What if Richard Nixon Had Been Good at Football?

Football really mattered to Richard Nixon. Only one problem: He sucked at it. How would history have been different had Nixon been more than a tackle dummy on his college team?

Photo illustration: A photo of Nixon with a football helmet digitally in a border like a baseball trading card. The image is set against the background of a football field.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ron Galella/WireImage; Ryan McVay/Photodisc; imging/iStock.

In Upon Further Review, a new book and podcast from Mike Pesca, some of the greatest minds in sports come together to answer the greatest “What ifs” in sports history. In this excerpt, the historian Julian Zelizer writes about how history would—or would not—have been different if Richard Nixon had been better at football.

You can also listen to the first episode of the Upon Further Review podcast to hear the team behind the hit show Slow Burn take on the same topic. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, SpotifyGoogle PlayTuneIn, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

When he was young, Richard Milhous Nixon loved to play football. He adored the game, mastering the minutiae of the playboo and savoring the thrill of gladiator-like competition. For a young man who was always trying to prove himself, football seemed like the ultimate arena in which to show what kind of man he was.

The problem was that Nixon was not very good at the sport.

This didn’t stop him from trying. Although he had played soccer while in grade school, he turned to football—as well as basketball and track—once he reached high school, first at Fullerton Union and then at Whittier High School in California. Nixon was a meager 140–160 pounds (estimates of his weight have varied), perhaps better suited physically to the debate team—where he excelled—than to football.

To compensate for his stature Nixon became one of the hardest-working players on the junior varsity football team—during practice, at least. Even on the JV young Dick Nixon, as his friends called him, almost never got much playing time. The methods that he liked to use in debate, like trying to bait an opponent into the wrong answer, were not very effective on the gridiron. Nixon lacked the basic physical tools required by football. Nobody who saw him play expected him to go far in the sport.

“Dick just didn’t seem to have the feel for it,” one teammate said.

Nixon did so well academically in high school that he earned admission into Harvard University. His family didn’t have enough money to send him there; what money they did have went to the treatment of Richard’s brother Harold, who’d fallen ill with tuberculosis, and they needed Richard to work at the family store. So instead of Harvard, Nixon attended Whittier College, a small, private Quaker school founded in 1887 and named after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Not being able to attend Harvard devastated Nixon, who would spend much of his life feeling that the Cambridge crowd didn’t respect him.

Nixon would have to make a name for himself at Whittier. Based on his mediocre record in high school, Nixon didn’t think that he could make the football team, which was quite good despite the school’s size. The team’s coach, Wallace “Chief” Newman, had been an All-American player at USC, and by most accounts was overqualified for the job. The Poets, as the team was called, played in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (a minor association of college teams in the Los Angeles area). The students called Newman “the Chief” because of his Native American heritage. He ran a pretty good team, and in Nixon’s freshman year in 1930, Newman found himself short on players. The coach invited Nixon to join the team to serve as a backup tackle. Nixon accepted.

While Nixon did slightly better at basketball and track, success in the game he loved eluded him in college as it had in high school.

“We used Nixon as a punching bag,” the coach recalled. “If he’d had the physical ability he’d have been a terror.”

One of Nixon’s teammates recalled that “he wasn’t cut out to play the sport,” while the team’s water boy said that Nixon had “two left feet.” He was inspirational to his teammates only because he was so motivated, despite being manifestly ill-equipped for the game. Nixon “was undersized for a tackle, but he was too uncoordinated and slow-footed to play in the backfield,” wrote his biographer Evan Thomas. “Mostly he was used as cannon fodder for the first team at practice and sat on the bench during games.”

His teammates understood that when he came into the game an offside penalty was soon to follow. Young Nixon was so enthusiastic he usually bolted over the line of scrimmage before the quarterback yelled “Hike!”

“Anyone who could take the beating he had to take, the physical beating, was brave,” said another of his teammates. Newman knew how to rouse Nixon.

“He inspired in us the idea that if we worked hard enough, we could beat anyone,” Nixon later recalled. That wasn’t really true, but those words still motivated Nixon.

Nixon was called on to play in a game only if Whittier was so far in the lead there was no chance of losing. He weighed about 20 pounds less than any of his teammates, and he was painfully aware of his shortcomings. At one rally that was held on the field, he joked: “You know, it took me 18 years to do it, but I’ve finally made it. I’ve got off the bench and onto the playing field.” The fans loved him. Toward the end of the games in which the Poets were losing badly, the fans would chant: “We want Nixon! Put Nixon in!” Some of his outlook came from Newman, a leader he deeply admired, who liked to say, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” He had another aphorism: “You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing.” It was a refrain that Nixon would hang on to throughout his life.

By the time that Nixon attended Duke Law School in 1934, any dreams about a future in sports were long gone. Although he attended Duke football games with a religious passion, classmates called him “gloomy Gus,” and he was known as something of a “slightly paranoid … oddball” during his years in North Carolina.

What if Nixon had been better at football? What if his physical talents had matched his aspirations, his enthusiasm, his savvy, his mind for the game? We can imagine a successful career at high school would have been followed up by a prime spot in the starting lineup in college. Playing at Whittier, which drew approximately 6,000 people a game, might have been thrilling to an awkward young man wanting to be embraced by his peers.

Picture the young Nixon taking the field as the Poets’ starting guard. Picture him leveraging his small frame and pancaking the defensive linemen trying to get to his quarterback. Or maybe picture him as an offensive weapon—a tight end, maybe, getting crunched over the middle and still coming down with his quarterback’s passes. Picture him as a hero at Whittier, a big man on a little campus.

