Presidents such as Joe Biden have been super connected to pro football
The football field at Archmere Academy is just off the banks of the Delaware River, perfectly green artificial turf surrounded by the yellows and browns that dominate the color palette in winter when everything isn’t covered by snow. When the wind blows just right in the afternoon, the air fills with the smell of grilled onions from the local steak shop.
Up a small hill, a converted mansion called “The Patio” — complete with marble floors, a stained-glass roof, a central fountain and classically detailed fixtures — has a perfect view of the field right on the edge of the woods, the home of Archmere’s undefeated, Delaware Class 2A champion football team.
At an assembly in December on the idyllic campus to honor that group, a football star from an undefeated Archmere team six decades prior surprised the team with an invitation to his place of residence — the White House.
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“I’m so darn proud of you,” President Joe Biden said to the students at his alma mater.“… Fellas, it’s a tradition for the president of the United States to host championship teams. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers came to celebrate the Super Bowl at the White House. I had them here. And I think it’s only right I host all of you to celebrate your title as well.
“Consider this an invite.”
Biden certainly is not the first president to celebrate a football team’s success. Following Super Bowl IV, Richard Nixon called the winning locker room to speak to Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Len Dawson (there’s official record of the call, though it’s one that Nixon did not record).
Since then, a trip to the White House has become part of the spoils of victory and under Biden’s administration, the practice seems to be normalizing after contentious spats between former President Donald Trump and championship teams such as the 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles.
Football’s relationship with the White House extends far beyond visits and phone calls. There might not be anything like mainstream modern football if it weren’t for Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, a defender of football’s early days of brutality: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
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But with injuries and on-field fatalities mounting, Roosevelt organized the country’s top football coaches to try to clean up the game. Shortly after, a dramatic rule change — the legalization of the forward pass — helped reduce violence.
Nixon, who tied the office to football’s biggest game, was close friends with then Washington coach George Allen and, according to mythology, even suggested Washington run an end-around during a 1971 playoff game. (One version of the story claims it was a concocted gag between Allen and Nixon to make it look like the U.S. president was calling plays). The play lost 13 yards.
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Nixon’s replacement in the White House, Gerald Ford, starred as a lineman and linebacker for national championship teams at Michigan. He turned down work in the NFL to attend law school at Yale and coach the school’s boxing and football teams.
And in 1983, Trump purchased the USFL’s New Jersey Generals before helping to shift the league into direct competition with the NFL in the fall, a move that ultimately led to the league folding prior to the 1986 season. He also made a failed attempt to later purchase the Buffalo Bills.
And while Biden didn’t have the prolific football career of Ford, his sports bona fides were forged on that Archmere field, where he and quarterback William Peterman led the 1960 team to a perfect season after years of football ineptitude.
“Undefeated and untied,” Peterman is quick to clarify.
Now living in San Diego, Peterman is quick to name drop his famous friend and former teammate, approval ratings be damned. He has a tub filled of mementos from his time with the future president, including game film of the two players leading their school on an unlikely season.
Off the field, Peterman bonded with Biden after transferring to Archmere. He noted the two were different from the “kids on the bus” — Biden walked to school and was still fighting off a severe stutter. And Peterman, new to a school that already had a quarterback, wasn’t a part of their clique.
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One day on that field down by the train tracks, Biden split out wide with Peterman under center. The quarterback held five fingers behind his back. Biden knew the signal — he was going deep.
“I didn’t have a chance to be first string. But I saw this kid and he was tall and he looked like he could catch the ball. So I said, ‘Go long, Joe,’ ” Peterman remembered. “And he went long, I threw him a bomb. And he caught it. And then, they made me the first-string quarterback.”
Biden and Peterman were sure that one of them would be named the team’s captain. Instead, the Archmere players elected Michael Fay, who coincidentally, is positioned between Peterman and Biden in the team’s yearbook photo.
“First and only one he lost,” Peterman said of the vote.
Fay, it turned out, was the perfect captain for the team, and behind a 19-touchdown season for Biden (Peterman counts 20, the 19 Biden caught and the easy one he dropped), Archmere went 8-0.
Biden and Peterman were totally in sync for the Archmere offense, with the quarterback even knowing Biden’s surefire tell that the ball was coming his way. Whenever a play was called to go the future president, Biden would start to shake his hands to try to warm them up in the cold Delaware air.
“I knew where he was going to be,” Peterman said, “and I could always hit him.”
When the teammates gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their season (when Biden was vice president), Peterman remembered Biden making him tell the story of the final game of the year, when the Archmere players planned to take the seniors off the field one at a time, each with one last chance to touch the ball.
Peterman handed it off to Biden on first down and he ran it in for the touchdown.
“I could’ve killed him,” Peterman said. “…He loves that story.”
The memories make Peterman laugh, his East Coast accent similar to Biden’s — direct, jabbing words with lots of laughs as he reminisced about his teammate. Two players bonded by their perfect season, even if it ended with just one of them getting a four-year invitation to the White House.
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