s Day Football Celebration

 

Football has remained an important touchstone for numerous U.S. presidents over the years.

Whether they played football, served as a football manager or merely understood the role of football in developing the young men who play the sport, numerous U.S. presidents have paid tribute to the gridiron over the years. In honor of the upcoming President’s Day on Monday, Feb. 16, the National Football Foundation (NFF) takes a quick look at the presidential perspective on football’s role in society.

“Football commands a special place in our society,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “It teaches life lessons. It creates opportunities. It brings communities together. It breaks down barriers, and it instills a competitive spirit that extends far beyond the gridiron. All of these attributes are critical to the fabric of our society. As we celebrate President’s Day, it’s important to take stock of the insights of our nation’s greatest leaders, and their perspective on football’s role in strengthening our country.”

Seven U.S. President have claimed the NFF Gold Medal, the organization’s highest honor, and the connections between the White House and the gridiron have a rich history. Below are some of the many links between the gridiron and the White House, including the thoughts and comments from several past presidents.

President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909):

Despite never playing football because of bad vision, Theodore Roosevelt played critical role in the history of the sport. To make the game safer, he held a summit at the White House in 1905 that led to the neutral zone, limits on the number of players on a side, the forward pass and the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which would later become the NCAA. He understood that football had a role in preparing young men for the hardships in life. His football quotes include:

“In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard. Don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”

“Athletic sports are good, especially in their roughest form, because they tend to develop courage. They are good also because they encourage a true democratic spirit.”

“One of the best things about football is that it exemplifies the value of VIM. Of all the legacies left us by the Romans, there is none more important than this little word VIM. Printed in capital letters, it is a handsome word and looks the way it means – earnest, spirited energy. It ought to be carved over the doors of all buildings through which pass athletes, soldiers, sailors and all men who engage in any competition, strife or contest.”

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement and, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921):

An educator and college president before he became U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson was an assistant football coach at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for two seasons while he taught history. His football quotes include:

“I have always thought it was an accepted fact that football was an educational factor …. I have seen that impression made too many times upon players and spectators, by a game won through some trait of character, not to believe firmly that football is educational in its influences.”

“To excel personally and, collectively to win, a player must mobilize into action the following mental acts: judgment, persistency, initiative, aggressiveness, fortitude, courage, chivalry and the will to win.”

“Repeatedly doing so makes these acts traits of his own character. Spectators seeing these traits in action likewise copy them. These are basic traits of character essential to success in any endeavor. Therefore, to my mind, football is pre-eminently an educational factor.”

President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929):

Having never played football, Calvin Coolidge appreciated the traits instilled in the men who served in his administration who had played the game.

“I have had in my Cabinet four great football guards. In fact, wherever I turn in Washington I meet officials who once were famous players. They tell me that this characteristic runs all through public life in the state, county and municipal governments.”

President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933):

The recipient of the 1960 NFF Gold Medal, Herbert Hoover was the manager of football team at Stanford University, and he helped stage the first “Big Game” between Stanford and California in 1892. His quotes include:

“You have already had ample evidence before you of the enormous benefits nationally of football… It does perform a service that reaches into many phases of the life of our nation. And, I know that those reflections are upon the whole country, that is, of sportsmanship as a teacher of morals greater indeed than any other agency except religion. And of course, the sports create in the mind of the young the will to endure and the will to win, and all those are on reflections on the nation as a whole.”

“It has always been a source of great satisfaction and pleasure that I was the financial manager of the Stanford varsity football team in 1894. I was not in football long, but long enough to learn that it is a marvelous game, entertaining, recreative and educational. The qualities in which a player must perfect himself are valuable to him all through life and that is why so many old football men are conspicuous successes in life. They have been trained in the essential grooves.”

“I would like to expand my assertion that football is a great teacher of morals to the extent that it is not limited to the members of the contesting teams, but that it radiates out to huge crowds at the games – those who attend know well the rules of sportsmanship.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961):

The 1958 recipient of the NFF Gold Medal, Dwight D. Eisenhower played halfback and linebacker at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A knee injury ended his career in 1912, but he continued to participate in the sport as a junior varsity coach. He remained a staunch proponent of the game and the virtues it instills in the young men who play it. His quotes include:

“But I noted with real satisfaction how well ex-footballers seemed to have leadership qualifications . . . 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.”

“Morale — the will to win, the fighting heart — are the honored hallmarks of the football coach and player. Likewise, they are characteristic of the enterprising executive, the successful troop leader, the established artist and the dedicated teacher and scientist.”

President John F Kennedy (1961-1963):

The 1961 recipient of the NFF Gold Medal, Kennedy played junior varsity football as a wide receiver at Harvard. He famously said when accepting the NFF Gold Medal, “Politics is an astonishing profession. It has permitted me to go from being an obscure lieutenant, serving under General MacArthur , to Commander-in-Chief in fourteen years, without any technical competence whatsoever. And it’s also enabled me to go from being an obscure member of the junior varsity at Harvard to being an honorary member of the Football Hall of Fame.” His quotes on the importance of football to our country include:

“I think General MacArthur really spoke about football in the classic way, because on so many occasions in war and peace I have seen so many men who participated in this sport, some celebrated and some obscure, who did demonstrate that the seeds had been well sown.”

