One lesson to be learned in reaching an age where you are both a viable politician and a washed-up lineman is that past glories are not negotiable in the open market. When you stop winning they not only start booing, they start forgetting.
I used to think of myself as a pretty dashing figure on the ski slopes of the East and in northern Michigan, and could at least count on outstripping my children on the various runs we tried. Nowadays, when the family gets together at Vail for our annual Christmas ski reunion, my sons and my daughter go zooming by, usually with just the encouragement to make me boil. Such as: "Hurry up, Dad." They see themselves getting faster and faster as I get slower and slower. They forget all the times I picked them out of the snowbank.
When I was House Minority Leader and a regular adversary of Lyndon Johnson's, he once said—with minimum affection—"There's nothing wrong with Jerry Ford except that he played football too long without his helmet." Lyndon got a lot of mileage out of that quote, and I used it myself one year when I addressed the Gridiron Club in Washington. I said he was wrong, that I always wore my helmet on any gridiron, and I picked up my old leather bonnet and put it on, right on top of my white tie and tails. It had been a while, though. I had a hard time getting it down over my ears. Of course, heads do have a tendency to swell here in Washington.
My playing days at Michigan are now a standard introduction in magazine stories such as this, usually accompanied by a picture (page 19) of a rugged-looking hairy young man (me) hunched over a ball in the center's position, and the notation that Ford was "the most valuable player on a losing Michigan team." I always feel damned with faint praise when I read that. I'd much rather have been the "least valuable player on a winning Michigan team," the kind we had my sophomore and junior years when we were undefeated and won national championships.
July 7, 1974
Those were what sportswriters up on their clichés would call my "halcyon days." Certainly they offer brighter memories than my efforts to stay competitive—and fit—since. Today I am a habitual exerciser—a 15-minute swim twice a day in the backyard pool, slower-and-slower skiing near our place in Vail, and an occasional round of golf with fellow hackers around Washington.
The reason I make reference to those winning seasons at Michigan is that we have been asked to swallow a lot of home-cooked psychology in recent years that winning isn't all that important anymore, whether on the athletic field or in any other field, national and international. I don't buy that for a minute. It is not enough to just compete. Winning is very important. Maybe more important than ever.
Don't misunderstand. I am not low-rating the value of informal participation. Competing is always preferable to not competing, whether you win or not, and one reason is as good as another for getting involved. Swimming laps, for example, is preferable to doubling your waistline. As a young man I took up skiing in order to get to know a certain young lady better. She happened to be a devotee, and I an eager beginner. I lost the girl but I learned to ski. The subject used to be a sensitive one with my wife, who came along afterward, but I have reminded her that that was instructive athletics, not competitive athletics. The important thing was I learned to ski.
If you don't win elections you don't play, so the importance of winning is more drastic in that field. In athletics and in most other worthwhile pursuits first place is the manifestation of the desire to excel, and how else can you achieve anything? I certainly do not feel we achieved very much as a Michigan football team in 1934. And I can assure you we had more fun on those championship teams in 1932-33.
Broadly speaking, outside of a national character and an educated society, there are few things more important to a country's growth and well-being than competitive athletics. If it is a cliché to say athletics build character as well as muscle, then I subscribe to the cliché. It has been said, too, that we are losing our competitive spirit in this country, the thing that made us great, the guts of the free-enterprise system. I don't agree with that; the competitive urge is deep-rooted in the American character. I do wonder sometimes if we are adjusting to the times, or if we have been spoiled by them.
For one, do we realize how important it is to compete successfully with other nations? Not just the Russians, but many nations that are growing and challenging. Being a leader, the U.S. has an obligation to set high standards. I don't know of a better advertisement for a nation's good health than a healthy athletic representation. Athletics happens to be an extraordinarily swift avenue of communication. The broader the achievement the greater the impact. There is much to be said for Ping-Pong diplomacy.
With communications what they are, a sports triumph can be as uplifting to a nation's spirit as, well, a battlefield victory. And surely no one will argue that it is not more healthful. The Africans were terrific in the last two Olympics, and their stars have become national heroes. These countries were tasting the first fruits of international achievement, and their pride was justified. In a wink of the eye they caught us in some areas, passed us in others.
When I was in China a few years ago I was astounded by the number of basketball courts. They were everywhere—in school yards, outside factories and farms. Boys and girls were playing basketball at age three and four, with miniature balls and undersized baskets. The sizes and heights were graded to coincide with the age group, something we might consider here, even up to the professional level. The agricultural and factory communes were alive with competition, in conjunction with their mandatory calisthenics.
