Clinton jogged. Ike golfed. Obama shoots hoops. Bush biked. Jerry Ford did all that and more.For Jerry Ford, being physically fit through solitary exercise and competitive sports was as natural as breathing.
His athletic prowess first drew attention while he was a student at Grand Rapids South High School in Michigan, as both the star player and captain of the football team, earning him a spot on the Grand Rapids City League’s All-City Team. It made him especially attractive to University of Michigan recruiters.
Enrolled there, he was linebacker and center for the university’s Wolverines, leading them into national titles with undefeated seasons in 1932 and 1933, soon after voted Most Valuable Player by his teammates.
In a senior year game against the University of Chicago, Ford even managed to tackle its running back Jay Berwanger, who earned the first Heisman Trophy a year later.
Jerry Ford was also chosen for the 1935 All-Star Collegiate team, playing against the professional Chicago Bears.
That same year, he threatened to quit the Wolverines when the University of Michigan refused to prevent the team from facing off with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets who made it clear they would not meet Michigan on the field if its African-American player Willis Ward was included. Ford and Willis were not only best friends but roommates when the team traveled to games. It was only at the insistence of Willis that Ford finally agreed to remain and play without his friend on the team.
Ford’s larger ambitions for a law career didn’t come at the expense of sports. Although he decided against tempting contract offers from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, he eventually was accepted at Yale Law School by first working as Yale University’s Assistant Coach in boxing and varsity football. No sooner did he start practicing law than World War II broke out; Ford was commissioned in the U.S. Navy Reserves as an ensign.
After pilot training he became an instructor at Chapel Hill North Carolina’s Navy Pre-Flight School. Along with his technical teaching, Ford also coached every one of the nine competitive sports offered to pilots and sailors there, expanding beyond football and boxing to become notably expert at swimming and basketball.
After the war, Ford married and won his first run for Congress in 1948. Despite his hectic schedule as a thirteen-term Congressman, he made time to pass on his love of sports to his three sons and one daughter.
Along with his wife Betty, the family used their annual winter vacation to take ski trips to Colorado.
Eventually, Jerry Ford not only became an excellent skier, but would rent and then buy homes there, first in Vail, then in Beaver Creek.
Like many members of Congress, he also found that working out political compromise was often more easily accomplished on the links and soon developed a particular love and skill for golfing.
Nearly every U.S. President since William Howard Taft has developed an affinity for golf, but for Ford it became part of his weekly schedule.
Even after he was nominated by President Richard Nixon and then confirmed in the fall of 1973 as Vice President of the United States, he consistently remained physically fit, even if it was just an hour of trampoline-jumping in his suburban backyard with his young adult children Steve and Susan, who still lived at home with him and Betty Ford.
Gerald Ford’s assumption of the presidency in August of 1974, upon Nixon’s resignation, was an harmonic convergence with the growing “health movement” in the American Pop Culture in the brief post-Vietnam, post-Watergate sweet spot of the mid-Seventies symbolized by the yellow “Happy Face.”
The presence of a “health nut” in the White House was initially scoffed at by some in the media as just another manifestation of the self-focused personal improvement mindset of the “Me Decade.” It was the era when what had once been considered the odd behavior of “running” transformed into the craze renamed “jogging.”
With national celebrities like naturalist Huell Gibbons advertising the crunchy “Grape Nuts” cereal on television commercials or those of Olympic skier Suzy Chaffee who hawked Chapstick to help anyone in outdoor sports avoid chapped lips (and best known by the nickname of “Suzy Chapstick”), the era was ready-made for a jock Prez.
And Jerry Ford didn’t disappoint.
In the spring, he not only tossed out the first ceremonial pitch of the national baseball season like all Presidents since Taft, but he was known to join softball games with staff.
Not since the Great Depression days of Herbert Hoover tossing heavy medicine balls with Cabinet members to stay fit, had a President spent so much outdoor athletic time on the White House South Lawn. His most famous alteration to the physical dwelling of the White House was having an outdoor pool installed behind the West Wing. The very day the new pool had been filled, Jerry Ford did something no previous President had the courage to try.
In front of the perpetually sleep-deprived, chain-smoking, often out-of-shape reporters and photographers of the White House press corps, the President of the United States stripped down to his swim trunks and dived into the pool, showing off biceps and a remarkable lung capacity, as he swam laps in a competitive record time.
Whenever in residence during the dog days of the legendary muggy Washington summers, the Prez chilled out with a dip.
As the days cooled through the crisp autumn, Ford kept warm on the nearby tennis courts and those at the Camp David presidential retreat, challenging not only his kids and their young friends, but legislators with an agenda to hammer out – and a strong backhand.
On winter weekends at Camp David, instead of huddling inside with a scotch, he was outside in the frigid air on his new snowmobile. If it was the holiday season, he was out on the Colorado slopes, followed by a phalanx of Secret Service agents all on skis.
Even when confined to the White House private quarters, President Ford kept exercising, often reading memos and dictating correspondence into a recorder while cycling on the stationary bike he kept in his study.
Along with his rugged honesty and personal integrity, Jerry Ford’s physical fitness offered the sort of presidential role model which seemed to harken back to more optimistic times.
The press did revive a crack made by President Lyndon B. Johnson about Ford during his days as House Minority Leader that he couldn’t “chew gum and play football at the same time,” and Saturday Night Live’s Chevy Chase created a permanent caricature of him as clumsy after Ford stumbled a few times, once slipping on a rainy airplane steps. None of it wounded the humorous Ford, as he kept on exercising.
It wasn’t just a Jock Prez in motion which helped mainstream the concept that physical fitness was as much a necessity as eating and sleeping, but also his frequent photo ops with legendary athletes of the era, many of whom he honored with an invitation to the White House.
When the President of the United States met with the legendary soccer star Pele, he didn’t just accept a soccer ball, he showed off his own dexterity with it while dressed in his suit.
Likewise, Ford played golf with Jack Nicklaus, played tennis with Chris Evert and even skied with, yes, Suzy Chapstick.
After losing the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter, Ford and his wife retired to Rancho Mirage, California in large part because the dry and warm weather let him exercise outside all year long and the region boasts legendary links.
In his first year as a former President, he shot a hole in one during a Pro-Am tournament and eventually developed his own named tournament as an annual fundraiser.
Others might have come to think of him as a California golfer but the Michigan football player never left Jerry Ford. He even selected the University of Michigan fight song The Victors to be played at his U.S. Capitol funeral procession.
When the California desert got too hot in summer, the Fords retreated to their mountain home in Beaver Creek, Colorado where the former President often enjoying hiking in the clean, clear air.
With the nation now in the midst of its third consecutive President to be elected to serve for the full two terms of eight years each, it’s easy to forget the athleticism of That Seventies Prez and his mere twenty-nine months in the White House.
But it did surely lead to one remarkable presidential footnote that can still serve as a lesson to anyone.
By the time he died the day after Christmas in 2006, Gerald R. Ford had reached the age of ninety-three years old, making him the longest-lived of all American Presidents.
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