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Presidential College Football Players Throughout History

In honor of Mizzou’s newest commit James Madison II, let’s examine the history of college football players who share a name with a former Commander-in-Chief.

With Eli Drinkwitz signing a four-star wide receiver named James Madison II on the Fourth of July, I wanted to find out how many college football players shared a name with a former president. Madison, to his credit, has embraced his historic moniker, committing on our nation’s birthday and embracing the #prez nickname. (To be fair, he didn’t go ALL IN, committing to Mizzou and not the Sun Belt program that also bears his name.)

There are not too many matches! Firstly, not many people want to saddle their babies with the same name as a former Commander-in-Chief, and also for a long stretch there in the 1800s the names got out of pocket. Do you know any Rutherfords, Ulysseses, or Millards? Didn’t think so.

The extent of my research was plugging each president’s name into collegefootballreference. Apologies if I missed anybody. Anyway, let’s get onto it, in order of most common names.

First up, the no matches. According to Sports Reference, there has never been a college football player named John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Joe Biden.

Let’s take a look at some “close, but no cigar” entries.

There’s never been a John Tyler, but we’ve had plenty of Tyler Johnsons – both Penn State and Houston have one on the roster right now, actually. Same thing for William McKinley: never a direct match, but Arkansas currently has a McKinley Williams on the team, and he is the second player with that name. There has been a Lyndon Johnson, but never a Richard Nixon – but in the 90’s, Lyndon Nixon suited up at WR and DB for Tulsa.

George Washington was our first president, and George Washington Woodruff was a head coach at the turn of the last century. His teams went 142-25-2 at Penn, Illinois, and Carlisle. He left coaching and followed his namesake into public service, and was Secretary of the Interior for Teddy Roosevelt.

Sam Adams wasn’t a president, but he did lend his name to both a beer and a National Defensive Player of the Year, a defensive tackle at Texas A&M who you probably remember on those fearsome Baltimore Ravens defenses. His son, Sam Adams II, currently plays wide receiver for the Washington Huskies.

Missouri has two close calls, of course, with Truman the Tiger – not a player, but let’s be honest about where that name comes from. And of course, Jacob Trump, an unfortunately-named linebacker who played during his namesake’s administration.

Let’s run down the matches of players who are no longer active.

John Kennedy chose to play wide receiver at the Naval Academy not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Lyndon Johnson played defensive tackle at Cincinnati just a few years ago. Duke had a tight end named Gerald Ford in the 90s, at the same time Jimmy Carter was handling the punting duties for Kentucky. Hawaii had a defensive back named James Polk in the late 90s, the same position Woodrow Wilson played for North Carolina State in the 1970s. James Monroe played two full seasons at quarterback for Arkansas in the 1950s; he finished with more career rushes (151) than passes (132), because that’s what the doctrine said for SWC quarterbacks in the mid-century.

I can’t tell if there was one Thomas Jefferson or two. USC has a running back in 1980 with that name, then so does Tennessee in 1982. Did he transfer? Maybe. Do I care to look it up any further than I already have? No. We’ve had two Zach(ary) Taylors, and three Andrew Jacksons.

The champions

Above all, two ex-presidents have stood tall amongst the crowd. We have had eight John Adams – including an All-American at Penn in 1891. He has no position on CFB reference and also did they even have All-American teams back then? I’m guessing he just got the nod because of his presidential name. There’s also currently a wide receiver named John Adams for Temple.

But the champion of presidential footballers is Andrew Johnson, with nine total players in the sports-reference database, including two active players, a safety at Wyoming and an offensive lineman at Oregon State.

Not many of these players have distinguished themselves as especially talented or productive. Their claim to fame is their name, not their play on the field. It’s time for James Madison to break that mold.