by Scott Farris
Ever since Teddy Roosevelt demanded that colleges change the rules to protect players’ lives and health, American presidents have often had an intimate relationship with football, but none were more profoundly shaped by their experiences in football than were John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
But it was not success in football that changed their lives, but their failure in the sport that pushed these hyper-competitive men to direct their combative energies elsewhere, most especially politics.
Success in football, Reagan remembered, was “a matter of life and death.” Baseball may have been the national pastime, but when Kennedy and Reagan were schoolboys in the 1920s and 1930s heroes such as Red Grange and Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” had made football the premier interscholastic sport.
Success in football had special appeal to two scrawny, bookish, and often lonely boys anxious to demonstrate their manhood and gain the admiration of their peers. Being a flop in football was particularly galling to both men because each had an older brother who excelled at the sport.
Coaches acknowledged that Kennedy was a scrapper who fought hard on every play. But at nearly fifteen, despite having entered a bodybuilding class, Kennedy, who battled a myriad of health problems his entire life, weighed only 117 pounds and was so skinny he earned the unfortunate nickname “Rat Face.”
Reagan was nearly as puny; at 125 pounds, he failed to make even the junior varsity team as a freshman in high school. Summer work as a lifeguard helped Reagan fill out, but he was still undersized for a lineman and slow and therefore saw limited playing time.
Reagan decided to enroll in Eureka College in large part not to get a college education, but to have one last chance to achieve gridiron glory. It was as elusive at Eureka as it had been at Dixon High.
The importance Reagan attached to football can be measured by his reaction to losing the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford; he said the only disappointment he could compare it with was his failure to earn a letter, or even play a down, as a freshman at Eureka.
After that humiliation, Reagan nearly dropped out of school, but was persuaded to come back and eventually earned a varsity letter. More importantly, Reagan seemed to remember virtually every play of every game in which he participated, a feat that proved crucial when he had to broadcast a mock game, using only his imagination, when he later auditioned for and won a coveted job as a sportscaster.
Reagan became one of the most popular sports announcers in the Midwest, which led to a movie career that in turn led to his entry into politics.
Like Reagan, Kennedy hoped for another chance in college and he played on both the freshman team and the junior varsity his sophomore year at Harvard. But he still weighed less than 150 pounds and also having a bad back, he finally dropped the sport, but the dream stuck.
For most of his adult life, Kennedy still admired athletes more than intellectuals. His congressional aide, Billy Sutton, said that if you could figure out Kennedy’s fascination with football, “you’d have the real key to his character.”
Limited to still often-bloody games of touch football with his large family and many friends, Kennedy slowly warmed to the intellectual life, gaining fame in his early twenties by writing the best-selling book, Why England Slept.
But he never forgot his dream and spent many hours fantasizing about being the next Otto Graham or some other football star., “I honestly think he’d rather have been a pro football quarterback than president,” Sutton said.
While suffering from Alzheimer’s in the final years of his life, family members said Reagan would not reminisce about his time as president or even his life as a movie star. Rather, he would imagine he was back in school and was being called off the bench to enter a football game and have the opportunity to win schoolboy glory once more.
Scott Farris is the author of Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure and Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, both published by Lyons Press. Visit him at scottfarrisbooks.com.