Being Michigan-born, I have long had an affectionate spot for President Gerald R. Ford. The University of Michigan, where Ford played football so successfully in the 30s, is my father's alma mater -- my mother also attended the U of M for a year before transferring to and graduating from Alma College -- and it very likely would have been my own had we not moved to California. I know which team I will be rooting for in the Rose Bowl on January 1.
Gerald Ford's college football success and his decision to turn down professional offers in order to attend Yale Law School (while also serving as an assistant coach to the Yale football team) have been noted in many of the reports and reminiscences surrounding his passing, and it has causes me to mourn those long gone days when university athletics really involved Student Athletes -- meaning players who were students first and athletes second. The collegiate playing fields of the 1930s produced a President (Ford) and a respected Justice of the United States Supreme Court (the University of Colorado's Byron "Whizzer" White). The last college (and pro) football player that I can think of who was taken seriously as even a candidate for the nation's highest offices was Jack Kemp, who spent his college days competing a few miles from where I sit now, at Occidental College. (Are there any more recent examples I am missing, or was Kemp the last of his kind? If we expand our college sporting criteria to include basketball, we can get to Bill Bradley, Princeton '65 -- who earns extra prestige by having gone to a school that had no athletic scholarships -- but that is as recent an example as my admittedly limited knowledge of sporting matters yields.)
Today, of course, at the most prominent Football Schools, student status is strictly secondary to athletic prowess. Those Bright College Days are merely a pit stop on the road to hoped-for NFL riches, and a Super BowlTM ring a more sought after long-term goal than public service in high office. In the contemporary world, it is hard to imagine a serious contender for President coming from college football, or even from the ranks of those who have merely assumed the role of a college football player.
So hail and farewell, Mr. President. The sons and daughters of Michigan are proud of you. And to the Wolverines: get out there next Monday and win one more for Gerry.
[Photo, Gerald Ford on the football field at the University of Michigan, 1933, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.]