In 1972, when I received the college Football Hall of Fame award at the Waldorf in New York, I remarked on this new Chinese passion for the old American game, and I said that one day soon we would have to cope with a seven-foot Chinese Wilt Chamberlain. Sure enough, last year the Chinese had a touring team that featured some real giants, and they did all right. In five years they will be competitive. Of course, the Chinese do things we would never find acceptable in a free society. Completely regimented, state-supported, state-manipulated athletic programs are not for us. It is a matter of style as well as philosophy. But if we want to remain competitive, and I think we do, we owe it to ourselves to reassess our priorities, to broaden our base of achievement so that we again present our best in the world's arenas. From a purely political viewpoint, I don't know of anything more beneficial in diplomacy and prestige. I don't think we really want to be booed or forgotten.
For that reason I am in favor of doing all we can, as quickly as we can, to resolve the jurisdictional differences which hurt our Olympic effort, which hinder at the grass-roots level the development of athletes. It is a disgrace in this country for anyone not to realize his or her potential in any sport. The petty conflict between the NCAA and the AAU is, as Mike Harrigan of the President's Council on Physical Fitness outlined recently, just the most visible symptom of an overall organizational problem.
I leave the details to Congressman Bob Mathias, the former decathlon champion, and those more acquainted with the specific difficulties, but certain things proposed in the recent flurry of congressional activity have my support. No one will deny that the United States Olympic Committee, a federally chartered organization and therefore a legitimate area of federal concern, needs to be restructured. The Administration has under advisement a plan—Mr. Harrigan's—to accomplish this with minimal federal involvement and control, and therefore at minimal cost to the taxpayer. This would include the creation of a President's Commission on Olympic Sports, composed of prominent interested Americans who are not partisan to either of the conflicting organizations. Two members of the Senate and two of the House would serve on the commission and it would have a fixed life of 15 months—eight to examine the USOC and report, and seven to make proposals and iron out the problems in time for the 1976 Olympics, and beyond.
The Amateur Athletic Act of 1974, sponsored by Senator Jim Pearson, is anathema to most governing athletic bodies because it implies too much federal control, including the formation of a permanent sanctioning federal amateur sports body. Congressman Mathias' amendment to the federal Olympic charter would remove some of the onus by providing that the American Arbitration Association act as a binding arbiter in settling disputes. But regardless of how it is achieved, something should be achieved—and soon—to improve the systems for developing our athletes.
Even if there were no other nations to impress, even if there were no international events to prepare for, the value of competitive athletics in this country would still be boundless. Consider what an athletic field does for a depressed neighborhood, or a successful sports program for a college—the spirit it breeds on campus and the moneys it generates to provide a broader intramural base. The whole school benefits. I don't know anything that gave a greater boost to Michigan than our football teams in 1932 and 1933 (but not necessarily 1934).
A winning pro football team like the Dolphins can galvanize an entire metropolitan area. Washington rallied around the Redskins. I found myself identifying with their success. George Allen's principles are consistent with mine (his dedication to hard work, his personal habits), and the Redskins were extraordinarily unified. The man holding an end-zone season ticket—or, if he is like me, the three-game-a-Sunday armchair quarterback watching at home while trying to get some work done (at about 50% capacity)—not only identifies, he feels a part of the effort.
I am beginning to wonder, however, if that vital relationship might not have taken a turn for the worse in recent months. Or been given a shove in the wrong direction. I refer to what seems to be a growing appetite—an apparently insatiable one—for money in sports, a preoccupation with "how much" instead of "how good," with cost instead of value. If I read my sports pages correctly, and I read them every day, the age of benevolent ownership is over. The emerging super figures of the '70s are the dollar-oriented athlete and the profit-oriented owner, usually in conflict. Neither side trusts the other. And neither is particularly attractive. The sports news is glutted with salary disputes and threats of strike, of demands and contractual harangues, of players jumping from one league to another, or owners threatening to pull their franchises out of this or that city unless demands are met or profits improve.
I have mixed emotions about much of this. On the one hand I would not deny an athlete his opportunity for maximum compensation. A professional athletic career is short-lived at best, and in the free enterprise system a man should be able to realize his worth. By the same token, management can handle just so much. Professional sport has a history of failing ownerships, of bankrupt franchises. The balance is often delicate and Congress has, in the past, been very sympathetic with its anti-trust legislation.
I take neither side. But I do pose a few questions on-behalf of the man in the middle: the fan. I'm one myself, and what scares me is that the fan may ultimately be abused, if he has not been already. The money has to come from somewhere. Traditionally, the somewhere is the fan's pocket-book—and in the electronic age in which we live, the advertiser's. At what point will the fan become disillusioned? When he comes to the conclusion that the team he is supporting has no reciprocal interest in his affection, I think there will be a withdrawal of support. It might not come today, or this season, but it will surely come.
