America’s Most Athletic Presidents

March 27, 2008 – 1:50 am by Ryan Phillips

We don’t like to get political here at R&R, we are a sports blog after all, but a friend passed along the picture to the right to me today and said it made him like Barack Obama a whole heck of a lot more. The picture is of Senator Obama ballin’ it up with some U.S. service members of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa during a visit Camp Lemonier, Djibouti in 2006. Apparently Obama has really good form when rebounding.

I found it funny that my friend liked Obama more because he was apparently at least reasonably athletic and could actually play a game of basketball. That got me thinking: do we equate athletic ability with likability? If so, who were our most athletic presidents? After doing a lot of research, I came up with a list of the most athletically accomplished men who’ve served in the Oval Office.

10. George H.W. Bush
I was shocked to find out that Dubya’s pop was quite the baseball player. After joining the Navy on his 18th birthday, he served from 1942-1945 before being discharged at the end of WWII. When back in the U.S., Bush attended Yale and played baseball. The left-handed first baseman was elected team captain in 1948, and led the team to a berth in the first College World Series. The Bulldogs lost to Cal 2-0 in the 1947 championship series and fell to USC in 2-1 in the 1948 title series.

9. Zachary Taylor
“Old Rough and Ready” had to make this list. Our 12th president was an avid outdoorsman and horseback rider. Taylor distinguished himself during a 40-year military career before serving one of the shortest presidential terms in U.S. History. He died just 16 months after his inauguration in 1849. Despite being an active commander in four separate wars, Tyler is most famous for killing Mexicans. Lots of them. And in certain parts of this country (I’m looking in your direction Texas) killing Mexicans is considered a sport.

8. Abraham Lincoln
Though tall (6’4), awkward and not classically athletic, Lincoln loved sports. Though many historians have speculated that Lincoln was in fact a homosexual, this blog thinks that’s crazy, Abe was all man. I mean, enjoyed classic forms of wrestling even after he was elected, that’s dedication to your favorite sport. He also often played in and encouraged games of “townball” or “stickball” which was an early form of baseball. In fact, his love of the game was so well known that an 1860 political cartoon featured Lincoln and his opponents on a baseball diamond.

7. John Quincy Adams

Our sixth president was far more active than his father. In times of good weather he would walk or swim every day, even after being elected. Adams was actually in the habit of swimming naked in the Potomac River because there was rarely anyone around in the wooded areas where he swam. That famously got him into trouble once when reporter Anne Royall (who had been trying to get an interview with the President) followed him to the riverbank and waited for him to enter the river. She then sat on his clothes and refused to let him get out until he talked to her. Adams gave the interview while neck-deep in the river.

6. Ronald Reagan
Though mostly known for his acting days, Reagan was quite the athlete when he was younger. As a teenager he was a lifeguard at Rock River in Dixon, Illinois. While working there he reportedly saved 77 lives. After high school the multi-talented future president attended Eureka College on an athletic scholarship. He played football in college and apparently participated in other sports as well. His involvement in sports lasted past college as he spent time as a play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs and the University of Iowa football team.

5. John F. Kennedy
Though many enduring images of the Kennedy clan exist, those of their touch football games are American classics. JFK was actually not the most athletic of his family members but he was deeply involved with sports. While in high school he played tennis, basketball, football and golf and while at Harvard he played football and was on the swim team. His experience as a collegiate swimmer would come in handy during World War II when he was forced to save the lives of the other ten surviving members of the PT-109 crash.

Kennedy actually dragged shipmate Patrick H. McMahon over 3.5 miles to safety using a makeshift rope and clenching it with his teeth. Kennedy was also well versed in the “sport of love” as he banged his way through a swath of women before and during his presidency that would have made Ron Jeremy blush.

