How His West Point Football Experience Inspired Eisenhower
Dwight Eisenhower will never be remembered as a great West Point football player, but he never ceased to extol the formative lessons he learned as an athlete.
Fifty years ago, on the eve of the 1964 Army-Navy football game, former president Dwight Eisenhower, then living in retirement in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, sent the Army team a telegram. “You will always have what you give today. The more you give the more you will keep. Every Army man is with you all the way,” Ike wrote.
The telegram reflected Ike’s memory of playing football as a West Point cadet, but that time in his life won’t be part of the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington. Ike the World War II general and Ike the president will be the focus of the highly controversial, Frank Gehry-designed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.
We’ll never know Ike’s thoughts about finally getting a memorial in Washington, but we do know that he never forgot his football days at West Point. They figure prominently in his memoir, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, and on this Veterans Day, they are worth recalling for what they reveal about him.
“It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance I attached to participation in sports,” Ike wrote years after he stopped playing football. “I so loved the fierce bodily contact of football that I suppose my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of size.”
Ike arrived at West Point in 1911 weighing 152 pounds and standing 5’11” tall, which made him undersized even by the football standards of the pre-World War I era. “I was muscular and strong, but very spare,” he recalled. “It was dismaying, then, to find that I was too light in comparison to men who were then on the team to be taken seriously.” Ike swallowed his pride and spent the fall of his first year at West Point playing on the Cullum Hall football team, then the equivalent of the junior varsity.
But Ike was determined to avoid a second year on the junior varsity, and by the following football season, thanks to an exercise and diet regimen, he had transformed himself as an athlete. When he next tried out for the varsity, he weighed 174 pounds and was faster than he had been on his arrival at West Point. His coaches quickly noticed the difference.
In his sophomore year, Ike became a featured running back on offense and a linebacker on defense. He was in the starting lineup when Army played the legendary Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School, and many years later, he was remembered by Thorpe for his fierce defensive play.
Ike was on the verge of fulfilling his football dreams when, near the end of the 1912 season in a game against Tufts, he twisted his knee so badly on a run that he had to be sidelined. After the game he was hospitalized with what he thought was a minor injury. “I was hospitalized for two or three days waiting for the swelling to disappear,” he recalled. “Then, discharged with no warning from the medical staff that the joint was permanently weakened and with no instructions to be cautious in using it for at least a while.”
Ike’s biggest fear on leaving the hospital was that he would lose his chance to play against Navy if he missed too much practice. It was misplaced fear. Ike quickly found out how serious the injury to his joint was when, during riding class, his knee gave way after he landed hard on the floor of the riding rink during a maneuver known as the “monkey drill.” Ike’s football career was over, and he would have a sensitive knee for the rest of his life.
The injury led Ike to think about leaving West Point. “I was almost despondent and several times had to be prevented from resigning by the persuasive effort of classmates,” he remembered. “Life seemed to have little meaning; a need to excel was almost gone.” When Ike finally got over his depression, he helped coach the Cullum Hall squad, and in his senior year he became a West Point cheerleader. He did not, he realized, have to play football for football to be an important part of his life.
With the passage of time, Ike came to look on football as far more than the game he once thought would allow him to make his mark as a cadet. “I believe” he later observed of a group of West Point football players who had turned out to be successful Army officers, “that football, perhaps more than any other sport, tends to instill in men the feeling that victory comes through hard—almost slavish—work, team play, self-confidence, and an enthusiasm that amounts to dedication.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone using such words today to describe the lessons taught by big-time college football, let alone the pro game, but for Ike the great virtue of football was that it taught him at a very young age to keep defeat as well as success in perspective. Long before he became a general, he had taken the measure of himself.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the forthcoming book, Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.