Photo: Bush 41 Archives
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush is being remembered in the wake of his death last week for kind manners, selfless public service, and a competitive streak that ran throughout his
life from the baseball diamonds of the Ivy League to campaigns for the nation’s highest office.
One often-overlooked item on his long resume is his bona fides as the White House’s first genuine soccer star. As a beanpole center forward on a five-man forward line at Andover, “Poppy” Bush was a prep-school scoring machine, notching 14 goals in nine matches during his senior year and captaining the Blues to an undefeated season.
That was the fall of 1941, when the ball had laces and the game little popularity outside the bookends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Bluebloods like Bush, playing with the gilded youth of sepia-toned private academies, embraced the game. So did the factory workers of New England towns like Fall River and New Bedford, where Portuguese immigrants played on lots in the anonymous shadows of brick textile mills.
In the months leading up to the attack at Pearl Harbor, Poppy Bush’s golden season began with scoring four goals in a 7-0 blitz of New Hampton. Playing in every minute of every game, Bush led the Andover squad to victories over the Harvard, Dartmouth, Tufts, and Yale freshmen teams.
In the Harvard match, Bush tied the game on a header in the closing seconds of regulation to set up Andover for a 2-1 overtime victory. Against Deerfield, behind 1-0 in the final minutes, the lanky center forward dribbled by two fullbacks in the muddy penalty area and rocketed a shot off the post to secure a 1-1 tie. In the season finale against arch-rival Exeter, Bush rose above the defenders to nod home the overtime winner to carry Andover to a 2-1 victory and an 8-0-1 season.
His teammates, lads with surnames like Boynton and Bixby, Twombly and Asbury, praised their captain’s leadership in school newspaper accounts of the matches. Fifty years after Bush’s Andover graduation, one of his prep-school coaches, the late Frank “Deke” DiClimente, remembered Poppy as an inspiring presence on the field.
“You hear so much garbage about this so-called leadership quality but George led his teams by example,” DiClimente told me. “He practiced hard, he played hard and he engaged the competition. He was a very slight kid, over six feet tall and skinny, like a one-iron, but with remarkable drive.”
At Yale, Bush played on the freshman soccer team but gave up the game to focus on baseball as a light-hitting first baseman and team captain. But he remained interested in soccer, attending matches during the 1994 World Cup in the U.S, including games at the old Foxboro Stadium.
As you might expect of a soccer player, Bush won praise as president for his work on the international game, showing an adept understanding of the strategies of restraint, as in the first Gulf War when he stopped American troops from overthrowing Saddam Hussein. That was left to his son, a Yale football cheerleader.
With Bush’s passing, an era has closed -- he was the last president to have fought fascism in World War II. In the decades since, soccer has soared in popularity. As we pause to honor President Bush, soccer fans should remember the commander-in-chief who knew how to play with his head and lead with his heart.