Young Jerry Ford
Young Jerry Ford

It’s Sneak Peek Week on EerdWord, when we’re sharing excerpts from four of this month’s most exciting new releases.

Today’s excerpt is taken from Hendrik Booraem V’s new biography Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen, which chronicles the early life of America’s 38th President.

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A hundred fifteen-year-olds in ratty uniforms — well over half the boys in the eighth grade — milled around on the bare playground of Jefferson School, not a blade of grass on the whole dusty field. Junior Ford, with his radiant, tousled blond hair, was among them. It was a big day in the spring of 1927, the day spring football practice began, the day eighth-grade boys got their first chance to try out for the “second team” for the next fall.

So popular was football that every boy in the class with a trace of athletic ability was out on the practice field. The potential payoff was huge. If they were to make the second team that following year, and the varsity a year or two after that, thousands of adults in Grand Rapids would come out to see them play, and their performance would be the conversation of a thousand households and offices. Even if they spent most of their time on the bench, they would still be known as football players and thus popular at school.

“Why don’t you go out for football?” a boy in a 1920s story was asked. “You’ll never be popular till you do.”

Already the king of high-school sports, football in the twenties was on its way to becoming mass entertainment for middle-class people in cities that did not have a major college. But the political consensus was still that competitive team sports were extracurricular and did not deserve support from the school budget. So the South High team had no field of its own; rather, it practiced on the playground of a neighboring elementary school and had barely enough uniforms to outfit its first-string players.

Head coach Cliff Gettings — tall, rangy, and fair-haired, only a few years out of college — dominated the scene, scrutinizing boys, organizing them into teams, and watching them play. As he was looking them over, he quickly sized up Junior Ford physically with his coach’s eye. The latter was “long and lanky and looked [as if] he was going to be big,” Gettings said. Junior was clearly cut out to be a lineman, with some indications of football intelligence — maybe worth trying at center.

“Hey, Whitey,” Gettings shouted, “you’re a center!” He passed Junior a football and told him to start centering. As Ford remembered it in later years, “He saw me, I had white hair, and he needed a center.” Ford obediently took his place on the line and began learning how to snap a football. It was an important position: a center needed to be a strong blocker (Ford’s size had caught Gettings’s attention) and at the same time know how to snap the ball to start a whole repertory of different plays. In those days, a center had to snap the ball not only to the quarterback and punter, but also to a moving fullback or halfback.

Ford was at practice religiously for the rest of the spring, and by the semester’s end he was sure of a place on the second team — what other schools called the “junior varsity”—in the fall. But there was more. Wherever he went outside class, he always had a football and wanted to practice.

“You never saw him without that football,” recalled Joe Russo, the short, muscular Italian kid who started at fullback. “He was always after me to practice with him.” A center had to polish his skills by practicing with the quarterback and running backs, and young Ford, whether he knew it or not, had understood a great truth of football: a player reached mastery by repeating his movements so often that he could execute them without thinking. Machine-like precision without conscious thought was the goal, and Ford reached it before many of his teammates did.

Click to order Hendrik Booraem V’s Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen