Which president was the best football player?

Five modern US chief executives played football in college. Which president ranks as the greatest football player?

Gerald R. Ford Library/AP/File
Gerald Ford as a football player at the University of Michigan, shown in this file photo.

Here’s a trivia question that’s sure to enliven your NFL playoff-watching party: Which US president was best at football?

OK, OK, maybe in most of the country this will elicit dead silence, followed by a discussion about how to keep guacamole from turning brown.

But in the Washington area, it’s sure to produce lively debate. Remember, football is the American sport most like politics, metaphorically speaking. Both are incremental, linear, and focused on process.

So the scoreboard breaks down like this: Five modern US chief executives played football at the college level. Of these, three can be quickly dismissed.

John Kennedy went out for the freshman team at Harvard, but at about 140 pounds he was too light to play much. One teammate remarked that JFK was so thin you could count his ribs.

Richard Nixon was a reserve tackle for Whittier College in California, though he wasn’t much heavier than JFK. Should we be surprised that he developed a reputation for being so eager on plays that he often jumped offside?

Ronald Reagan portrayed football great Knute Rockne in the movies. Before that, at Eureka College in Illinois, he was a decent lineman – but somewhat slow and far from great.

Many in D.C., off the top of their heads, might pick Gerald Ford as the winner in this little contest. After all, he was a natural athlete – not a klutz, as “Saturday Night Live” depicted him.

Ford was all-state at South High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. In 1934, he was the University of Michigan’s Most Valuable Player as a linebacker. He turned down pro offers to take a coaching job at Yale.

Close, we say – but only that. Yes, Ford was MVP at a Big Ten football power. But the year he won that award, Michigan won only one game.

No, there’s another president who starred on a team that was a force in the sport. As a sophomore, he was named one of the best backs in the East by The New York Times.

Here’s a hint: He played against the famous Jim Thorpe when Thorpe was in his prime.

The winner? Dwight Eisenhower, who was brilliant in Army’s backfield in 1912. If his career hadn’t been ended by injury, he might today be remembered as one of the greats of the game.

As well as for winning World War II.


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