4. George W. Bush

Say what you want about the man’s presidency, but he can throw strikes. I don’t think it can be disputed that Bush the second is the greatest president in our history … at throwing out the first pitch. That’s not the end of his athletic prowess though. No, Dubya also works out daily in the White House gym – the first president to ever do so – he can even do five bench press reps at 185 pounds (more than Kevin Durant) and has always been rated as being in incredibly good health during yearly checkups.

He was a decent high school baseball player and has always loved the game. In 2001 he added a Tee Ball field to the White House and has Little League-sponsored events there annually. He has also run a marathon and been on the cover of Runner’s World magazine.

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Ike was a phenomenal football player while at Army. A spectacular 70-yard touchdown he scored as a halfback in a 1912 game against Yale was singled out for praise by a reporter for the New York Herald. Nicknamed “The Kansas Cyclone” by teammates, Eisenhower also excelled on defense. And legend has it that while facing the Carlisle Indian School in their legendary 1912 matchup, he tore his knee while tackling Jim Thorpe. Ike managed to play one more game for the Cadets, but he further injured the knee and never played again. Later in life, Eisenhower also reportedly became a scratch golfer.

2. Theodore Roosevelt
Simply put, Teddy Roosevelt was a badass and without a doubt our most active president. He was elected at just 42-years-old and had always been an advocate of what he called “an active life.” While in college he was a decorated member of Harvard’s boxing team. In fact, his love for the sport was so great that when heads of state would visit the White House he would often challenge them to “friendly” boxing matches. In one incident that did not become known until after he left the White House, Teddy went blind in one eye as a result of a boxing blow from a military aide.

Among the other pursuits he enjoyed while in office were hunting, riding, shooting, tennis, wrestling, walking and jujitsu (I shit you not). He was well known as an avid hunter and for amusement he and his children would often shoot at targets with pictures of world leaders on them.

1. Gerald Ford
Along with being the only president never elected to the office, Gerald Ford is also the only president to have been an All-American athlete. As a center and linebacker, he led Michigan to undefeated seasons and national championships in 1932 and 1933. He was named the team’s MVP in his senior year of 1934 and after graduating was offered contracts by several professional teams. He also played in an exhibition game against the Chicago Bears in 1935 as part of the 1935 Collegiate All-Star team. His #48 jersey was retired by Michigan in 1994.

Ford then spent three seasons at Yale as an assistant coach and while there he attended Yale Law School. After getting his law degree, he left football behind. After his presidency Ford was known as an avid golfer and he participated in many PGA Pro-Am events.

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  1. 4 Responses to “America’s Most Athletic Presidents”

  2. Gerald Ford also was an avid skiier, he was the first permanent resident at beaver creek, a ski resort near Vail. There’s even a run named after him

    By Evan on Mar 27, 2008

  3. Another interesting fact about Lincoln (though not sports related): He was a victim of domestic violence. His wife used to throw hot potatoes at his head.

    By Red on Mar 27, 2008

  4. Chester A. Arthur’s chin whiskers deserve some consideration for this list.

    By Hick Flick on Mar 29, 2008

  5. You’ve got a pretty solid list here. As a historian of presidential toughness, I’d say your list is good, but you’re missing a few notable exceptions. Rutherford B. Hayes was a championship runner at Kenyon college in Ohio and played baseball at Harvard. In addition, he had more frontline experience than any other president, way more than Z.Taylor. Taylor in fact, was not exactly a model of good health. He was on and off a crutch while campaigning for president from a terrible case of gout, and suffered recurring intestinal problems.

    I also think you WAY underestimate the physical prowess of Lincoln and WAY overestimate Kennedy and Eisenhower. Kennedy incredibly sickly, and was famously called by one biographer as the sickest man to ever inhabit the white house. He had addisons disease, jaundice, and severe back problems throughout his life. And don’t even get me started on Eisenhower.

    Overall though I think you cover a lot of good ground (and hilariously so I might add). If you want to see the case for Lincoln’s toughness, and a continuing examination of presidential toughness, check out our website

    check out the blog while your there as well

    By The Washington Pugilist on Jul 18, 2008

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