A change in Nixon’s football fortunes might have set American political history on a different trajectory. At the most obvious level, a robust football career might have pushed Nixon away from an interest in politics, a combative arena in which he very much hoped to demonstrate the manful prowess he lacked on the football field.

But let’s assume he went into politics anyway. Perhaps his football years might’ve yielded a different, more confident sort of politician. Historians of the Watergate scandal stress three different psychological dimensions to Nixon:

1. He was incredibly shy and socially awkward.
2. He saw himself as an outcast who was hated by all the popular and influential figures.
3. Though professionally and personally functional, he suffered from a persecution complex, believing that most people who knew him wanted to bring him down.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said after his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race. It was a statement that defined so much of his political career.

He made his bones in Congress as a vicious anti-communist partisan who was constantly slashing his opponents. Later as president, he displayed strategic brilliance and an impressive command of public policy, but the darker qualities were always front and center. Nixon felt isolated from many of the major power brokers in Washington, operating from a defensive posture and nursing paranoid thoughts about the different players out to get him. Despite his own accomplishments, such as the opening of relations with China, he always believed that the Washington elite and many voters didn’t appreciate what he was doing. He also spent much of his presidential life convinced that his enemies were relentless and unscrupulous. He didn’t trust anyone, even his closest advisers, and he was prepared to ruin any person or damage any institution that gave a hint of wanting him defeated.

Evan Thomas reminds us that when Nixon was not in a formal setting, he exhibited an intense shyness that allowed strong and malevolent voices in the White House to push his presidency in bad directions. Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” was the ultimate manifestation of this dynamic.

Even at the height of his power, in 1972, Nixon created a culture in his re-election campaign whereby his underlings felt compelled to do whatever was necessary to cut down the Democratic opposition. The Watergate scandal and the aggressive, resentful presidency it ended had many causes. But it is clear that Nixon’s shy, paranoid, and insecure personality was a central factor in bending the White House toward his skewed view of reality.

Now let’s substitute for this Nixon our counterfactual conquering jock of Whittier—a winner still basking in the praise and perquisites that accrue to such athletes. Would this Nixon have been more of an extrovert? A schmoozer eager to bring as many people as possible into his circle? We are familiar with these kinds of politicians—congressmen such as Jack Kemp, who won an AFL MVP while quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills; or Mo Udall, a basketball star at Arizona; or Ronald Reagan, a starting guard at Eureka College—and it’s tempting to draw a line between the success they enjoyed in sports during their formative years and the sunny-jock ease with which they approached public life. Even Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba during the tenures of all those aforementioned American names, was a skilled baseball player. For all Castro’s brutality and abuses, insecurity was not among his flaws; perhaps his sports-based confidence played a small part in his ability to hold power for 50 years.

It is also interesting to note that the man who would serve out Nixon’s term was a skilled center and linebacker at the University of Michigan. And while Gerald Ford cannot be said to have had a successful presidency, he did lead a happier life, marked by geniality and a sense of being confident in his own skin.

Is it possible that a stellar college football career might have made Nixon a different man? He might have felt more certain of himself, less concerned that everyone was trying to tear him down. The historian Robert Dallek wrote that Nixon was “a secretive, devious, thoughtful, energetic, erratic, and painfully insecure man who struggled against inner demons and sometimes uncontrollable circumstances to reach for greatness.” But what if he’d already achieved greatness in a different arena? Rather than being focused on continually proving himself to a political culture that didn’t think much of him, a more secure man might not have surrounded himself with the kinds of shady operators who bugged the Democratic National Committee headquarters in an unnecessary effort to win an election that was already all but won.

Nixon did remain a huge fan of football throughout his life. He often thought of football when he was president, frequently using the metaphor of the sport to support some of his most aggressive political actions.

“His use of football analogies was so revealing,” said Cabinet member Elliot Richardson. “Anything was OK, except what the referee sees and blows the whistle on.” Nixon even once explained to his seasoned national security adviser Henry Kissinger that fighting wars was like playing football: “You give ground in the middle of the field, hold the line at the goal line, and then score a touchdown.”

Failing at football seemed to teach Nixon the grim lesson that he had to be ruthless to get by and that he had to give triple the effort of everyone else to succeed. Lacking what he saw as the natural skills of his peers, Nixon schemed, connived, and did everything he thought was necessary to achieve victory. Divorced from the knowledge that Nixon oversaw one of the darkest chapters in presidential history, a simple assessment of his skills as a politician and an aspiring football player read as virtues. Determination, grit, resilience, refusing to succumb to limitations, a kind of courage: These are all traits most of us would like to see in our children. Of course, they all can turn into vices, and that’s precisely what we saw in Nixon.

Still, it is captivating to ponder the possibility that success in the game he loved most could have kept those character traits from curdling. The actual Nixon was ever the wounded animal, so lacking in social and personal confidence that it led him down the rathole of a scandal that shattered the public’s trust in American politics.

But imagine a Nixon who was driven but not deranged. Strategic but not constantly scheming. Ever prepared but never paranoid. This Nixon, imbued with a self-worth derived from bona fide achievements on the fields of play in his youth, might still have had the drive to become president, but he would also have had the good sense never to have emboldened the criminals who broke into the Watergate Hotel, or at least the character to immediately own up to the misdeed. That Nixon might have finished his second term as a stunning success, as the president who remade relations with China and the Soviet Union and enjoyed a massive re-election victory. Maybe, just maybe, that Nixon would not have helped create a public so disenchanted with American politics that they would be willing to elect a game-show host to the White House.

The Nixon we got was never the star, never even the starter. He was the tackling dummy. He was cannon fodder, the victim of constant beatings and humiliations. And for that we all paid the price.

Excerpt reprinted from Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History copyright © 2018 by Mike Pesca. With permission from the publisher, Hachette. All rights reserved.