By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 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. . . .
"I would, in retrospect, have liked to have played one year just to prove that I could. But the opportunity to go to Yale and be an assistant coach and go to law school at the same time might not have been available."
At Yale, he learned that "The Game" against Harvard "was as big as any game Michigan had with Ohio State," according to a 1993 USA Today article. With admiration, he recalled a pregame pep talk by Yale coach Raymond "Ducky" Pond before the 1935 game with Harvard. The coach seemed to make his points in much the same manner as Ford often would in public speaking throughout his life.
"Ducky wasn't a fiery speaker, but he spoke very movingly," Ford said. "He talked about the Yale alumni, his experiences and what 'The Game' meant to him. In a quiet way, it was very emotional."
In 1975, the NCAA named Ford the winner of the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to a prominent American "for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement."
Elder said that Ford gave him both "encouragement" and "praise" for breaking racial barriers as the first African American to compete in the Masters golf tournament, the first to take part in a multiracial sports event in South Africa and the first to play on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Ford paid tribute to Elder at a reception honoring the golfer at the Washington Hilton in 1974, and played in Elder's celebrity pro-am tournaments for charity.
"He was strong and could drive the ball a long ways," Elder said. "He and I played in the Bob Hope Classic and I remember him making several nice drives. At Congressional, he chipped up on one hole for a birdie. He had a great smile."
Before the 1975 Jackie Gleason Inverray Classic golf tournament in Florida, the comedian presented Ford with a set of gold-plated golf clubs. But because Ford participated so often in sports as president, it almost was inevitable that he would be caught by reporters and photographers committing some gaffe.
One front-page photo showed him tumbling on the ski slopes, and on the golf course he plunked some spectators. But he remained active, expressing strong feelings about the importance of keeping physically fit. At age 62 in 1975, he told a Post reporter: "My health is the best. I'd be delighted to have my health record put on the table. . . . I think it's good. I'd lay mine against anybody else's."
He described himself as "kind of amused" by depictions of him as clumsy. "Most of the critics . . . have never played in a ballgame, never skied," he said. "I guess you have to live with it. The main thing is, you don't have to believe it."
But he didn't take himself so seriously that he couldn't laugh at quips by the likes of Bob Hope. "I love playing golf with Gerald Ford," Hope was quoted in the 2003 book "Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes." "He makes me feel like I'm back performing in a war zone."
And Ford himself once was quoted as saying, "I know I am getting better at golf because I'm hitting fewer spectators."
But as people who played different sports with Ford in his later years would agree, he possessed a typical athlete's sense for what he was doing -- in tennis, for example, he had a feel for how a ball might bounce when sliced or drop-volleyed. "There is no question that he thoroughly enjoys it," Rear Adm. William M. Lukash, then the presidential physician, told Tennis magazine in 1976. "He's an athlete and a competitor, and to that kind of a man, tennis is a very satisfying sport."
Those who played tennis doubles or a round of golf with him usually came away impressed by his genial personality, which he managed to retain even while trying to play his best.
One particularly happy day for Ford brought him together with his Grand Rapids South High School football teammates for a reunion at the White House in 1974. The president took them out to the Rose Garden and later showed them the Oval Office. The team's coach, Clifford Gettings, described Ford as a hard worker who developed into an excellent player.
"He came to me a spindly, awkward kid. 'What position shall I play?' he asked. I said, 'Center,' and he's been in the center of things ever since. He had a lot of drive. He always had a football in his hand and must have practiced centering that ball day and night. I used the Pop Warner double wing and the Fielding Yost short punt formation, so Jerry had to center the ball long and short. I never saw him make a bad pass. He was all-city three years and all-state in his senior year."
Notably, the group from Grand Rapids found Ford the president as unpretentious as they had remembered him.
"He was always a guy I loved," said Silas McGee, a teammate. "He was always down to earth like the rest of this group."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.