Interview With Tom Brokaw of NBC News Prior to Super Bowl XX

January 26, 1986

Mr. Brokaw. Mr. President, thanks for being with us today.

The President. Well, I'm pleased to be here.

Mr. Brokaw. Over, what, almost 20 years now, I've asked you a lot of questions about a variety of subjects -- --

The President. Yes.

Mr. Brokaw. -- -- but seldom have so many people been so interested as they are in this next question. I know you're the representative of all the people, but the time has come, Mr. President, for you to make a choice. Now, who do you like: the Bears or the Patriots?

The President. I think they're both great teams. I recognize that, in my position, I'm not supposed to take sides. I have to say it's very easy, though, to really be, well, proud of and approving of both of these teams. The Patriots and all that they've gone through and -- starting, as they did, later in the season, recovering and coming back and being there in the Super Bowl -- and the length of time the people have waited for this, but on the other hand I go back in memory to the Bears and a close personal friendship with ``Papa Bear,'' George Halas, when he was alive. So, I'm just going to say, ``May the best team win.''

Mr. Brokaw. We shouldn't read too much into the fact that you're wearing red, which -- Patriot colors.

The President. I worried about that while I was watching the pregame show here and wondered whether I maybe should change into a neutral color. And then I saw a shot of the Chicago Bears, and one of them was wearing a red sweater, and I decided it was all right.

Mr. Brokaw. Super Bowl Sunday has become a kind of undeclared national holiday. Do you think that occasions like this help shape our national character, or are they really just kind of entertaining diversions from things like the deficit and terrorism and Qadhafi and so on?

The President. Well, I think it's typically American that we can have -- or be diverted by things like this from the serious problems, and I think it's part of the American personality. And I know that other countries take athletics seriously, too, but there's something different about it in America. It's so much a part of American life that I think it's a part of our personality.

Mr. Brokaw. I know that football was important to you as a young man, so last week I called your old college football coach, Ralph McKinzie, at Eureka College. He's 91 years old -- --

The President. Yes.

Mr. Brokaw. -- -- still strong of voice. Now, here's what he told me. He said that you were ``eager, aggressive, better on defense, but overall an average football player, but an outstanding talker.'' [Laughter] Is that a fair scouting report?

The President. Well, probably. And I'm pleased that he did remember that much. After 91 years, he's still coaching. So, there've been how many hundreds or thousands of young men have come through the ranks with him. But I remember him very vividly as a coach. He could demonstrate as well as tell you, because he had been a star at Eureka College, a great star himself.

But I remember, for example, one day running plays. And to make scrimmage more even in practice, we would have the first-string backfield with the second-string line and the first-string line with the second-string backfield -- kind of even things up. So, he was teaching a play to the first-string backfield over there, and the fellow that was to carry the ball wasn't getting it right. And Mac -- this was his way -- he just came in and gently pushed him aside and says, ``Now, wait a minute. Watch this.'' Now, we in the line on the other side, we know what the play is; we know where the man's coming. In fact, I got my hands on Mac when he came through, and I hurt every place he touched me. And right through the varsity line and the second-string backfield, back with the ball, threw the ball down, and says, ``Now, do it that-a-way.''

Mr. Brokaw. Now, you were a guard; and Presidents Ford, Nixon, and Kennedy also played in the line. What is there about the line that prepares you for Presidential politics better than the backfield, it appears?

The President. Well, you know, the line certainly feels that those fellows behind them wouldn't be able to do anything if we didn't pave the way for them. But, no, I was a guard; and 3 years of varsity ball at Eureka, I averaged all but 2 minutes of every game.

