“I couldn’t play baseball because I couldn’t see good enough. That’s why I turned to football. The ball was bigger and so were the fellows.” — Ronald Reagan
Whether you view him as one of the country’s finest presidents or as one of the most overrated, there’s one thing both sides of the aisle can agree on: Ronald Reagan has one awesome presidential library.
Located high in the hills of Simi Valley, it’s more museum than library, and it’s the largest of the 13 federally-operated presidential libraries in the country. The permanent collection is fascinating and includes the bullet-riddled suit Reagan was wearing during the attempt on his life, an exact replication of the Oval Office during his second term, and Air Force One — yes, the entire plane — as well as the man himself. That’s, right, Reagan is buried on the grounds.
If there’s another thing those with dueling views on the 40th U.S. President can agree on it’s that the man was a stone-cold football nut. He played football in high school and was the team’s captain. He played in college as a guard and punter and, in arguably his most notable role as an actor, played dying Notre Dame football player George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American. His famous quote from that film, “Win just one for the Gipper,”went on to give Reagan his famous nickname.
Well, the Gipper would be mighty proud of the new exhibit at the library. It’s called “Football! The Exhibition,” and for fans of the gridiron, it’s well worth the trip.
Far from a small room with a few artifacts connected to Reagan and his love of the sport, it’s a massive 5,000 square-foot exhibition that has something for anyone who likes football, more than 500 pieces in total, much of it donated by famed sports memorabilia collector Gary Cypres.
The exhibit starts with game-worn jerseys from legendary quarterbacks including Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath and current greats Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Speaking of Brady, there’s an interesting inflated and deflated football display where you can test each ball to see the actual difference. The difference, of course, is what Brady will be serving a suspension for at the start of this season in what’s become known as “deflate-gate.” After asking a few visitors, some said they could feel a difference, and others didn’t. According to one of the library’s volunteers, those who can’t tell the difference “tend to be Patriots fans.”
There are statues galore such as an actual Heisman on loan from past winner Marcus Allen, and Lombardi trophies autographed by Bart Starr. There are also lesser known names from football history, like Bruce Smith the only player from the University of Minnesota to ever win a Heisman. His story was immortalized in the little-known football movie Smith of Minnesota where Smith played himself, and apparently not too convincingly.
With a nod to Reagan’s famous football role, there are vintage movie posters of football films adorning the walls, as well as one heck of football card collection that includes an O.J. Simpson rookie card.
The display featuring the evolution of helmets, balls and uniforms is not only thorough, but really helps the visitor put into perspective how much the game has changed since its roots in Ivy League schools in the 1800s. Early on, the ball was extremely heavy and the uniforms were basically sweaters and leather helmets with nearly nonexistent protective qualities. Early football resembled rugby and the first professional players who earned next to nothing kept their day jobs. A far cry from today’s multimillionaires.
Of everything the exhibit has to offer, perhaps the most fascinating are artifacts from the sport’s more forgotten history. Everyone knows Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, but did you know the NFL broke it a year before? And it was with, not one, but two of Robinson’s teammates: his UCLA football teammates Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.
Or how about the tragic story of the Pottsville Maroons? Despite being from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, the team was a powerhouse in early professional football. It should have rightfully been crowned the national champion in 1925, but when it played an unsanctioned exhibition game it was stripped of its title. The Maroons had such an effect on the city of Pottsville that, in many ways, it never really recovered and went into a steady decline. Staring into the faces of the players of the ill-fated team, whose pictures hang next to a well-worn Maroons’ jersey, one can imagine the ghosts still haunting the empty high school football fields where they played, waiting to raise a trophy that will never come.
Even America’s history can be told in part through the sport. Yellowed news clippings of the games scheduled on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed are displayed. Men who were scheduled to play that day would, in some cases, just months later be dying on battlefields half way around the world.
Last but not least, there are photos of all the championship football teams, from college to the NFL, that Reagan invited to and entertained at the White House during his two terms.
The Super Bowl-winning Giants even presented Reagan with a custom jersey that’s displayed prominently at the exhibit. It doesn’t say Reagan, though. In big bold letters over the number 1, it simply reads, THE GIPPER.
Football! The Exhibition runs through January at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. For more information, visit www.reaganfoundation.org.