“This is a great American game. It has given me personally some of the most pleasant moments of my life.”

“I do not suggest that physical development is the central object of life or that we should permit cultural and intellectual values to be diminished. But I do suggest that the physical health and vitality constitute an essential element of a vigorous American community.”

“Politics is like football; if you see daylight, go through the hole… “There are not so many differences between politics and football.”

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969):

Like President Coolidge, Johnson did not play football but appreciated the traits and benefits of the game. In 1966, he was honored with the Tuss McLaughry Award, given by the American Football Coaches Association to a distinguished American for the highest distinction in service to others. Below are quotes from his acceptance speech:

“In the nearly 100 years that Americans have been enjoying this great sport, Presidents and Cabinet officers and Justices and leaders in every walk of life have first learned the lessons of discipline, of dedication, out on the athletic fields of the United States.”

“Football is really and truly an American institution. It embodies our highest ideals of character and courage. So I not only have a very healthy respect for the game and the institution, but I have respect for the men who have developed it and who have built it.”

President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974):

The 1969 NFF Gold Medal recipient Richard Nixon played substitute tackle at Whittier College (Calif.) from 1932-34. His accomplishments on the field were minimal, but the game’s impact on his life was significant. He remained a passionate fan who appreciated the game’s role in instilling the competitive spirt in the young men who played the game. His quotes include:“What does [football] mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back. It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself.”“All of these great factors are essential if a nation is to maintain character and greatness for that nation. So, in the 100th year of football, as we approach the 200th year of the United States, remember that our great assets are not our military strength or our economic wealth, but the character of our young people, and I am glad that America’s young people produce the kind of men that we have in American football today.”“One of the men who influenced me most in my life was my coach, and I think that could be true of many public men. My coach was an American Indian, a truly remarkable man and a great leader. I learned more about life from than I did about football; but a little about football… I learned a lot sitting by the coach on the bench – learned about football and learned about life.”

“I look back on football and have many pleasant memories. I just enjoyed playing it, watching it, reading about it over the years.”
President Gerald Ford (1974-1977):

The 1972 recipient of the NFF Gold Medal, Gerald Ford excelled as a center and linebacker at Michigan, distinguished himself as the best player to ever serve in the White House. His efforts contributed to Michigan claiming the national crown in 1932 and 1933 and the Big Ten Conference titles in 1932 and 1933. After graduating, he played in the 1935 College All-Star Game against the NFL champion Chicago Bears. His quotes include:“Thanks to my football experience, I know the value of team play. It is, I believe, one of the most important lessons to be learned and practiced in our lives.”“But what about winning? How about a good word for the ultimate reason any of us have for going into a competitive sport? As much as I enjoyed the physical and emotional dividends that college athletics brought me, I sincerely doubt if I ever suited up, put on my helmet without the total commitment of going out there to win, not to get exercise, gold, or glory, but simply to win. To me, winning is not a shameful concept. I would like to think that winning is in the great American tradition. Two hundred years ago we fought for our freedom, and we won; and for the next hundred years we challenged a continent, and we won.”“There are plenty of parallels between football and elective politics. You play hard, you play to win, but you don’t last long if you don’t play clean. You have to train and stay in top condition. Fumbles and lucky breaks you take in stride, and you soon learn you can’t win ‘em all. You fight your heart out for 60 minutes – you shake hands – and you get ready for the next game. In both cases you have lots of Monday morning quarterbacks.”

“I think the biggest carryover from the gridiron to government – or any other competitive career – is the concept of teamwork. There never was a football star so brilliant that he could shine alone without 10 other guys whose names are now forgotten. And, if you take a close look at history, this is also true of our greatest political leaders. They have been stellar players, but even more they have been great captains of great teams.”

President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989):

The 1971 recipient of the NFF Gold Medal, Ronald Reagan played guard at Eureka College (Ill.), lettering during three years in the early 1930s. Before entering politics, Reagan’s distinguished acting career included a well know role as Notre Dame’s star halfback George Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne: All-American.”  He also briefly worked as a radio announcer, calling Iowa football games for a local radio station early in his career. His connection to football would endure, and his football related quotes include:“I am indebted to football for so many things. Football provided an education. As a matter of fact it provided my career. In 1932, when you graduated you didn’t start out to have a career. You just hoped that in some way you could find a job, any kind of job. I received $5 and bus fare to broadcast the Iowa-Minnesota game for a local radio station. That turned into a sports announcing career. And even later, in Hollywood, when I found myself bogged down making some pictures… the Gipper won one for me and made possible everything that has happened since.”“There is a mystic something about football… Anyone who has played in more than the one sport – and most athletes do – knows there is something unique, something that captures the spectator and the player-captures him emotionally-about football that he can feel about football more seriously than he can feel about other sports.”“What does it matter if it’s only a game if it has the power to make boys become men capable of self-sacrifice and unselfish, noble deeds.”

“I don’t if we will ever be able to identify and prove what each man learns from football so that we can list it and hang it on a wall like a diploma or like a license for the practice of a profession. I do know that down through the years I’ve somehow placed my faith in men of the sports world and seldom has that faith ever been betrayed.”

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, the National Football Foundation, Inc..
 

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