Forty years ago today, on 9 December 1969, President Nixon flew to New York to receive the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal and to deliver a speech that was truly a labor of love.
He was the guest of honor at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The toastmaster was ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel, with whom RN had bantered on national TV during the halftime at the Texas-Arkansas game three days before.
9 December 1969: RN at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Dinner:
This speech —on a congenial topic and to be delivered to a friendly and receptive audience in the wake of his phenomenally successful 3 November speech— was mostly written by RN himself. It contains many spontaneous observations and recollections, and it provides a real insight into the man and the President.
Before RN rose to speak, Archibald MacLeish, the Harvard professor, poet, playwright, Librarian of Congress, and erstwhile Yale football terror, was awarded the Foundation’s Distinguished American Award. He said, “Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there is no reason in football or in poetry why the two should not meet in a man’s life if he has the weight and cares about the words.”
RN opened with a graceful reference to McLeish’s remarks, in which he had quoted former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. This managed to defang one critic (who was sitting on the stage) while saluting another. Acheson, who had been the focus of some of RN’s strongest campaign rhetoric during late ’40s and early ’50s, had been among RN’s strongest supporters after the “silent majority” speech delivered just five weeks before. RN also worked in a reference to the Apollo XI moon landing in July.
I was trying to think of something that would appropriately describe how I feel in accepting this award. I would have to be less than candid if I were not to say that because of the offices I have held I have received many awards.
But I think Archibald MacLeish, in that perfectly eloquent tribute to football, quoting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, put it very well. He said, “The honors you don’t deserve are the ones you are most grateful to receive.”
I simply want to set the record straight with regard to my football qualifications. This is a candid, open administration. We believe in telling the truth about football and everything.
I can only say that as far as this award is concerned, that it is certainly a small step for the National Football Foundation and a small step for football, but it is a giant leap for a man who never even made the team at Whittier.
RN opened with a tip of the hat to his former nemesis, but post-3-November Vietnam supporter, Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Having raised the subject of his college gridiron career, he embarked on some charming self-deprecation:
I have looked around that wall, Whittier is not up there, I can assure you. I didn’t hear the Whittier song, either, a moment ago. In fact, only the coach from Loyola knows where Whittier is. We used to play Loyola.
I got into a game once when we were so far behind it didn’t matter. I even got into one against Southern Cal once when we were so far behind it didn’t matter.
Now just to tell you a little about Whittier because I want the record to be straight: It is a school with very high academic standing. We had a very remarkable coach.
I pointed out in my acceptance address in Miami that one of the men who influenced me most in my life was my coach and I think that could be true of many public men.
My coach was an American Indian, Chief Newman. He was a perfectly remarkable man and a great leader. I learned more from him about life really than I did about football, but a little about football.
One of the reasons, I guess, he didn’t put me in was because I didn’t know the plays. Now there was a good reason for that. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough. I knew the enemy’s plays.. I played them all week long. Believe me, nobody in the Southern California Conference knew Occidental’s or Pomona’s or Redlands’ or Cal Tech’s or Loyola’s plays better than I did, because I was on that side.
I learned a lot sitting by the coach on the bench–learned about football and learned about life.
In his speech, RN saluted the legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson —who had been named to the Football Hall of Fame— whom he had invited onto the White House staff as a Special Assistant to the President.
RN wasn’t kidding when he said —as he did many times— that he would have enjoyed being a sports writer. He put it right out front again in the first of several remarkably detailed (and mostly completely accurate) reminiscences in this speech:
Among all of the people who have been honored tonight, let me just say a good word about sports writers. After all, I must say that this is not an unselfish statement, most sports writers become political writers in the end–“Scotty” Reston, Bob Considine, Bill Henry. So I am just planning for the future.
But, in any event, thinking of sports writers for the moment, they have made football live before the days of television and even now for many who never got to the games.
My first recollection of big-time college football was Ernie Nevers against Notre Dame in 1925–I see Ernie Nevers here. And I sat in the stands with Father Hesburgh [President of Notre Dame] when Southern Cal played and lost to Notre Dame, and I know the great spirit between those two schools. But I remember that game. I remember the score. I think it was 25 to 10, or four touchdowns to a touchdown and a field goal, and I remember that the sports writers, Bill Henry of the Los Angeles Times, and others were writing about the game, wrote about one play where Nevers went through the line close to the goal and there was a dispute as to, whether he went over and was pushed back.
Stanford All-American Ernie Nevers played in the 1925 Rose Bowl against Notre Dame. He rushed for 114 yards — more than all the Four Horsemen combined — and was named Player of the Game.
Characteristically, RN remembered the great players as well as the winners:
Then my memory goes on, just to share them with you, and interestingly enough I remember performances by men who lost as well as those who won. That is rather natural, I am sure you can understand.
The first Rose Bowl game I saw was between one of the great Howard Jones’ teams of the early thirties and Jock Sutherland’s Pitt team. Pitt was overmanned. They had a fine quarterback in Warren Heller, a good passer. And Howard Jones had a team that beat them 35 to 0.
