Playbook investigates popular sports mythology in Sports Legends Revealed. Today: Did Richard Nixon call a play for the Washington Redskins in a 1971 playoff game?
It was the day after Christmas when the Washington Redskins came into San Francisco to play the 49ers on a cold afternoon in the first round of the 1971 NFL playoffs. The Redskins were led by their coach, future Hall of Famer George Allen, who had just taken over the reins in Washington that year after five years as the coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Allen had turned the Redskins' moribund fortunes around, leading them to a 9-4-1 record and their first playoff berth since 1945 (the Redskins had only had four winning seasons since 1945 before Allen took over the team. Allen won the 1971 Coach of the Year for his efforts).
With a 10-3 lead in the final minutes of the first half, the Redskins found themselves on second down at the 49ers' 8-yard line with a chance to possibly put the game away. The Redskins ran an unusual play for them, a reverse for Pro Bowl wide receiver Roy Jefferson. The Niners spotted it right from the snap and tackled Jefferson for a 13-yard loss. The Redskins ended up having to try a field goal attempt that the Niners blocked. The 49ers roared back in the third quarter with two touchdowns and ended up winning the game 24-20. After the game, Allen remarked that the failed reverse was "the game's big, big play ... when we came away without any points."
An interesting mythology has arisen regarding the play. The legend is that the then-President of the United States, Richard Nixon, had called Allen to suggest that Allen run the play.
Is that true?
Allen and Nixon were, indeed, good friends. While the fact that Nixon was president while Allen was coaching in Washington would suggest that that is how the two men became friends, it was actually decades earlier, when Allen was coaching at Whittier College. Allen was being honored at a NCAA banquet where then-Congressman Nixon was speaking. Nixon graduated from Whittier College, so he stopped to congratulate Allen and the two became friends. When Allen was coaching the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1960s, then-presidential candidate Nixon attended a Rams preseason game as a guest of Allen's. So Nixon was quite pleased when his friend came to town in 1971. Nixon told the press corps, "I am betting on the Redskins for the championship in either 1971 or 1972."
The two spoke on the phone often. Nixon loved to talk football and he was quite knowledgeable about the sport. After the Redskins suffered their first two losses of the season in Weeks 6 and 7, Allen brought the president out to the Redskins' practice field for a surprise pep talk for the players. Allen let the president call a play on offense during practice that day. Nixon called for a reverse and the play went over well.
Fast forward to soon before the playoff game. Nixon called the Redskins while Allen was in a strategy meeting with his quarterback, Billy Kilmer. Allen handed the phone to Kilmer to let him know that it was, indeed, the president on the phone. The president suggested a reverse play. So when Allen called the play at the end of the second quarter, Kilmer naturally assumed that Allen was following Nixon's suggestion. The players talked about it and the press eventually got wind of it, as well. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post was one of the first to write about it, and it became a longstanding legend.
Allen never confirmed nor denied the claim, although both of his sons, former Senator George Allen and current Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, have denied it. Kilmer's recollection, though, sounds pretty damning, doesn't it? However, the truth might lie in an even stranger place. According to fellow Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who was a close friend of Allen's and an assistant coach with Allen in both Los Angeles and Washington (where Levy was in charge of special teams), Nixon did, indeed, suggest the play on the phone, but he was just playing along with a gag by Allen. As Levy recalled to the Syracuse Post-Standard's Sean Kirst in 1994, Allen had fed the play to Nixon and told him to call Allen with the play so that it would look like Allen was taking the play from Nixon. "(George) wanted the president to look very sage. Afterward, I remember chuckling among ourselves about it. George gave the play to the president, then it didn’t work.”
Levy's recollection certainly jibes well with the facts. It would explain why people believe Nixon called it in and why Allen's sons both deny Nixon did call the play in. I think Levy is a believable witness here, so I am willing to believe his story (it helps that both of Allen's sons are consistent in denying the tale, as well).
So, the legend is...
Thanks so much to Sean Kirst for his interviews with Kilmer and Levy. Also, thanks to Allen's daughter, Jennifer, who wrote a great piece about Nixon and Allen's friendship for ESPN here (Jennifer neither confirms nor denies the legend). If you're interested in another urban legend about George Allen, I recently wrote about the myth surrounding Allen's death and whether he really died from a Gatorade shower.
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