Ronald Reagan was not our most athletic president and wouldn't have been even if he'd been 30 years younger when elected. He was not consumed with golf, didn't seem to care much about any of the major sports beyond the political opportunities they offered—he was master of the ceremonial first pitch, the congratulatory locker room phone call, the Rose Garden team photo—and was not once caught playing touch football (or, for that matter, diagramming plays for NFL coaches). He was an excellent horseman, but he never talked about that. In fact, the record of his rhetoric reveals scant use of athletic metaphors and only occasional reference to his playing days at Eureka College a half-century earlier.
Yet when you think of recent U.S. presidents, even going back to Dwight Eisenhower, who helped codify our postwar leisure culture (he was our first executive golf nut), it's Reagan who stands out as America's First Jock. More than John F. Kennedy, whose competitive zeal was the substance of so many photo spreads, and even more than Gerald Ford, who had been an actual All-America in football at Michigan, it was Reagan, with his Western vitality, who seemed as if he'd been the great athlete.
He hadn't been, not really. Recalling his childhood in small-town Illinois, Reagan once said he was always the last kid chosen in baseball. He had more success in football, in part because his myopia was less a handicap there. ("The ball was bigger.") Still, even at Eureka—no football powerhouse by any measure—he sat on the bench for most of his freshman and sophomore seasons, though he eventually became a starting guard.
Like so many young men Reagan wanted to be a hero, and his biography dutifully notes that in seven summers as a lifeguard Reagan saved 77 swimmers. More telling is his audition for a sportscasting job at a small radio station in Iowa in 1932. Asked to conjure up the end of an imaginary football game, Reagan instead re-created a game at Eureka. In real life the winning play was accomplished despite the right guard's inability to make a key block. ("Missed the linebacker by a mile," Reagan said later.) But in his re-creation, a right guard named Reagan "leveled a block on the linebacker so furiously it could have killed him." Reagan got the job.
Heroism, as Reagan well knew, is not always attainable in real life. You don't always have the required gifts or chances. (His eyesight kept him out of combat during World War II.) For an actor, though, the possibilities are endless. Reagan understood this, and on a spring training trip to California with the Cubs (he was broadcasting baseball for WHO in Des Moines by then) he redirected his ambition and campaigned for a Hollywood audition. He got a studio contract, starred in a number of B movies and in 1940 landed the role of George Gipp, the Notre Dame footballer who was dying of pneumonia.
When Reagan watched Knute Rockne—All American at a preview, he was pleased to see grown men pulling out handkerchiefs after the scene in which he asks Rockne to tell his teammates to "win just one for the Gipper." He remembered hearing sniffles and thinking, This was the breakthrough I'd been waiting for. Hero at last.
Mythology can be more potent than history. That's true in sport and in politics, which is why Reagan, who wasn't a great athlete or even a great actor, was a great president. It's almost impossible now to unravel the fictions woven so tightly into his presidential image, stitched by his charisma, force of will and the same juvenile dreams that haunt us all. And maybe it's that adolescent wistfulness that lingers beyond his years, characterizing a playfulness and optimism that shapes his fair and pleasant image for all time. Just a kid, really, who wanted to be on the team. And that's why so many wanted to be on his.
Rick Reilly is on vacation.