Long before he created the Department of Homeland Security to defend America, President George W. Bush ’68 was defending Yale.
Many Americans have heard that their president was, at least to some extent, a collegiate athlete with a particular interest in baseball. But in truth, Bush, the future owner of the Texas Rangers, never saw glory on the diamond, and was often found sitting on the Bulldog bench. Still insistent on an athletic experience by his senior year, however, Bush made the transition to a new sport far from America’s pastime. He took up Yale Club Rugby.
In this foreign, rough and fast-paced sport, Bush still managed to stand his ground, serving as fullback, a defensive position. Although several of Bush’s teammates said he did not necessarily stand out as a rugby player, many remembered his lighthearted confidence and occasional clutch play that helped amass a winning record for the team and an unexpected victory against Harvard.
Last Line of Defense
Just as Harry Truman sported the motto “The Buck Stops Here” atop his Oval Office desk, Bush was his team’s “last line of defense,” teammate Britt Kolar ’68 said — the ball stopped with the fairly reliable fullback.
“What’s interesting was that he was a good enough athlete that he could play a skill position in rugby with relatively little experience,” said Kolar, who sent the team’s photograph to Sports Illustrated in 2000 when the magazine failed to report Bush’s rugby experience in a presidential candidate athletic match-up. “He had running skills, tackling skills and especially kicking skills.”
Michael Bouscaren ’69, who split the fullback position with Bush for part of the 1968 season, said Bush did not become a competitive member of the team from the start, since it consisted mainly of international students who were already familiar with the game. Then, during a midseason match — fittingly, perhaps, against George Washington University — the future President George W. found himself in his element.
In what was arguably the defining moment of Bush’s Yale Rugby career, Bouscaren said a punt was “sent down George’s way,” while the head coach, Jack Farman, shouted, “One time, George, one time!” — a rugby euphemism for “Please catch the ball!” The entire team watched, some nervously, as the ball passed over their heads. Bush had not yet proven himself.
“But sure enough, George caught it and came running back with great speed and energy,” Bouscaren said. “That moment was one of the defining moments of his being accepted on the team as a real competitive individual.”
On the 1968 Yale Rugby team, this was quite an achievement. Players said the team had an arsenal of aggressive international players and former Division I varsity athletes.
Charles Pillsbury ’70 said Yale’s team was particularly intimidating to its American players.
“None of us, as North Americans, had played the sport,” he said. “We had some terrific players — Irish, Brazilian, English — and we would get a lot of football players playing behind the scrum. Real ball handlers often were graduate students who played as kids growing up.”
Some teammates said Bush, at 5 feet 11 inches, was at a particular disadvantage; it appeared that his comparatively short height would hold him back. After all, Bush had replaced the over-six-foot-tall John Griswold ’67 — who, coincidentally, also played soccer with John Kerry ’66 — after Griswold was injured.
Still, Griswold said Bush made up for his height in tenacity.
“George was a good, strong, wiry and somewhat small but tough kid,” Griswold said.
But Farman said that as the team’s coach, he observed that Bush was less committed to improving himself than others on the team.
“He wasn’t serious about his rugby,” said Farman, who saw Bush as a natural athlete with aptitude on the field. “But had he been serious about it, he could’ve done much better.”
Illegal Right Hook?
Writer and Yale political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69 was perusing his 1969 Yale Banner yearbook in 2000 when he discovered a suspicious photograph of Bush, who was then a contender in the presidential election. Bush’s rugby days finally saw their 15 seconds of fame — although the attention may not have been the sort that Bush supporters were hoping for.
The photograph, strangely placed in the yearbook one year after Bush’s graduation, captured Bush delivering an “illegal but gratifying right hook to an opposing ball carrier,” according to a caption below the picture. Bush is flying through the air with both his feet lifted off the ground, and his opponent appears to be grimacing in pain.
When Sleeper saw this, he published a column in the Los Angeles Times drawing a connection between Bush’s punch and his policy. The photograph and column, which spread through the media during the 2000 presidential election, garnered some angry responses, Sleeper said.
“On various blogs, rugby players wrote in to say that what the picture shows is even worse than what the caption implies, because Bush was breaking two rules,” he said. “Not only the punch itself but also the fact that both of his feet were off the ground. No play in rugby is legal if both feet are off the ground, these players said.”
In the column, titled “He’s Got the Bad-Boy Vote Sewed Up,” Sleeper wrote that the rugby punch was characteristic of Bush, who was known during his Yale years to cut class, to promote hazing as president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and frequently to get away with breaking the rules.
But Griswold, who injured his head, mouth and face and broke his nose several times as Bush’s predecessor as fullback, said Bush was doing nothing wrong.
“It was in the middle of an open field tackle, and any number of pictures taken like that in the midst of a play could be made to look like he’s tackling illegally,” he said. “You tackle high in rugby, get around the shoulders. It is interpreted as dirty, but it’s just the way you play it. That’s why it’s a rough game.”
Beer ‘n Songs
Blending its international flavor with an element of wildness, rugby attracted some of the most intelligent Yalies of the era as a natural outlet for physical energy. Farman said his team included a handful of “brilliant” players, including a Rhodes Scholar, and that Bush, who was president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and a member of Skull and Bones at the time, “was regarded as a little extreme” and occasionally “rowdy.”
Players said that Bush partook in postgame festivities, which often meant going to bars with not only his Yale Rugby teammates but also the opposing team. Pillsbury said Bush was “in his element” at these events.
“When it was all over, the home team bought the beer,” he said. “You went out and drank beer with the other team and sang rugby songs. … Bush was kind of a wisecracker then.”
Just as Bush strove to overcome his height, he relied on his personality to win the affection of his teammates, many of whom remembered Bush as naturally popular. Kolar recalled Bush’s “self-effacing” sense of humor, which he said was the same sort of humor Bush exhibits today as president.
“His heart of humor was welcomed and kept us from taking ourselves too seriously,” Kolar said. “He had a lot of insight into people, getting down on their level, communicating well, and getting, in the case of rugby, everybody moving in the same direction.”
Although all interviewed players said Bush exhibited little interest in politics as a rugby player, they agreed that he could schmooze as well as any budding campus politician.
Pillsbury said he realized during the 2000 election that Bush was one of the few friendly upperclassmen he had known at Yale. But was the leader of the free world beginning to take form during his rugby days? Pillsbury responded with an emphatic no.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “On that rugby team, I thought there were people who had more of a chance of becoming president, more than him.”
But Bouscaren said Bush was one of the more endearing personalities on the team.
“There are people on the Yale campus, probably still today, who are politically ambitious, but it isn’t so becoming to the way that they are. George was never like that,” he said. “It was a very natural thing for him to be a social leader, much as he is today. … It’s a reminder to all of us that people in important positions are really just normal people.”