Which 5 U.S. Presidents played football in college?
Five college football players went to become President of the United States in their political careers: Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. Eisenhower was a two-way athlete, excelling in baseball as well as football. In fact, he illegally played pro baseball as a youth and squelched reports of his minor-league days because earning money as an athlete would have been grounds for expulsion from West Point. Reagan’s best football days were as an actor, not player, and it was his baseball career that really jumpstarted his public life.
Listed below are the five football-playing Presidents, ranked in order of their athletic prowess:
1. Pres. Gerald Ford (University of Michigan)
The best athlete to ever sit in the Oval Office was also the only U.S. President never elected to the office. A three-year letterman at the University of Michigan, Gerald Ford played on the 1932 and 1933 National Championship teams and was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player for the 1934 season.
A two-way player for the Wolverines at center and linebacker, Ford played against the Chicago Bears in 1935 as a member of the college team that lost the annual All-Star Football Game that pitted pros versus college All-Stars. During the 1934 season, Ford also set a first in political-athletic history when he became the only President of the United States to tackle a Heisman Trophy winner when he tackled Chicago’s Jay Berwanger, who the Heisman the following year.
Football continued to be a vital part of Ford’s life at Yale where he worked as assistant varsity football coach to help pay his tuition. He was also a boxing coach at Yale.
The University of Michigan retired No. 48 in Ford’s honor.
2. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower aka “Kansas Cyclone” (Army)
A 1915 graduate of U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a promising halfback cadet for Army before becoming a five-star general and the 34th President of the United States.
Though his first choice was to enroll at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Eisenhower became a standout football player at West Point for two seasons until one of the best football players in history broke his leg. (Though he passed the exams for the Naval Academy, Eisenhower was beyond the 20-year age limit for admittance.)
On November 9, 1912, Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indians played Eisenhower’s Cadets at West Point. The outcome was the worst it could be for the future president. Not only did the Indians steamroll Army 27-6, but Eisenhower broke his leg trying to tackle Thorpe. Adding insult to injury, Eisenhower was nearly expelled for medical reasons due to his fractured leg after he broke it a second time horseback riding.
Known as the “Kansas Cyclone” for his speed, Eisenhower played both ways in football at running back and linebacker. The President also played baseball at West Point.
3. Ronald Reagan (Eureka College)
The 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, played right guard on the Eureka College football before graduating in 1932.
Reagan’s presence is everywhere at the tiny school located in Eureka, Illinois. Part of the tradition for home football games at McKenzie Field is that the Red Devils football team carries an ax to the sideline to pay homage to Reagan.
Reagan’s greatest sports achievements happened after college. Before he became president, Reagan was a sports radio broadcaster covering Chicago Cubs games. In fact, if it had not been for his spring training coverage of the Cubs, his entire acting career – and ensuing political path – would never have happened.
Prior to becoming a famous politician, Reagan was a popular actor who portrayed MLB pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in his life story. However, Reagan’s most famous film was “Knute Rockne: All American” where he played Notre Dame football icon George Gipp, nicknamed the Gipper. In the 1940 film, Reagan as Gipp urges his teammates to play without him while he is hospitalized saying, “just win one for the Gipper.”
4. Pres. Richard Nixon (Whittier College)
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, played football at Whittier College before he graduated in 1934.
The offensive guard wasn’t very good at the sport and never advanced beyond the third team.
“He wasn’t cut out to play the sport,” one teammate said years later. “[He was] cannon fodder.”
Though he wasn’t very good at playing sports, Nixon used sports more than other U.S. president as a way to cross chasms that were previously thought impossible. Nixon used ping pong to engage China and often discussed baseball, football, and other sports with reporters as a way to show his “common man” side. An avid bowler, Nixon even had a bowling alley installed in the White House to help him work out frustrations with a few games.
5. Pres. John F. Kenedy (Harvard University)
Unlike his brother Robert and Edward, John F. Kennedy didn’t play football very well for Harvard. Both Robert and Edward lettered in football at Harvard, but John Kennedy was underwhelming.
“The most adept pass catcher was John Kennedy, but his lack of weight was a drawback,” Kennedy’s freshman coach assessed after the lone season that the future president played junior varsity football at Harvard.
Though listed as 6-foot-1 and 163 pounds, Kennedy never played beyond his freshman year because of a back injury and illnesses. He joined the swim team for two years, but his frail health limited him in that sport as well.
The 35th President of the United States, Kennedy used sports footage of himself sailing and playing football on the lawn at his family’s house to portray himself as healthy and physically fit. However, the truth was that his physical activity was limited to playing family games of football at the home, not competitive ones in public.
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