Ford was one of the most athletic presidents

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 4, 2007

By James Prichard

Associated Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — His deliberate manner of speaking, some highly publicized mishaps and a recurring Chevy Chase bit in the early days of “Saturday Night Live” helped advance the notion that Gerald R. Ford was a bit of a klutz.

In fact, Ford was one of the nation’s fittest and most athletic presidents.

Ford, who died at 93 on Tuesday, played center on the University of Michigan football team, where he was a three-year letter winner. His teams enjoyed consecutive undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933. He was the Wolverines’ most valuable player in 1934 and, on Jan. 1, 1935, he played in a college All-Star game known today as the East West Shrine Game.

Michigan later retired Ford’s No. 48 jersey.

During a 1934 game against the University of Chicago, Ford became the only future U.S. president to tackle a future Heisman Trophy winner when he brought down halfback Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman the following year.

“When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it,” Ford said after Berwanger’s death in June 2002.

He also was the captain of his football team at Grand Rapids South High School and was an all-state center in 1930, his senior prep season.

Former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who died in November, told The Associated Press during an interview in August that whenever Ford visited Ann Arbor in his later years, he would call on the team and join the players for dinner at their training table.

“At practice he would say, ‘Bo, do you mind if I get in the huddle?’ ” said Schembechler, who coached the Wolverines from 1969-89. “There was one rough-looking Secret Service guy that always was looking over President Ford’s shoulder.

“Once when the president was leaning into the huddle, the Secret Service guy was standing between the ball and the huddle, and our quarterback said, ‘What should I do?’ ” And I said, ‘Run over him.’ ”

After graduating from Michigan, Ford turned down offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to play in the NFL, said Don Holloway, curator of Ford’s presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

Instead, Ford went to Yale to become an assistant football and boxing coach, with the hope that it would help him get accepted into Yale Law School. His coaching duties delayed his acceptance until spring 1938.

In April 1942, Ford joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign and he soon became a physical-fitness instructor at a preflight school in Chapel Hill. A year later, when he began service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, his first assignment was as athletic director and gunnery division officer.

He was in good physical condition when he became president at age 61. While living in the White House, he swam every day, skied regularly and played golf and tennis better than most other presidents, historians say.

But on a number of occasions, Ford, while golfing, hit into the galleries that lined the fairways to watch him. News cameras captured at least one spectator being hit in the head by an errant Ford shot.

Bob Hope, a golfing friend of Ford, once quipped: “It’s not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course — you just follow the wounded.”

Journalists also reported when Ford tumbled while skiing, when he slipped and fell on some metal steps while getting off Air Force One in the rain in Austria and when he bumped his head on an airplane doorway.

Ford developed a thick skin during his 25 years in the U.S. House of Representatives but he never cared for the jokes about his clumsiness, Holloway said.

“I’m sure it had to be somewhat frustrating but he had the ability that every successful politician has, and that’s the ability to laugh at himself and to laugh with others about himself,” he said.

John Robert Greene, a Ford biographer and professor of history and government at Cazenovia (N.Y.) College in Cazenovia, said Ford got the erroneous image because he was the first president whose every public move was scrutinized by a post-Watergate press.

In Ford’s memoir, “A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford,” he bitterly recounted how a brief stumble recorded by a television camera turned into a national story.

“There was no doubt in my mind that I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years … (but) from that moment on, every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else. … (This) helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn’t funny.”

Ford was a little more game about the “Saturday Night Live” jokes in 1986 when he spoke at a symposium on humor and the presidency: “On occasion I winced. But on the other hand, Betty and I used to watch ‘Saturday Night Live’ and enjoyed it. Presidents are sitting ducks, and you might as well sit back and enjoy it.”