Mr. Brokaw. And then when you became a film star, you got to play the part of the legendary George Gipp of Notre Dame, the Gipper, a great running back. But lately, we've learned that Gipp was not only a great athlete, but he was a bit of a rogue. He was a pool shark and a card shark and -- --

The President. There were some, but he was as loyal and as principled about football and winning for Rockne. Yes, I knew some of those stories about him. As a matter of fact, I had been trying to write the story, when I got in pictures, with the idea of playing Gipp. And Warner Brothers bought the life story of Knute Rockne, and there it was. But, yes, Gipp was older than the rest of the fellows and totally dedicated to winning and all, but he was a fellow that could almost -- it was like Babe Ruth pointing at the center field fence and then hitting it over that fence -- he could almost do whatever he said he would do. And Mrs. Rockne, who was on the picture with us, told us that he was the only man in all those years that ever really got under Rock's skin to where there was a kind of father-son relationship with him.

Mr. Brokaw. The Oval Office may be the only office in America that doesn't have a betting pool going on the Super Bowl. Someone has estimated that, what, $2 billion may be wagered on this Sunday, most of it illegally. Does that bother you at all -- that there's so much betting on football?

The President. Well, I wish that it could be without, because I think when it gets up to that kind of money, then there is too much temptation to try and fix things. And human nature being what it is, we know from past history that sometimes they get away with that. That was one of Rockne's greatest determinations, was he threw a gambler out of his office one day, bodily, who had come to see him and was seeking some information about who was going to win. And Rock just -- he hated the idea of gambling associated with football.

Mr. Brokaw. Mr. President, football is a metaphor for so many things in American life, including politics. Now, at the end of this game today, one team is going to be in a deficit situation and all those players are going to face a very taxing year in 1986. You're about to deliver the State of the Union Address. Are you going to put the American people through the same experience in 1986 -- a taxing year?

The President. A tax year, you say?

Mr. Brokaw. A taxing year. Will this be a tough year for them?

The President. I don't like the use of that word. It might be taxing for me and my energy. But I don't like the idea that someone might hear this and think I'm thinking of taxing them, because I'm not. [Laughter] I don't want any tax increase.

Mr. Brokaw. Right now all you have on your mind is the Super Bowl? Watching it with Mrs. Reagan, I gather?

The President. That's right, and remembering football much more vividly than you normally do. It all comes back, and you find yourself kind of remembering what the cleats felt like under your shoes.

Mr. Brokaw. Well, we hope you have a great afternoon, and we hope that it's a great game. Final chance -- do you want to pick a score or a team?

The President. No. Do I have a second so that I could tell you a little incident in my memories of football?

Mr. Brokaw. Sure, absolutely.

The President. Well, it was our ball back on our own 35-yard line. We were 1 point behind. There were 20 seconds to play, but we thought the ref had said 2 minutes. And Bud, our quarterback, called an off-tackle run with himself carrying the ball. As a running guard, I came out and led the interference. And the key to the play was me getting that first man on the secondary; I missed him. But Bud cut back to the sideline, went 65 yards for the touchdown, and we won the game. Now, that stuck with me. I never could figure out: How did he do it with me missing that block?

And the very next season, when I was auditioned to become a sports announcer, and they told me to stand in front of the microphone and imagine a football game and describe it on radio. So I did, and I chose that game because I knew enough of the players' names that I could get by and so forth. And I thought, ``I won't start with the kickoff or anything. I'll start in the fourth quarter.'' I had the chill wind coming in through the end of the stadium. We didn't have stadiums; we had bleachers. But anyway, I did all those things; and then I called that play. And this time I nailed that man in the secondary. [Laughter] I claim this is the first instant replay. Only it wasn't instant; it was a year later. But, no, it was a beautiful, earth-shaking block.

Mr. Brokaw. The great thing about being a President or a sports announcer, you can go back and correct all those mistakes, all those missed blocks.

The President. Yes.

Mr. Brokaw. Mr. President, I hope you have a great afternoon watching the game. Thanks again for being with us today.

The President. Looking forward to it, and thank you.

Note: The interview began at 4:45 p.m. in the Library at the White House. It was broadcast live prior to the football game between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots in the Superdome in New Orleans, LA.