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Football: A game for presidents, Americans

By Steve Alic Sun, 01/27/2013 - 6:41pm


Football is blue-collar America. It’s working class, working together.

In this game – America’s favorite sport – there is no “isolation play” that casts a team aside nor are there intentional walks to avoid an obstacle. In life, like football, the easy route is rarely an option.

Reflecting early America, football’s fields are wide and open, but smart defenders – like challenging terrain – can hinder the most determined advancement attempt.

And great football teams are united, like the states we call home.

Five modern U.S. presidents played college football: Dwight Eisenhower (Army), Gerald Ford (Michigan), John Kennedy (Harvard), Richard Nixon (Whittier) and Ronald Reagan (Eureka).

Presidential passions for football continue to the present day. According to the Washington Post in 2009, President Barack Obama openly rooted for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII and spent most of the night keenly following the game. When Steelers linebacker James Harrison lumbered for a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime, the president leaped from his chair and said to Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania): “What do you think of that?”

President Theodore Roosevelt was captivated by the game and arguably was one of its greatest contributors. Nearsightedness kept him from playing for Harvard, but he had a deep appreciation for what football instilled in its athletes. In 1905, he brought the coaches and representatives of premier collegiate powers – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – to the White House to make the game safer. Two of that meeting’s key results were the creation of the organization that became the NCAA and the innovation of the forward pass, which evolved the sport from its rugby-like roots.

The passion evoked by football, which accounts for the 10 most-watched programs in American television history, is found in the eyes and hearts of young people who love to play the sport in thousands of youth leagues. More than 650 U.S. high schools have girls-specific tackle or flag football programs, and more than 1.12 million high school boys play the sport, nearly doubling the next-most-popular sport among that group. 

“If you take a look at the work world today, no matter what profession, they’re either looking for a person who is dedicated, hard-working, loyal and who is willing to make sacrifices for the company,” said former DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School head coach Bill McGregor. “They’re also looking for someone who exhibits good character, leadership and class. I think they are all the intangibles that a young person can get from playing football.”

Perhaps former Yale Sports Information Director Charles Loftus said it best in 1951: “A football player is a wonderful creature – you can criticize him, but you can’t discourage him; you can defeat his team, but you can’t make him quit.

“You can get him out of a game, but you can’t get him out of football. … He may not be an All-American, but he is an example of the American way. He is judged not for his race, nor for his religion, nor his social standing, or not for his finances but by the democratic yardstick of how well he blocks, tackles and sacrifices individual glory for the overall success of his teams.”

Photo courtesy the John F. Kennedy library and museum: John F. Kennedy (age 9) played football at Dexter Academy in 1926 prior to attending Harvard University, where he also lettered in the sport.