Nixon is wearing number 12 RICHARD NIXON … 37TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, 1969 1974 … VICE PRESIDENT, 1953 61 … U.S. SENATOR (CA), 1951 53 … U.S. CONGRESSMAN, 1947 51 The single-mindedness necessary to fight one’s way to the top, in no matter what spot, is something not shared by the majority of mortals. PA UL GALLICO, sportswriter, novelist, author of The Poseidon Adventure 124 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME AS TOLD BY JONATHAN AITKIN, AUTHOR OF NIXON: A LIFE When I interviewed President Nixon for my book, I quickly picked up on his passion for football. He wanted to play football in high school, but he was prevented from playing by doctors who said he had a tuberculosis shadow on his lungs. It pained him to miss out on the game he loved, because he wanted so much to be a part of the team. He finally got cleared to play at college. There was a problem, though. At one hundred fifty-five pounds he was too small to play the line, and he was too slow to play running back.
His inborn clumsiness made him inept when it came to passing or receiving. He ended up a permanent fixture on the bench, technically not even making the team. One of the figures who shaped his entire life back in the 1930s was his football coach at Whittier College, Chief Wallace Newman. He taught Nixon to never give up and to keep on fighting. He credited the chief with instilling in him the inspirational dream that by hard work, training, and preparation, even the greatest victory can be achieved. This is not to say that Nixon could play footballhe was one of the worst players on the teambut he was still inspired by Newman. I remember one time Nixon told me, He tried to get all of us to be self-sufficient, to be competitive and . . . never give up. On the old clich , It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game, the chief said, That’s nonsense. Of course how you play the game counts, you should always play fair. But it also counts whether you win or lose.
You play to win. If you don’t win you kick yourself in the butt and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again. There was story that was relayed to me a few times about Nixon’s response when the coach turned around during one game and said, Nixon, what would you have done in that play? Sir, I would’ve pulled the blanket up just a little tighter around my shoulders. Chief Newman was called chief because he had Indian blood and that inspired him. Newman did see in Nixon qualities that helped him RICHARD NIXON 125 stay on the team, and those were tenacity and courage. He may have gotten into only one game, but he never missed a practice, arriving first and staying late. This habit and his approach to the game did not go unnoticed by his teammates, who were constantly amazed by his tenacity. TWO TEAMMATES AT WHITTIER Clint Harris: I remember thinking, Dick Nixon, I don’t know why you do this, but I admire your red-blooded intestinal fortitude to stay with it until the end of the season. Gail Jobe: Nixon and I were cannon fodder. We were two of the smallest guys on the team, but we learned how to hang in there and smash the big guys back. I’ll say this for Nixon, he had plenty of guts when it came to taking a beating, getting up off the floor, and coming back fighting. Chief Newman: He was tenacious as the dickens.
When he got ahold of something he never let go. Nixon looked at the chief as an almost mystical figure in his life and he felt okay about being a reserve on the team. That didn’t mean he was not embarrassed at not being good enough to be on the field. He hated not playing, but he didn’t quit. For four years, he was out there from four to seven pm. Newman was still so important to Nixon that after he resigned from the presidency in August 1974, when he was at the lowest point of his life, it was Chief Newman who said pick yourself up again and fight back. Nixon told me the chief had a lot to do with his reinvention in the later stages of his life. I don’t think Nixon’s self-esteem was tied into how he played football. His lifelong yearning was to be one of the boys, and you couldn’t be one of the boys and not be part of the football team.
Nixon was a huge sports fan, and I know this because almost every one of my interview sessions was interrupted by or scheduled around some baseball or football game. He was dead serious about his teams and always pointed out to me the character traits of different famous players, character traits that most others would not be able to see. I really enjoyed watching him watch the games. 126 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME MY WRAP Jonathan went on to say that he almost called the book Fighting Back because of Nixon’s days on the field and his passion for sports. He was a tough, hardworking guy before football, but there is no doubt that this game and this coach were an integral part of his life. There is also no doubt it helped him battle back from all the trouble he had in his political career, from losing the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, losing the race for governor of California, and through Watergate. He was a fighter who never lost his passion to play and win. He was the first Rudy story, only he didn’t get the chance to make the final tackle. RICHARD NIXON
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