One lesson to be learned in reaching an age where you are both a viable politician and a washed-up lineman is that past glories are not negotiable in the open market. When you stop winning they not only start booing, they start forgetting.
I used to think of myself as a pretty dashing figure on the ski slopes of the East and in northern Michigan, and could at least count on outstripping my children on the various runs we tried. Nowadays, when the family gets together at Vail for our annual Christmas ski reunion, my sons and my daughter go zooming by, usually with just the encouragement to make me boil. Such as: "Hurry up, Dad." They see themselves getting faster and faster as I get slower and slower. They forget all the times I picked them out of the snowbank.
When I was House Minority Leader and a regular adversary of Lyndon Johnson's, he once said—with minimum affection—"There's nothing wrong with Jerry Ford except that he played football too long without his helmet." Lyndon got a lot of mileage out of that quote, and I used it myself one year when I addressed the Gridiron Club in Washington. I said he was wrong, that I always wore my helmet on any gridiron, and I picked up my old leather bonnet and put it on, right on top of my white tie and tails. It had been a while, though. I had a hard time getting it down over my ears. Of course, heads do have a tendency to swell here in Washington.
My playing days at Michigan are now a standard introduction in magazine stories such as this, usually accompanied by a picture (page 19) of a rugged-looking hairy young man (me) hunched over a ball in the center's position, and the notation that Ford was "the most valuable player on a losing Michigan team." I always feel damned with faint praise when I read that. I'd much rather have been the "least valuable player on a winning Michigan team," the kind we had my sophomore and junior years when we were undefeated and won national championships.
Those were what sportswriters up on their clich�s would call my "halcyon days." Certainly they offer brighter memories than my efforts to stay competitive—and fit—since. Today I am a habitual exerciser—a 15-minute swim twice a day in the backyard pool, slower-and-slower skiing near our place in Vail, and an occasional round of golf with fellow hackers around Washington.
The reason I make reference to those winning seasons at Michigan is that we have been asked to swallow a lot of home-cooked psychology in recent years that winning isn't all that important anymore, whether on the athletic field or in any other field, national and international. I don't buy that for a minute. It is not enough to just compete. Winning is very important. Maybe more important than ever.
Don't misunderstand. I am not low-rating the value of informal participation. Competing is always preferable to not competing, whether you win or not, and one reason is as good as another for getting involved. Swimming laps, for example, is preferable to doubling your waistline. As a young man I took up skiing in order to get to know a certain young lady better. She happened to be a devotee, and I an eager beginner. I lost the girl but I learned to ski. The subject used to be a sensitive one with my wife, who came along afterward, but I have reminded her that that was instructive athletics, not competitive athletics. The important thing was I learned to ski.
If you don't win elections you don't play, so the importance of winning is more drastic in that field. In athletics and in most other worthwhile pursuits first place is the manifestation of the desire to excel, and how else can you achieve anything? I certainly do not feel we achieved very much as a Michigan football team in 1934. And I can assure you we had more fun on those championship teams in 1932-33.
Broadly speaking, outside of a national character and an educated society, there are few things more important to a country's growth and well-being than competitive athletics. If it is a clich� to say athletics build character as well as muscle, then I subscribe to the clich�. It has been said, too, that we are losing our competitive spirit in this country, the thing that made us great, the guts of the free-enterprise system. I don't agree with that; the competitive urge is deep-rooted in the American character. I do wonder sometimes if we are adjusting to the times, or if we have been spoiled by them.
For one, do we realize how important it is to compete successfully with other nations? Not just the Russians, but many nations that are growing and challenging. Being a leader, the U.S. has an obligation to set high standards. I don't know of a better advertisement for a nation's good health than a healthy athletic representation. Athletics happens to be an extraordinarily swift avenue of communication. The broader the achievement the greater the impact. There is much to be said for Ping-Pong diplomacy.