Good Morning, Mr. President
UCLA defensive coordinator Bobby Field loved his three-and-ahalf-
mile run through the canyons above the Westwood campus on early
spring mornings, when he could hear the sprinklers and smell the damp
grass. He tried to make it an escape from the Xs and Os of the game, but
strategic revelations came in flashes—such as when one arrived shortly after
he crossed Sunset Boulevard and started up Stone Canyon Road.
The new safety is going to be quick enough to send after the quarterback on
second-and-long, especially against teams with tailbacks who don’t check if they’re
needed to block for the quarterback before drifting into the flat and leaving a lane
On this morning, near the stately, sprawling,
and isolated Hotel Bel-Air,
where the famous stay to be unseen and
where the smell is either of the hotel’s
plush Gardens or
of old money, three men are walking toward Field. It is
a time in the Bel-Air Estates for expensive sweatsuits or shorts or
shirts or cashmere sweaters, or perhaps for a chauffeur’s uniform, if the
driver is stretching his legs as he waits for his wealthy passenger. But these
three men are in dark suits, white shirts, and ties, and they are strolling
downhill toward the jogging and sweating football coach who is trying to
avoid developing the sort of paunch that fills those coaching shirts and can
be so embarrassing on television.
Suddenly, Field realizes the slightly hunched figure between two guards is
Richard Milhous Nixon.
is March 30, 1985, nearly eleven years since the resignation, and a week
before the opening of the Bruins’ spring practices. Field doesn’t know this,
but the night before, the ex-president dined with former Rowan and Martin’s
Laugh-In producer Paul Keyes at Chasen’s, and Nixon’s “Sock-It-to-Me”
cameo on the classic television show undoubtedly came up. Later, Nixon
would check out of the hotel to leave for Rancho Mirage and
estate ofWalter Annenberg, the founder
of TV Guide and the ambassador
to Great Britain during the Nixon
administration. Now, Nixon is
taking a morning walk with two guards,
who check out Field. They conclude
he doesn’t have a knife
hidden in the elastic band of his jogging shorts.
the protocol here, Bobby Field? Whistle “Hail to the Chief” as
you pass? Veer off path, as if there is a presidential halo that remains after the
exit from office? Hold both hands aloft, signaling “V” for victory over
Humphrey and McGovern?
Like a quarterback under siege, Field has only a few seconds to make a
choice, and he nods in midstride, and puffs out a greeting.
Nixon nods back.
It is almost imperceptible, but it is there, the slight acknowledgment.
Field is past the former president, heading further into
Field comes across Richard Nixon for the second time in his life,
that’s all he can say? He choked in the clutch, he lectures himself on the
move. He runs for another ten minutes on his uphill portion, passing immaculate
homes, then takes one more stride to the north and reverses direction,
as if he had stepped on the line at the end of the field during “gasser” drills
and must start back the other way. It’s time to head back to the UCLA football
offices and prepare for the workday—film, practice plans, staff meetings,
all the details involved in getting ready for the Bruins’ upcoming season.
As Field runs back down Stone Canyon Road, he again approaches the
Hotel Bel-Air, on his right. Nixon and his two protectors are standing near
the canopied stone footbridge that leads over a pond to the hotel. Field tells
himself to be braver this time. He slows and veers toward the former president.
The guards’ heads turn: It’s the jogger again. Field downgrades to a
walk, catches Nixon’s eyes, and approaches. He reaches out his hand and
he says, my name is Bobby Field, and I just wanted to say hello.
Why, thank you, the ex-president responds. He is being courteous, not
warm. Nixon’s escorts are scanning Field again, making sure.
Field says he is a football coach on Terry Donahue’s staff at UCLA, down
in Westwood—the defensive coordinator, in fact. Now Nixon is perking up.
“As a matter of fact,” Field says, “in 1969, I was playing for the
Arkansas and you, sir, came to one of our games, the
one in Fayetteville
against the University of Texas.”
