It’s September, and football is back. On Capitol Hill that means Representatives make friendly wagers over big games from teams in their districts, and recognizable all-stars occasionally find their way into campaign ads. Former football players—at both the professional and collegiate levels—have served in Congress for much of the last century. Mirroring the rise of the sport itself, the first football stars to join Congress were coaches and players from college teams. Gradually, American sports professionalized, and athletes like Jon Runyan of New Jersey and Heath Shuler of North Carolina brought their experience to the House too.
In recent years, the Congressional Football Game has become another of the many rituals celebrated among Members of Congress. Following in the long tradition of the Congressional Baseball Game, the Congressional Football Game launched in 2005 as a fundraiser for a local cause. Envisioned by Representative Rick Renzi of Arizona seven years earlier to honor the service of the U.S. Capitol Police following the 1998 shooting of officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, the game pits Members of Congress and former National Football League (NFL) players in a friendly match against Capitol Police officers. The event has attracted significant sponsors, like the National Football League, and all proceeds benefit charities, including the Capitol Police Memorial Fund. The game has been played in the fall of every odd year (in order to not conflict with congressional campaigns during the even years).
This month’s Edition for Educators features football and the House.
Walter Gresham Andrews of New York
A Republican from New York, Walter Gresham Andrews is one of the earliest known Members who made a brief career out of football. Andrews coached the Princeton University Tigers football team in 1913 and 1915. Andrews served in World War I before returning home to Buffalo, New York, where he managed sales, supervised the federal Census in the Buffalo region, and directed the local hospital. In 1930, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually chaired the Committee on Armed Services in the 80th Congress (1947–1949) before retiring from Congress.
Gerald Ford of Michigan
Republican Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan is perhaps the most famous former football player to turn to politics. Ford played center on the University of Michigan football team during two undefeated seasons in 1932 and 1933 and won the Most Valuable Player award from his teammates in 1934. Despite lucrative offers to play for the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, Ford decided to pursue a law degree at Yale University where he could simultaneously serve as an assistant coach for the university team. A World War II naval veteran, Ford entered Congress in 1949 and rose in the Republican conference, becoming conference chair in the 88th Congress (1963–1965). He then served as Republican Leader for the next five Congresses, a position which the New York Times described as “head coach of a disorganized squad of 140 politicians.” He resigned from the House on December 6, 1973, to serve as Vice President after the incumbent, Spiro Agnew, resigned. Following President Nixon’s resignation the following August, Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States. A perpetual athlete, Ford was an avid skier and golfer well into his retirement.
Jack Kemp of New York
“Some kids dream about being President,” Jack Kemp once said. “I dreamt night and day about football.” Kemp won election as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 after a lifetime of quarterbacking. Unlike Gerald Ford, who had once turned down the chance to play for the Detroit Lions, Kemp joined the team as their 17th-round draft pick in 1957. After trades to the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Canadian league team Calgary Roughriders, and the San Francisco 49ers, Kemp found his footing with the San Diego (formerly Los Angeles) Chargers in 1960 and finally the Buffalo Bills in 1962. While playing professional football, Kemp served as president of the American Football League players association, negotiating pension contracts for the league’s players. Eventually, he served nine terms in the House representing a district just outside Buffalo. Kemp focused on economic policy and championed the theory of “supply-side” economics during the Reagan era. His colleagues elected him Republican conference chair during each of his final four terms. Kemp ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1988 but lost to George Bush, whose cabinet Kemp then served in as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “In life you can’t always win,” he later said, “but football helps teach you never to quit.”
Ruth Hanna McCormick
In this photo from the 1929 Army football game against the University of Illinois, Representative Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois watches from the stands alongside Secretary of War and former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee James W. Good.
Julius Caesar (J.C.) Watts, Jr. Lapel Pin
From 1999 to 2003, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma served as the chair of the House Republican Conference. But before quarterbacking the GOP’s policy goals on Capitol Hill, Watts was a college football hero at the University of Oklahoma where he quarterbacked the Sooners to two Orange Bowl victories. After a brief career in the Canadian Football League, he returned home to become a youth minister. A staunch fiscal conservative, Watts first ran for Congress in 1994, advertising his campaign with this lapel pin.
President Ronald Reagan’s Denied Request to Address the House
On June 23, 1986, Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts declined a request from President Ronald Reagan to address the House of Representatives about a foreign aid package that was about to come up for a vote. In declining the President’s request to address the House, O’Neill pointed out that he had twice rejected similar requests by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. In 1978, for instance, Carter asked to schedule a Joint Address on the Middle East peace process for 9:00 p.m. O’Neill responded, “Mr. President, 9 o’clock? That’s when the football game is on. . . . How about 8 o’clock?” Carter agreed and his address on September 18, 1978, preceded the game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Colts. The Colts won 34 to 27.
No Going Home for the Holidays
On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, the scene in the House was chaos. After a standard unanimous consent request to adjourn for the holiday failed amid much furor, many Members salvaged their holiday and attended the popular Army–Navy football game in Philadelphia.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory