More than one-third of modern U.S. presidents played football at some level. Dwight Eisenhower was known as the Kansas Cyclone for his running ability at West Point. Gerald Ford won a national championship as a lineman at University of Michigan. Ronald Reagan started at Eureka College (Illinois) while JFK played junior varsity at Harvard. Though George Washington, standing at 6-3 and weighing roughly 220 pounds and as physically imposing amongst his peers as College Football Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, was around well before the sport was invented, he almost certainly would have been a dominant force on the field.
Hundreds of congressmen played football, including nearly 30 current members. So have dozens of governors and mayors and many of our most esteemed military leaders, including General Douglas MacArthur who provided early leadership of the National Football Foundation. An impressive number of our nation’s most powerful businessmen, entrepreneurs, doctors, astronauts, entertainers and leaders also played football at a high level, from General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt to Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, to actor John Wayne.
And so it is with this storied history of American men forging their character and courage on the gridiron that Wednesday morning, September 14th, 2016, in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office building in Washington, D.C., the first ever Congressional College Football Caucus (CCFC) took place.
The CCFC is the brainchild of NFF President and CEO, Steve Hatchell and NFF Chairman, Archie Manning. They reached out to Congressman Roger Williams, R-Texas, and Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who co-hosted the CCFC’s launch.
Its mission is to promote the values and principals that are developed through playing football, specifically how the lessons learned from the game – regardless the level of play – provide invaluable life skills, including hard work, teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and the relentless pursuit to improve.
The goal of the CCFC is to educate members of Congress and the public on the vital role that college football plays in our country, while ensuring that the opportunities created by the more than $5 billion in scholarship are preserved as a transformative vehicle for student-athletes to further their education.
In short, to help raise the awareness of how great the game of football truly is to individuals and American society as a whole.
To support the effort here in D.C., a parade of football luminaries flew in to testify to the positive life-changing benefits that can be earned and learned on the field.
Jack Ford, former Yale standout and current CBS News and 60 Minutes Sports correspondent, emceed the event and opened with his own remarks about why the game of college football means so much to him.
"I believe that college football is the greatest of all games and the most American of all games," he said. "Football is important to us because we care so deeply about the values promoted by the game. Here is an important number people should know: Most recently the graduation rate for college football players is 77 percent. For all other college students it's 67 percent. The best part of that number is that it continues to grow every year."
VIPs at the event included Arizona State Athletics Director Ray Anderson, North Carolina State Athletics Director Debbie Yow, College Football Hall of Famers Thom Gatewood from Notre Dame and Hall of Fame coach Barry Switzer from Oklahoma as well as key representatives from College Football Playoff, Division I-A Athletics Directors, Herff Jones, NFL, Nike and PrimeSport.
The dais included its own list of America's most powerful men who love football: Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and the aforementioned Immelt, Switzer and Congressman Williams.
Roger Williams opened his remarks with a brief roll call of the congressman in attendance who played and what football meant to them and their lives. Most notably, Jeff Duncan, a congressman from South Carolina who played at Clemson with William "The Refrigerator" Perry, said he was thrilled to be there and squeezed in a quick "Go Tigers!"
The line of the day belonged to GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, who in a featured video answered the following question: "What's the hardest part about being a CEO of a major American company?" With the mic-dropping, answer: "Pretending to give a sh*t about soccer."
He said he was being flippant, but his point was made, and he then went on to give an incredibly heartfelt defense of the sport he loves.
"Football is a beautiful game," he added in his live remarks. "I spend all my time on
GE. I love my company, but when I have any spare time I spend it on football. Football has had a massive impact on me and the hundreds of thousands of young men that learn competitiveness and teamwork from the game. I'll do whatever I can to protect the future of football. My best teachers growing up were coaches and they taught me the value of hard work. More importantly, when I think of football and my company, I ask myself, 'what is the heart of a competitive American?'"
The question hung in the air for a brief moment, before Immelt answered his own question with what he tells his own GE employees.
"I tell my company that you need to fear nobody," he said. "We can compete with anybody in any corner of the world. We have all the tools that are acquired to do it. Somewhere along the line the athletic spirit we have helps us to be more competitive, and football is a major factor in that, and it is worth protecting."
Immelt received resounding applause for his remarks and was followed up by SEC Commissioner, Greg Sankey, who opened with a Mark Twain quote, "Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."
He then went on to discuss the major college football game at the Bristol Motor Speedway that took place this past weekend between Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
"It was an incredible atmosphere and celebration of America and patriotism," he said, before going on to explain why the mainstream perception of college football student-athletes has been hijacked.
"The narrative is that we don't educate our players," he said. "That day I spoke with Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who majors in aerospace engineering. The narrative says you shouldn't be able to do that and play football. Dobbs spent time as an intern with Pratt & Whitney working on internships. But the narrative says he shouldn't be able to do that either. But Dobbs isn't alone. The national championship team last year had 22 men graduate. The notion that we don't educate our men is exaggerated. We are flawed, and you can read about those, but the great individual successes are often overlooked. The game of football is incredibly important to our communities. I don't know if Dobbs will play in the NFL, but I know his focus is on the educational opportunity that football provides."
Next up was Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who is also chairing the NCAA Football Oversight Committee. First on the list of agenda items is the safety of the game.
"The fact is, we have to make the game safer," Bowlsby said. "We are partnering with the Department of Defense to study concussive effects and head trauma. The instances of CTE among college football players is relatively rare. Most of us who played the game at the college level don't have any symptoms of the condition or have it, but many soccer moms still won’t allow their young men to play. We are here to fight back."
Which leads us to the closing speaker and the icon himself, former Sooners coach Barry Switzer, who commanded the room.
"I played and I coached," he said. "I've seen the game from all perspectives. I grew up in the rural south in the 30s and 40s. If it wasn't for football I wonder what I would have become. I damn sure didn't want to be my dad, who wound up in jail for bootlegging. The scholarship to Arkansas that I got led me to my coach Frank Broyles. I served my country and then I was going to go to law school, but we have too many damned lawyers, and Frank called me and said, you can always go to law school, but how about you go into coaching?"
The rest is history in terms of wins and losses, but Coach Switzer went deeper.
"Football is about talking to young men's families when you recruit," he said. "Sometimes there's a dad there, most times not. But it is our job to take young men and to develop them to be productive citizens for the next 40-50 years of living after college football. To help them become surgeons and businessmen and family men. College coaches are committed to that. That's what college coaching is truly about. It’s about building an extended family of young men who you will care about the rest of their lives."
Switzer got emotional at the end of his speech and the room rallied around him with cheers.
Following that a short video was shown promoting FootballMatters.org's "Football Moms" initiative featuring Pam Martin.
After the video and Ford's closing remarks, many of the congressmen and staffers spoke about the game they loved and it brought to mind a remark Congressman Williams made during his talk earlier in the proceedings, when he mentioned that while DC is often seen as being a town split along party lines, football can be the great uniter.
"As you may be aware, we are somewhat divided here in town," he joked. "But football is bipartisan. It brings us together. It is something we love to talk about and it’s great for our country. It's what Americans do on Saturday."
As the CCFC sets out in its mission from this day forward, Americans should be enjoying their football on Saturdays for decades to come.
NFF Board Members in attendance included President & CEO Hatchell, Anderson, Bowlsby, Ford, Gatewood, Immelt, Sankey, Williams and Yow.
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