In the respectful formality of a conversation with the one-time most powerful
man in the world, it just seems right to say “University of Arkansas” and
“University of Texas,” and not just blurt it out—“the Texas-Arkansas
Field also doesn’t mention that he has been teased
for years because an instant
after he fell on a Texas fumble on
the second play of the game, the ABC
shot switched to a late-arriving
president making his way into the stadium—
and the distracted
announcer later told the millions of viewers somebody else
up with the ball! Field doesn’t mention that to Nixon because that
would be rude, and besides, now the former president is excited. Nixon is so
excited, in fact, that the other two men in dark suits are astounded and transfixed
as the one-time Whittier College benchwarmer gives the former Razorback,
who played in the game, a virtual play-by-play account and strategic
analysis of that afternoon in Razorback Stadium.
With an amazed Field standing there sweating in the morning sun and
hazy smog, the former president goes on and on. “And, oh,” he says, “it was
such a terrific game, what a shame it was that someone had to lose.” As
Nixon continues, Field tells himself it’s almost as if the former president had
watched the game film the night before.
Bobby Field, who as a stunned Arkansas defensive back stood among sniffling
teammates in a tiny dressing room at the end of Razorback Stadium
when President Richard Nixon told them they should be proud, nods and
tells the former president that it indeed was a privilege to be able to say he
had been on that field on December 6, 1969.
It was a game Richard Nixon couldn’t forget, and he wasn’t alone.
Yet there was more to it than four quarters of football, or what Texas
coach Darrell Royal dubbed “The Big Shootout.” The final regular-season
game in the centennial year of college football, it also came in the final days
when the faces under the helmets all could be white and the simple question
“Why?” could be rank insubordination. Maybe it was why there weren’t
blacks in the programs sooner, or why workouts sometimes seemed designed
to run off the lesser players, or why some of the coaches
(and even the
trainer!) acted as if a visit to the training room
for treatment was a sign of
weakness, not sensibility. “No,
son, you shoot it up and you play and you will thank
us years later.”
(And many of them did! Again and again in later years, the
and Horns would discuss the football mentality of their playing era,
their heads, and qualify it with something like: “But that’s just how it was
then.” Rather than applying twenty-first-century standards retroactively and
pervasively, anyone with a sense for the era understood exactly what they
how it was then.
While college football was struggling
with its evolution—an evolution
progressing at differing paces
around the country—the game often served to
of national polarization in the late sixties. Many wanted
to be an escape from turmoil, but by the end of the decade, sports often
contributed to the general unrest. The most notorious instance was
when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists during the
medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics, arguing that in fact the nation still
wasn’t for all its citizens the land of the free, even fourteen years after Brown
v. Board of Education and four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and following
epic struggles in the civil rights movement. In 1969, campuses were
boiling caldrons, primarily because of anti–Vietnam War sentiment, often
angrily expressed, but it was linked also to a general sense of disillusionment
and cynicism. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy
were dead and still mourned. In Fayetteville that day, and even that week,
the football game provided a focal point for that polarization, although the
evidence of its significance was mostly ignored at the time—as if the cheers
and martial music drowned out everything else happening both in the nation
and on a campus struggling with racial antipathy and divisiveness.
One political protest came off that afternoon in Fayetteville. Another,
which would have been far more embarrassing to University of Arkansas officials
and disruptive to the national television broadcast, was always one
trumpet—or tuba or trombone—note away from beginning. That demonstration,
even if angry and prolonged, would have been preferable to the
racially charged armed conflict that seemed on the verge of breaking out the
night before the game in Fayetteville.
One of Nixon’s White House successors was in the Razorback Stadium
seats that day. Another was in England, wondering how quickly his angstfilled
letter could get from Oxford to Fayetteville. A trailblazing young law
student who eventually would interrogate a sitting president in the White
House anxiously watched the game on television in a University of Arkansas
dormitory—after getting out of the hospital that morning.
On the field, two teams of young men—mostly bright, mostly tough,
mostly conventionally grateful to accept the perks that came with being the
stars on campus, mostly destined for productive postfootball lives, and all of
them white—represented a dying football era. One of them was displaying
monumental toughness just by playing—although nobody else knew it at the
time, and even he didn’t truly yet know the magnitude of his courage.
Many of the imminent changes in sports and the society in which the
games were played were shamefully overdue. Yet the men on the field that
day were the last, and in some ways the best, of how it was.