There’s no denying that the big sports story coming out of Washington right now centers around the Nationals, now a cinch to go into the National League playoffs, and maybe even on course to do the unthinkable and bring the World Series to the nation’s capital for the first time since FDR was getting the New Deal underway in 1933.
But running it a close second is the somewhat unexpected resurgence of the Washington Redskins with the help of new quarterback Robert Griffin III. After compiling a 3-1 record in the preseason, the Redskins convincingly defeated the New Orleans Saints last Sunday and their multitude of fans are holding their breath to see if they can pull off the same against the St. Louis Rams this weekend.
The onset of ‘Skins-mania has naturally made a lot of people think of the team’s glory days of the 1970s….and has set some people to contemplating that most profound of Beltway gridiron enigmas, which also happens to be, since Deep Throat was unmasked, perhaps the biggest mystery left from the Nixon era.
That being: did President Nixon, on December 26, 1971, suggest a reverse play to the Redskins coach (and his old friend) George Allen against the San Francisco 49ers that backfired and resulted in the West Coast team winning 24-20?
That question has been argued by many sportswriters for many years. Over at ESPN.com this week, Brian Cronin decided to try to get to the bottom of the matter. What he reports makes fascinating reading.
It turns out that, in a situation not atypical of the history of the Nixon years, there is the conventional wisdom of sorts…and the revisionist history. The traditional story, as told by Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer back in the day, was that he was in a meeting with Allen. Allen took a call from the White House, and RN suggested a reverse play against San Francisco. (This play had previously been suggested by the President in person during a ‘Skins practice, and when tried out at that time had been found to work well.) Allen handed the phone to Kilmer, and the President again advised trying the play. So wide receiver Roy Jefferson undertook the play, and ended up losing yards, which stalled the ‘Skins’ momentum and enabled San Francisco to win the game.
When Kilmer told the venerable Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich about the play, Povich asked Allen if the President had suggested it. As Cronin reports:
Allen never confirmed nor denied the claim, although both of his sons, former Senator George Allen and current Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, have denied it. Kilmer’s recollection, though, sounds pretty damning, doesn’t it? However, the truth might lie in an even stranger place. According to fellow Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who was a close friend of Allen’s and an assistant coach with Allen in both Los Angeles and Washington (where Levy was in charge of special teams), Nixon did, indeed, suggest the play on the phone, but he was just playing along with a gag by Allen. As Levy recalled to the Syracuse Post-Standard’s Sean Kirst in 1994, Allen had fed the play to Nixon and told him to call Allen with the play so that it would look like Allen was taking the play from Nixon. “(George) wanted the president to look very sage. Afterward, I remember chuckling among ourselves about it. George gave the play to the president, then it didn’t work.”
Levy’s recollection certainly jibes well with the facts. It would explain why people believe Nixon called it in and why Allen’s sons both deny Nixon did call the play in. I think Levy is a believable witness here, so I am willing to believe his story (it helps that both of Allen’s sons are consistent in denying the tale, as well).
Therefore, Cronin concludes that RN did not originate the play. For more about the play, and the decades-long friendship of Allen and RN, a useful source is this article (also at ESPN.com) by the coach’s daughter Jennifer Allen.