Share this article

print logo

Football drove Ford to his goal

Gerald Ford was football's favorite president.

Part of the reason was that he played the game so well, earning the salute of his University of Michigan teammates when they named him their most valuable player on the undefeated teams of the early '30s. A bigger part was that he was as straight-forward as a hole-opening block on the opponents' goal line.

Ford's senior season as a Wolverine was 1933, two years before the National Football League initiated its college draft. The result was that he received offers from two teams, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.

He accepted neither. It was pro football's leather-helmet era and the pay offered by the pros was not very inviting. In 1935, the same year as the draft's debut, the Heisman Trophy was first awarded to the year's outstanding player. The pioneer recipient was running back Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago, a school that then was a national football power. Berwanger was also the first selection in the first draft, but he snubbed the NFL for a business career.

Those seasons came in the midst of the Great Depression and Ford received a far more enticing offer from Yale University. The Bulldogs wanted to hire him as an assistant coach and part of the offer was tuition-free entry into the school's prestigious law school. The Yale teams that Ford helped coach played big-time football and included the second and third Heisman Trophy winners, end Larry Kelley and running back Clint Frank.

Ford's football career ended when he received his law degree, went back to Grand Rapids, Mich., to become a successful attorney, and then entered public service as a Congressman from his home district.

He served ably but quietly for years but if any of his Congressional brethren mistook quiet for timidity, they discovered that he still had a football star's sense of how to compete when he convinced enough of his Republican colleagues to back him in the ouster of powerful Charles Halleck of Indiana as minority leader of the House of Representatives.

Ford's sports background helped him lead those from his own party and form partnerships with those across the House aisle. That was why, as the Watergate scandal reached its nadir in 1974, he was selected as successor to the disgraced Spiro Agnew to serve as Richard Nixon's vice president.

On the first Saturday in August, Ford traveled to Canton, Ohio, to fulfill a speaking engagement to which he agreed when he was still House minority leader -- to serve as the keynote speaker at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions.

It was a day which neither Ford nor anyone else who witnessed it ever forgot.

At that time the induction was always followed by the first preseason game of the summer, in this case the Buffalo Bills versus the Cardinals, then based in St. Louis. This was not an ordinary game day since the NFL players were on strike against the league and the rosters of the two teams were filled by rookies.

Since the NFL was afraid the striking veterans, who had come to Canton en masse, would disrupt the game, the teams' charter flights didn't land until an hour or so before the gates were to be opened for the day's festivities.

When the veterans arrived they found themselves picketed by pro football's old-timers, those who played before 1959 and had been excluded from the pension plan by the modern players.

The crowd for the inductions was swollen by sympathy strikers from the United Auto Workers who came to support the football strikers. It was a three-ring circus.

The last inductee to speak as the ceremonies were coming to a close was Dick "Night Train" Lane, the great defensive back of the '50s and '60s. Not many people recalled what Lane said about his football career, but they all remember how he finished.

"This is the greatest day of my life," he said. "I'm not only entering the Hall of Fame, but doing it in the presence of the next president of the United States."

The place exploded with ear-splitting cheers lasting many minutes. Ford shifted uncomfortably in his seat, but Lane was accurate. Two weeks later Gerald R. Ford was president of the United States.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

There are no comments - be the first to comment