It will be interesting to see how the fans react to the players who are now jumping to the new World Football League. It will be interesting to see how the Miami fans react this season to Csonka, Kiick and Warfield, who are committed to the Memphis franchise in 1975. I personally wish them well, because they are fine athletes who are fun to watch. From the rival Redskins' point of view, goodby will no doubt be good riddance.
I wonder, too, what the preoccupation with money is doing to the athletes themselves. When a pitcher throws a no-hitter and is quoted that from the fifth inning on he was thinking about the bonus he would get, how does this affect the young athlete reading the story? When a college basketball senior drafted by the NBA in the first round talks about being worth "at least three million," what clicks in the mind of the freshman on that team?
There must be some serious clicking going on because I am told that the colleges are experiencing the worst run of recruiting violations since World War II. Whether or not the super-paid athlete begets the super-paid-under-the-table athlete I would not venture to say, but I was shocked when I heard that. I was under the impression the colleges were in a saner period, were better controlled, with safeguards at both conference and national levels.
When honesty and integrity suffer nationally, they no doubt suffer in athletics. And vice versa. It would be difficult to measure what effect scandalous behavior in sport has on the nation as a whole, but I do not doubt there is one. The last thing we need is to be cynical about it.
I don't think the fan is unaware. In their rush to get his money promoters have often tried to sell him labels rather than contents, figures rather than pedigrees, and as often as not he turns up his nose. It will be interesting to see how the World Football League fares in that respect. It will not be the NFL's equal for some time, but it is going to ask the fan to consider it major league. If it is major league, the fan will recognize it as such and support it.
I have my doubts about the advisability of the WFL telecasting games on week nights, in effect invading the time and territory of the high schools. We already have legislation preventing Friday night NFL telecasts. I don't know if the Congress will sit still for Thursday night telecasts that might cut the revenue of high school sports.
I have to admit to a certain empathetic thrill in reading about all the money being tossed around today in sports. It takes me back to the time I was offered a big-money deal to play for the Green Bay Packers: $200 a game, with a 14-game schedule and a 10-day contract cancellation provision.
There was a lot happening to me then to turn my head. In 1931, when I was being recruited out of South High in Grand Rapids, Harry Kipke himself, the famous Michigan coach, brought me to Ann Arbor for a visit. I had made two All-State teams—one of which I captained—and must have been worth rushing because Michigan State, Northwestern and Harvard also expressed interest, and in those days recruiting wasn't as widespread as it is today.
The Kipkes took me to their home for the weekend, and to several sports events, and then to the bus on Sunday night. I had to be impressed by the personal attention.
So the hotshot center from Grand Rapids came to live at Michigan, in a third-floor 10-by-10 room way in the back of the cheapest rooming house I could find. I shared the rent ($4 a week) with a basketball player from my hometown. We each had a desk and a bed, which pretty much exhausted the floor space, and there was one small window between us.
The Big Ten did not give athletic scholarships then. My tuition was paid by a scholarship from South High, and Coach Kipke got me a job waiting on tables in the interns' dining room at University Hospital and cleaning up in the nurses' cafeteria. My aunt and uncle sent me $2 a week for Depression-day extravagances. My father's paint factory was going through a depression of its own, and since there were three other Fords to raise he couldn't send anything.
When I pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon my sophomore year, I moved into the fraternity house and got a job washing dishes. There were four of us at the sink, including Herman Everhardus, an outstanding Michigan football player. As dishwashers I would say we showed good early foot but uncertain sptechnique. I doubt we would pass today's sanitation codes.
I know I am guilty of leaning heavily on football jargon in speeches and off-the-cuff remarks, but for two reasons I think this is understandable. First, there is obviously a deep American involvement in and a great social significance to the game. No game is like football in that respect. It has so many special qualities, among them the combination of teamwork involving a large number of people, with precise strategies and coordination that are essential if anyone is going to benefit. The athletes are highly skilled, but subservient to the team. Yet if they do their job, they give an individual an opportunity for stardom. I know of no other sport that demands so much, and returns so much.
The experience of playing the game can be applied to the rest of your life, and drawn from freely. I know it is easy to find similarities in politics. How you can't make it in either field without teamwork and great leadership. How you attract grandstand quarterbacks by the droves. In football you hear them during and after the game. In politics we hear them 30 seconds after our last speech. Or during it. Most grandstand quarterbacks have never played either game, yet are the loudest and most knowledgeable critics. The thick skin developed in football pays off.
