With the passing of George H. W. Bush last week (and as my degree is in American History), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look back at just how influential sports have been to so many American Presidents.
Maybe it’s the competitive nature or the teamwork and leadership of sports that attracted so many men who occupied the White House, but whatever the reasons, it’s a common bond among uncommon men.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Many people think of Teddy Roosevelt as an avid outdoorsman, hunter, early environmentalist - which is all true. However, what is often forgotten about him was how he fundamentally changed the game of football. Back in 1905, an incredible 25 college football players died as a result of on-field injuries - yes, 25! The game was close to being outlawed by Roosevelt and he demanded the colleges better protect the players. He forced the then powerhouse football schools of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to rewrite the rule book. This meeting was the precursor to creating the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in WWII, Republican U.S. President in the 1950s and an avid golfer. Sounds about right, but there’s so much more when it comes to sports and Eisenhower. While Eisenhower was at West Point, he dabbled in many sports: gymnastics, football, boxing, fencing, and even horse racing. He was once quoted as saying, “One of the greatest disappointments of my life was not making the baseball team, maybe my greatest.” Later in life and throughout his presidency, Eisenhower was your typical golf nut. He had a putting green built on the White House lawn and played nearly 800 rounds while in office.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
When you see photographs or read about the Kennedy’s it seems the entire clan was into sports whether it was football, skiing, golfing, or sailing - and JFK was no exception. When Kennedy enrolled at Harvard in 1936 he tried out for golf, swimming and football. He made the freshman football team but it was in swimming where he was a star. He started on the freshman swimming team and by his sophomore year had moved up to varsity. We all know about his patrol boat being sunk in WWII by a Japanese destroyer and his superb swimming skills allowed him to not only swim to small island but he also saved another badly burned crewman - despite Kennedy hurting his back - by towing him through the water to the island. Another avid golfer, he also followed football closely and continued to pursue sailing.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
During high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford was a star athlete and served as captain of the football team. After enrolling at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, Ford made the Michigan Wolverines football team and became a major contributor playing center, linebacker and long snapper. He helped Michigan to back to back undefeated seasons and national championships in 1932 and 1933. Ford remained a big football fan and especially a fan of University of Michigan athletics in general, to the point of having the school fight song, The Victors, played before state events instead of Hail to the Chief. In addition to maintaining a strong interest in football, Ford played a lot of golf during his presidency and continued to play the sport throughout his life.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan had a close connection to sports his entire life. He played football at Eureka College in Illinois, and he covered the Chicago Cubs when he worked at the WHO radio station in Des Moines. As a movie star, there was one role that cemented his link to sports - the role of George Gipp, a halfback at Notre Dame, in the 1940 film Knute Rockne-All-American. As he lay dying in the movie, he asked teammates to “Win just one for the Gipper,” and this Hollywood line was used as a rallying cry when he ran for president against Jimmy Carter.
George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
After WWII, Bush attended Yale University where he quickly became the star of the school’s baseball team. He was selected as team captain and led the school to the finals of the first two College World Series - unfortunately they lost both times. Bush’s love for baseball would rub off on his children, especially his eldest son George Jr., who became a co-owner of the Texas Rangers before becoming the 43rd U.S. President.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton has been a big sports fan his whole life. As a youngster, he played basketball in his church league and has mentioned on record numerous times that he was the leading scorer on his team. Clinton’s love for basketball has continued during his adult years. He’s also a big football fan. One example of the many times he attended football games was in 2014 when Clinton, along with fellow former president George W. Bush, sat with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and then-Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo watching the NCAA Championship game at the AT&T Center in Arlington, Texas (Jerry owns the stadium.) Aside from basketball and football, Clinton also played a lot of golf over the years and said that the most star stuck he’s ever been was when he played two rounds with the legend himself, Jack Nicklaus.
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Bush started running in 1972 in order to lose weight and as he’s stated many times, he started running to compensate for his lack of exercise, over drinking and smoking. He was quickly hooked. He’s run a marathon in 3hrs, 44mins and while in the White House was consistently running three mile training runs in under 21 minutes. He was so disciplined with his running that he had a treadmill on Air Force One and on longer flights would put in 90 minute runs. Meanwhile, his interest in baseball had him join a group of investors where from 1989 to 1998 he was a minority owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
It’s no secret that Obama is a big basketball fan. In high school at Punahou School in Honolulu, he was part of the basketball team that won the state championship in 1979. When he won the presidency, Obama quickly converted the White House tennis court into a multipurpose basketball and tennis court. He also started the tradition of filling out the ‘Presidential Brackets’ for the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament, something that I remember watching on TV every year.
Donald Trump (2017-Present)
Trump played varsity baseball, football, and soccer in high school at the New York Military Academy. Later, he was the owner of a football team, the New Jersey Generals of the USFL (United States Football League), until the league folded. After that, Trump got involved in promoting several big boxing matches at his hotel, the Trump Plaza, in Atlantic City. Like many presidents, Trump loves his golf, seemingly playing every weekend at his Mar-a-Lago course in West Palm Beach, Florida, one of 17 golf courses that he owns or operates around the world. Lately, he’s been on Twitter, having a running battle with the NFL and some players on kneeling during the American anthem.