COMMENTARY : Knee Injury Sent Eisenhower Toward D-Day and Presidency


On the Kansas prairie at the turn of the century, a boy hopped freight trains to get to the next ballgame. He learned to hunt and cook his kill from an illiterate woodsman who also taught him to paddle a flatboat, to find north on a rainy day and never to try to draw to an inside straight. When a doctor wanted to amputate his infected leg, the boy, then 13, stopped him by saying, “I’d rather be dead than crippled and not able to play ball.”

He grew up in Abilene, once a dusty cow town that hired Wild Bill Hickok as its marshal. The boy, blond and blue-eyed, handsome as a sunrise and quick with a smile already irresistible, made a striking appearance when he left Abilene, 20 years old, headed east for school.

“He had filled out in the past two years, putting on 20 pounds, none of which was fat,” a biographer wrote. “At nearly 6 feet tall, and weighing 170 pounds, with strong, broad shoulders and rock-hard muscles, he was the embodiment of an athlete. He was rawboned, with big hands. He walked on the balls of his feet and carried himself gracefully, as good athletes do.”


His daydreams had been a boy’s of his time and place. Maybe, he said, he could be a railroad engineer “racing across the land, arriving in Abilene, steam engine hissing, bell ringing, once again breaking the record from St. Louis or some other distant, mythical place.”

Or a baseball pitcher: “ . . . to set down the next three batters on nine pitches in the last half of the ninth, with the bases loaded (of course) to the thunderous applause of five hundred spectators.”

And this: “When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing, and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”

The Abilene of Dwight David Eisenhower’s youth was a conservative, God-fearing, hard-working place where you made your life yourself. One of six brothers of a father who used the rod and a mother who gave them a sense of peace, Eisenhower worked constantly. His money went for shotgun shells, ice cream sodas and, most of all, for bats, balls, gloves and uniforms.

Historian Stephen F. Ambrose wrote, “Sports, especially football and baseball, were the center of his life. He put more time into the games than into anything else, save work, and expended far more energy on sports than he put into his studies. He was a good, but not outstanding, athlete. He was well coordinated, but slow of foot. He weighed only 150 pounds. His chief asset was his will to win.”

Ambrose saw in Eisenhower humility and fair play: “One Saturday afternoon, the Abilene players discovered that the opposition had a Negro on the team. Each Abilene player refused to play across the line from the Negro, who was a center. Dwight stepped forward to say that he would play center that day, although his usual position was end and he had never played center. Both before and after the game, Dwight shook hands with the Negro. ‘Rest of the team was a bit ashamed (of themselves),’ he reported years later.”


Military history fascinated the ballplayer. His senior yearbook predicted Eisenhower would become a professor of history at Yale. Though his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1911 was a surprise to a young boy up from nothing, a generation later it must have seemed ordained.

At West Point as at Abilene, sports was so much his passion that even Eisenhower admitted “it would be difficult to overemphasize” the importance he attached to games. His first year, he played baseball and junior varsity football.

Whatever happened later, and much would happen, Eisenhower never forgot 1912. That second year as an Army cadet, he became a football star described by The New York Times as “one of the most promising backs in Eastern football.” For years he told friends, with delight, of tackling Jim Thorpe and believing he had hurt the Carlisle Indian School star only to see him rise up and on the next play run through Army again.

Then, in a mid-November game against Tufts, Eisenhower twisted a knee. During a horsemanship exercise a week later, he crumpled in agony. Cartilages and tendons were torn. He never played again.

Instead, even as he rose in rank to major, he worked as a football coach at Army camps. Through the 1920s and into the ‘30s, Eisenhower coached at San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston, St. Louis College, Camp Meade and Fort Benning. His work attracted such attention that he once turned down a job as head coach at “a northwestern university.”

The biographer Ambrose: “ . . . coaching brought out his best traits--his organizational ability, his energy and competitiveness, his enthusiasm and optimism, his willingness to work hard at a task that intrigued him, his powers of concentration, his talent for working with the material he had . . . and his gift for drawing the best out of his players.”

In memoirs done after his years of triumph, Eisenhower said football “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.” He could reel off names of generals and admirals who had the game in common. They were men who understood sacrifice for a goal greater than themselves. They also understood their debt and obligation to men whose sacrifices made their lives worth living.

Fifty years ago this week, the old ballplayer from Kansas stood in the mess room at Southwick House, an estate near the southern coast of England. As supreme commander of the Allied forces in World War II, he had a decision to make. The only sounds in the room were rain against the windows and French doors rattling in the storm winds. Sometime after 4 in the morning, Eisenhower said quietly but clearly, “OK, let’s go.”

Then began the greatest invasion in the history of warfare.