The second reason is that I truly enjoyed my football experience, and just don't want to forget it. Under Harry Kipke, Michigan used the short-punt formation, which was popular then, and as the center I fancied myself the second-best passer in the lineup. If I'm dating you, the center in the short punt or single wing is not just a guy who sticks the ball in the quarterback's hands. Every center snap must truly be a pass (between the legs), often leading the tailback who is in motion and in full stride when he takes the ball. I don't mean to be critical, but I think that is why you now see so many bad passes from center on punts and field goals. They don't have to do it enough. I must have centered the ball 500,000 times in high school and college.
Football was probably more enjoyable for us then because the pressures were not as great as they seem to be now. What made it less enjoyable was that we labored under limited-substitution rules, which reads out as total exhaustion after every game. In a close one no more than 15 or 16 men would play. If you left the game at any point during either half you couldn't go back during that half. The rule was modified my senior year to allow you to return to play in the next period. It didn't help much.
I averaged about a fourth of a game my first two years. Kipke had superb teams, so a lot of guys played. I got the "best prospect" award after the 1932 season, but the next fall I hurt a knee and was out of the running early. Chuck Bernard not only kept the job at center but made All-America.
My senior year, when I played regularly and was voted Most Valuable, the team, as I've mentioned, was not as good, and we didn't run up any scores. We were too busy trying to keep them from being run up on us. The starters were usually the finishers. We held Minnesota, the Big Ten champion that year with such stars as Pug Lund, Phil Bengtson and Bud Wilkinson, scoreless in the first half, and missed two good scoring opportunities ourselves. Then we ran down and were overwhelmed 34-0. (Having been worn out once too often, I would say that today's unlimited substitution is better. More people get to play, and the game is less a test of stamina and more of skill.)
But though we weren't very good, we weren't very exciting, either. Kipke's style was written up in The Saturday Evening Post under the headline "A Punt, A Pass and A Prayer." As far as I know that was the origin of the phrase, and it bespoke the Michigan system: Play tough defense. Punt when in doubt. Force the other guy into mistakes. Then score on a pass. And pray for deliverance. We always kicked off. We always punted on third down inside our own 25, unless we had about a yard to go. We played tough defense—a straight 6-2-2-1, with none of the sliding and stunting you see today. We ran the short punt to death. We were dull.
That last year we had an excellent passer named Bill Renner, who broke his leg before the season started. Our punter was the best I ever saw in pro or college, John Regeczi, and he got hurt in the third game. If your system depends on a punt, a pass and a prayer, and all you have left is a prayer—well, that might put you in good hands, but you better not count on any favors. We lost seven out of eight.
Despite our humble record I was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco on Jan. 1, 1935, primarily on the recommendation of Dick Hanley, the Northwestern coach. I had had a pretty good day against his star guard, Rip Whalen. According to Hanley, when he asked Whalen why Michigan made so much ground up the middle that day, Whalen said, "Ford was the best blocking center I ever played against." I still cherish that remark.
The Shrine signed two centers for the East, a boy from Colgate named George Akerstrom, and me. On the train ride from Chicago to California, Curly Lambeau, the coach of the Packers, went from player to player, plying the good ones about their pro football interest. He ignored me. Then in the first two minutes of the game Akerstrom got hurt. I played the rest of the way—58 minutes, offense and defense. After the game a group of us were given the option of a train ride home or a free trip to Los Angeles to see the movie studios. Being a conservative Midwesterner unacquainted with glamour, I naturally chose Hollywood.
On the train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Curly Lambeau sat with me the whole way. He suddenly knew my name. And he asked me to sign with the Packers. I told him I'd think about it.
That August I played in the All-Star game in Chicago, the second in which the college stars played a pro team. We had Don Hutson and a number of outstanding players, but the Bears beat us 5-0. Shortly after that I got Curly's offer in writing: $200 a game for the 14 games. Potsy Clark of the Lions matched the bid.
But pro football did not have the allure it has now, and though my interest was piqued I didn't lose any sleep over my decision. When Ducky Pond, the Yale coach, came to Ann Arbor at Kipke's bidding to ask me to be on his staff at New Haven, I saw the chance to realize two dreams at once—to stay in football and to pursue a long-nurtured aspiration for law school. Pond's offer was $2,400 for the full 12 months, as his assistant line coach, jayvee coach and scout—and to coach the boxing team in the winter. Of boxing I knew next to nothing. No, that's not right. I knew absolutely nothing.
So that summer while working in my father's paint factory I slipped off to the YMCA three times a week to get punched around by the Y's boxing coach. I didn't get good, but I got good enough to fool the Yale freshmen, one of whom was Bill Proxmire.
I coached at Yale for six football seasons, from 1935 through 1940. My scholastic advisers were convinced I couldn't handle law school and a full-time job, so they wouldn't let me try until 1938 when, with reluctance, they relented for two courses. I was warned that of the 125 students entering law school that year, 98 were Phi Beta Kappa, and that was clearly another league from the one I had been in. Somehow I got by, and that spring, without telling Ducky Pond, I began taking a full load of law courses.
In the fall of 1938 Pond made me head jayvee coach in charge of scouting and raised my pay to a fabulous $3,600 a year. One of the teams I scouted that year was my alma mater, Michigan, starring the great Tom Harmon. Michigan beat Yale, but barely—15-13.
The Yale staff was excellent. Greasy Neale was on it, and Ivy Williamson, who had played at Michigan before me and was my roommate one summer when I took a couple of law courses there. He was going for his master's in education. Williamson later became a winning head coach at Wisconsin.
By January of 1941 I had completed my law requirements and I received my degree in June. World War II ended my football career. I was in Tom Hamilton's V-5 program for two years, working as athletic officer with responsibilities as an assistant ship's navigator on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, but I never went back to coaching, except vicariously on Sunday afternoons at RFK Stadium. I doubt George Allen notices.
I spoke earlier of the lessons to be learned from football. The reverse is also true: football learns. Or at least its practitioners do. Of all our sports I think football best reflects the nation's tastes, and is constantly adjusting to meet them. I know of none that changes as often, or as radically.
I don't think anyone—except the coaches and the place-kickers—would argue that the changes in the pro game that were adopted this winter were not in answer to public taste. There had been a growing conservatism in pro football, and by nature Americans are not conservative—at least not in sports. The last several Super Bowl games were played by highly competent teams, maybe the best ever, but they were so competent within the framework of their own restrictions that the Super Bowl lost the spontaneity and the sparkle the public likes. They were almost too good for their own good, if that's possible. The fan likes to see an error as a very real threat, as a possible sudden turn to rev up a game. Right or wrong he likes his heroes to take gambles now and then, to make mistakes. Interestingly enough, the impact of the new rules brings the pro game closer to the college game, and as far as I'm concerned that's for the better. The colleges have had that spontaneity. Their coaches have been more daring. Two or three of the most recent college bowl games were far more interesting than the Super Bowl.
As I think back on my own football days, I find myself marveling at today's athletes—in all sports. They are better in every respect; bigger, stronger, faster and better cared for. I think it is true that they have had much to divert their attention from the drive to excel—affluence can be disconcerting, and there was the war in Vietnam. But these are hardly insurmountable handicaps. Affluence should be an asset. It helps provide the facilities that broaden the base we need now. And, of course, all wars end.
The fact remains that these athletes do excel. And together with our international programs, I would like to see our national institutions reflect that excellence. I would prefer, to mention one example, that the service academies be in the forefront of college football instead of in the rear. Or at least be above average.
The reason for their current slump is obvious and forgivable: the five-year service commitment a cadet or midshipman has after graduation. Proposals have been made to get around that commitment, to balance the need for good intercollegiate representation by the academies against the requirements of the services. One idea is to allow academy graduates who have a chance for a professional athletic career to postpone their military duty for X number of years. The argument is that they will wind up being more valuable to the service at an older, more settled age, when they will be looking for the post-athletic career so many pros fail to establish. And, of course, they would still be young men.
My surface judgment is that it might be workable for an athlete to spend, say, five years after his academy class graduates in a reservist's role, meeting once a week for training and two weeks a year on active duty, and then fulfill his service obligation. There well may be an Arnold Tucker or a Doc Blanchard or a Pete Dawkins out there waiting for such a chance. All three were All-Americas, and all became outstanding career military men.
I think this, too: that our better athletes today, despite the times and all the terrible crises, are really the vanguard of our young leadership. I know that in terms of spiritual awareness they are way out in front.
A friend of mine from my old Congressional District, Billy Zeoli, does a lot of ministerial work for the Dallas Cowboys, and over the years—at various group meetings and breakfasts and banquets—I have come to know men like Norm Evans, Bobby Richardson, Stan Smith and Bill Glass, and each time I meet another one like them I am reassured.
Three years ago Billy took me to his services for the Cowboys when they were in Washington to play the Redskins. I can't tell you how impressed I was. But my son Jack was really impressed. Jack got to sit next to Jethro Pugh. He didn't tell his old man to hurry up that day.