But my memories of that team were not of the awesome power of Howard Jones’ team moving down with the unbalanced single wing going down, down, down the field and scoring again and again with that tremendous blocking, but of two very gallant Pittsburgh ends, Skaladany and Dailey.
For the first half, I remember they plowed into that awesome USC interference and knocked it down time and time again and held the score down. The game was lost, but I remember right to the last they were in there fighting and that spirit stayed with me as a memory; and the years go on.
RN’s first Rose Bowl: 2 January 1933. Although the game was a 35-0 USC victory, thirty-six years later RN remembered the spectacular playing of Pitt ends Ted Dailey and Joe Skaladany (above).
RN remembered another Rose Bowl — 1939’s — in which, as a Duke alum, he had a stake. His stroll down memory lane ended with a slight detour — clearly taken for dramatic purposes; although his date for the game was Thelma Ryan, he had already met her at the Whittier Community Players.
I think of another game, Southern Cal and Duke, 1938 [sic]. I had attended Duke University for law school, and I remember that Duke came there undefeated, untied, unscored upon. The score was 3 to 0 going into the last few minutes of the game. So out came a fourth-string quarterback, not a third-string, Doyle Nave, and he threw passes as they throw them today, one after another, to Al Kreuger, an end from Antelope Valley, California. And finally Southern California scored. It was 7 to 3.
I must say that I was terribly disappointed, of course, but the woman who was to be my future wife went to Southern Cal and that is how it all worked out. We met at that game.
Shutting down the hitherto undefeated Blue Devils: “Antelope” Al Krueger catches the the historic pass well remembered by RN.
Although RN was such a vociferous fan that he shouted himself hoarse at Duke games, that isn’t him standing — but he and the future PN (a former Trojan) were in this crowd of Duke supporters at the Rose Bowl on 1 January 1939.
After some more reminiscences —of Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes— RN reached his peroration:
But now, one serious moment. Archibald MacLeish did say what I wish I could have written about what football means to this country, what it means to me as an individual, what it means to me as one who is serving as President of the United States. I can only tell you that in the Cabinet Room there are the pictures of three men whom I consider to be great Presidents: President Eisenhower, president Woodrow Wilson, President Theodore Roosevelt. There were other great ones, but these three in this century, I consider to be among the great presidents.
All of them had one thing in common. They were very different men: Eisenhower, the great general; Theodore Roosevelt, the tremendous extrovert, explorer, writer, one of the most talented men of our time in so many fields; Woodrow Wilson, probably the greatest scholar who has ever occupied the Presidency, a man with the biggest vocabulary of any President in our history, in case you want to put it down in your memory book•
But each of them had a passion for football. Woodrow Wilson, when he taught at Wesleyan [Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.] used to talk about the spirit of football, and later on when he was president of Princeton, he insisted on scholarship, but he recognized and tried to encourage football.
T. R. was dictating a speech one day, a very important one. He got a call telling of two of his sons participating in a prep school game which they had won. He dropped the speech and ran shouting for joy to his wife and said, “They won, they won!”
I remember President Eisenhower talking to me after his heart attack. He said one of the things he hated to give up was that the doctor said he should not listen to those football games because he got too excited and became too involved.
What does this mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back• It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself.
All of these great factors are essential if a nation is to maintain character and greatness for that nation. So, in the 100th year of football, as we approach the 200th year of the United States, remember that our great assets are not our military strength or our economic wealth, but the character of our young people, and I am glad that America’s young people produce the kind of men that we have in American football today.
He concluded with a wrap-up of the ’69 season-to-date, illuminated by an unexpected example from a very different sport:
I close on a note that will tell you why I think Texas deserved to be Number 1. It was not because they scored the second touchdown, but it was because after the first touchdown when they were ahead [sic] 14 to 0, the coach sent in a play. They executed the play and they went for two. When they went for two and the score was 18  to 14, they moved the momentum in their direction. They were not sure to win because Arkansas still had a lot of fight left and I remember that great Arkansas drive in those last few minutes. But Texas, by that very act, demonstrated the qualities of a champion, the qualities to come back when they were behind and then when they could have played it safe just to tie, they played to win.
This allows me to tell a favorite anecdote of mine in the world of sports. In another field, one of the great tennis players of all time, of course–the first really big tennis player in terms of the big serve and the rest, in our time–was Bill Tilden.
When he was coaching, after he completed his playing years, a young player had won a match in a minor tournament and won it rather well. He came off the court and expected Tilden to say something to him in words of congratulation, and Tilden didn’t.
The player said to him, “What is the matter, I won, didn’t I?” Tilden said, “Yes, you won, but playing that way you will never be a champion, because you played not to lose. You didn’t play to win.”
That is what America needs today. What we need in the spirit of this country and the spirit of our young people is not playing it safe always, not being afraid of defeat—being ready to get into the battle and playing to win, not with the idea of destroying or defeating or hurting anybody else, but with the idea of achieving excellence.
Because Texas demonstrated that day that they were playing to win, they set an example worthy of being Number 1 in the 100th year of college football.
RN warmed the bench at Whittier High School (above) as well as at Whittier College (below).