Ford Always Managed to Be a Good Sport
Thursday, December 28, 2006; Page E01
Without question, Gerald R. Ford was one of the most athletic presidents in history.
Ford, who died Tuesday night at age 93, loved to take part in sports from his days as a youth in Grand Rapids, Mich., until he occupied the White House and during the many years afterward. He is best known for playing center at the University of Michigan, where he was on the Wolverines' national championship football teams of 1932 and 1933 and was the team's most valuable player in 1934.
Even after he became president in 1974, Ford still found the time to follow sports avidly -- and to participate.
"I've always loved sports," he told a Washington Post reporter in 1976. "When I was a boy, I knew every batting average in the big leagues. I still look at the standings and I feel a day is wasted if I don't read the sports pages."
As president, Ford engaged in an array of sports: swimming, golf, tennis, skiing. As a younger man especially, he loved sailing.
"He was a good athlete and a wonderful person," said pro golfer Lee Elder, originally from Washington and now living in Florida. "One time the phone rang and the operator came on and said: 'This is the White House. The president is calling.' I thought, 'Sure, sure.' But it turned out that we played quite a lot together when he was in the White House and I was living in Washington. We played at Congressional Country Club and especially at Andrews Air Force Base. It was a fun time."
Later, they continued playing golf together, usually in California, where Ford spent much of his time after his presidency. They also exchanged greeting cards because they shared the same birthday, July 14. "I also had lunch with him a couple of times in Palm Springs," Elder said. "He told me he was keeping active, playing nine holes."
During his formative years, Ford excelled in football, playing linebacker as well as center in high school and then for Michigan. During a speech when he was president, he made light of his accomplishments as a player while noting that 1934 was a down season for the Wolverines after their back-to-back national titles.
"That was the year we lost seven out of eight of our scheduled games," he said. "But, you know, what really hurt me the most was when my teammates voted me their most valuable player. I didn't know whether to smile or sue."
Nevertheless, Ford indicated a number of times that he derived much satisfaction from playing big-time football at Michigan. The 6-foot, 198-pound center, whose jersey number 48 has been retired by the school, was named to play in two major all-star games after his senior year, for the East squad in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco on Jan. 1, 1935, and that August for the college all-stars against the NFL champion Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
Two NFL teams gave Ford the chance to turn pro, but instead he went to Yale to earn his law degree. While there, he served as an assistant football coach and a boxing coach.
"When I got through Michigan, I was offered opportunities at the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions," he told CNN's Larry King during a 1999 interview. "But I had a chance to go to Yale as an assistant football coach and go to law school at the same time. So that opportunity was so wonderful I couldn't turn down the chance to further my education and earn some money in the meantime. . . .