Presidential aide Robert Hartmann once said that Gerald Ford was prouder of his athletic achievements than his political accomplishments. But 40 years before he became president, Ford turned down the opportunity for a professional football career in favor of law school.
After playing behind All-American center Chuck Bernard for his first two years, Ford became a starter for the Wolverines as a senior in 1934. Even though he was not selected as a captain – one of his primary athletic goals – Ford’s teammates named him the Most Valuable Player of that 1-7 team.
Following his final game as a Wolverine, he was invited to play in the Shrine East-West charity football game in San Francisco. As told in the biography “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History,” representatives from four professional football teams attended the contest, but paid no attention to Ford until he entered the game for an injured starter.
“I was the only center left, so I went in and played the rest of the game and had one of my best days ever,” Ford said.
The professional football coaches noticed.
After talking to Ford on the train ride home, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions both presented him football contracts for the following year. The Packers offered $110 per game and the Lions proposed $200 per game for the 14-game professional season. Months before graduation, Ford was $1,000 in debt and needed the income but decided that higher education interested him more than professional football.
“What I really wanted to do was go on to law school, and I thought maybe I could find some way to stay on at Michigan and do it,” Ford later recalled.
He decided not to accept either offer, instead looking for a coaching position to help defray the cost of law school at Michigan. After learning that he would receive just $100 as an assistant coach for the Wolverines, he realized that the job would not cover Michigan law school expenses and subsequently accepted a $2,400 per year coaching job at Yale.
The pay was less than what he would have received from the Detroit Lions, but coaching for the Bulldogs allowed him to apply to Yale Law School. Ford coached football in the fall and spring and boxing in the winter while working toward his degree.
“I was assistant line coach and then later made head junior varsity coach,” Ford told The Michigan Daily in 1989. “By the time I finished the five years there, I was making $3,600 a year and going to law school full-time, so it worked out very well.”
Decades later, when Michigan retired his number, the politician did not hesitate to address his lifelong love for athletics.
“I am a loyal Wolverine,” he told The Ann Arbor News in 1994. “When they lose in football, basketball, or anything, I still get darn disappointed.”