Commentary

Former Duke athlete now starting in the political arena

Updated: January 16, 2009, 7:21 PM ET
By David Picker | Special to ESPN.com

Barack Obama attended last summer's Iowa State Fair with the intention of shaking as many hands as possible. So when he found himself burdened by a bag of caramel corn, he knew exactly what to do. Obama dropped back as though he were Colts quarterback Peyton Manning in the pocket and floated a pass toward the cloudless sky.

Reggie Love, Obama's personal aide, was several yards away. The throw was on target and Love caught the bag.

"Those are All-ACC hands right there," Obama told the crowd, alluding to Love's athletic pedigree.

Actually, Love was never all-conference in any sport. But he sure does have soft hands. Love played wide receiver for four seasons at Duke, leading the Blue Devils in receptions his senior year in 2003. And he walked on to the basketball team as a freshman, playing occasionally at forward in Duke's 2000-01 national championship season.

These days, the Obama-Love connection is constantly in play. Love is Obama's body man, a title given to the personal aide of every president and presidential candidate. Anyone who has seen the Charlie Young character on "The West Wing" will know what the job entails.

Reggie LoveAP Photo/Alex BrandonReggie Love, left, descends the stairs with Barack Obama at Boston's Logan Airport in early August.

Love walks in Obama's shadow for about 18 hours a day, anticipating all his needs. He wakes up Obama around dawn, works out with him in the morning, answers his cell phone during the day and hangs out with him at night. Much of the time, he carries a black duffle bag stuffed with any drugstore item Obama could possibly need, including mouthwash, Wetnaps, aspirin, Nicorette and ballpoint pens. If the presumptive Democratic nominee for president were to spill something on his tie moments before a nationally televised debate, Love would rescue him with Tide stain remover.

"I am an extra set of hands if he ever needs it," said Love, 26, after a long night of campaigning in Atlanta last month. "His plate is pretty full as it is. So anything that I can do to make life just a little bit easier is part of my job."

Obama often refers to his traveling staff as a team. "If you want to use a basketball or sports analogy, he is like the team manager," the Illinois senator recently said of Love, whose duties are not always mundane. While Love does not provide security -- that's what the Secret Service is for -- he does act as a buffer. When politicians and celebrities (from Scarlett Johansson to Jay-Z) want Obama's ear, they must go through Love.

A body man should possess a deep sense of selflessness, regardless of the significance of the task at hand. Love learned to embrace this virtue while at Duke.

When Love arrived in Durham, N.C., he seemed to have it all, including GQ looks, an imposing physique (6-foot-4 and 225 pounds) and a penchant for winning. A football and basketball star at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., he won two state titles in basketball. And his grades were equally impressive.

"He was always a great student," recalled Barbara Fricke, Providence Day's athletic director. "Always came up with the right answers in class. And he kind of filled up the room, and not because of his size, more because of his smile. He was a big guy with a real playful side. And what an athlete."

Love received offers to play football at several of the nation's strongest programs. He accepted a football scholarship to Duke because it offered him the chance to try out for basketball and because he valued its academic reputation. He ended up majoring in public policy and political science.

Duke football quickly taught Love how to lose. The Blue Devils dropped the first 22 games of his college career, nearly an NCAA record for futility. Love's first victory on the football field came as a junior in August 2002 against East Carolina. On a muggy night, he had three catches for 17 yards and no touchdowns. Still, he counts the win as one of his most cherished moments from college.

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Reggie Love, a former Duke University football and basketball player, tried to make it in the NFL, but after tryouts with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys fizzled in 2004 and 2005, he landed a job on U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's staff, starting in the mail room and rising to his current position as his personal aide.

Rachel Nichols gets an all-access pass on the campaign trail. Through interviews with Love and Obama along the way, we'll show you just what a body man does, how Love finds himself now in a position of a lifetime, and the bond that has formed between Love and the Illinois senator.

Watch "E:60" at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN.

Love eventually became a football star for Duke, catching a team-high 27 passes as a senior. But that's kind of like being voted the coolest kid at band camp. In 40 games for the Blue Devils, he had 75 receptions for 895 yards and six touchdowns but won only six times.

"He was a guy that got down the field and really put a lot of mismatches on defensive backs," said Carl Franks, Duke's football coach from 1999 to 2003. "I thought he had a decent chance of making an NFL team."

After Love graduated from Duke in 2004, the Green Bay Packers took a chance, signing him as an undrafted free agent. But they waived him before the season. In 2005, the Dallas Cowboys tried him at outside linebacker. That experiment also ended in the preseason, quashing his dream of playing in the NFL.

"It was a big, big piece of me, a big part of my life," Love said of football. "And I struggled with it even for many months after I decided that I wasn't going to" play professionally.

Love's experiences on the gridiron would soon pay dividends on Capitol Hill. In the fall of 2005, he was considering a job with the financial firm Goldman Sachs. But then, in December, he was put in touch with Obama's office through a friend who worked in Washington, D.C. Obama had been elected to the U.S. Senate and was looking for a staff assistant to work in the mail room, a job that paid less than $30,000 a year. Having tackled the challenges of playing football at Duke, Love had no reservations about starting at the bottom.

By joining Obama's staff, Love once again found himself as something of a walk-on. About a year later, in January 2007, he was promoted to Obama's body man. The two have since formed a bond they describe as brotherly, with sports as the glue. Late at night, they often watch highlights of games in Obama's hotel room. During off days in Chicago, they play pickup basketball.

The games, with friends at the upscale East Bank Club, can get intense. Chris Duhon, a close friend and former Duke teammate of Love's, regularly played in them before signing with the New York Knicks last month.

"Everyone goes harder," Duhon said. "Everybody wants to say they scored on the future president."

Everyone but Love, who never gets to play against his boss. It's not entirely clear whether Obama badly wants to win or just doesn't want to guard Love, but he always makes sure Love is on his team. Still, he never misses a chance to joke about Love's shortcomings on the hardwood, especially from long distances.

[+] EnlargeReggie Love
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLove, who received a Duke football scholarship, walked on to the Duke basketball team and was selected team captain for 2004-05.

Though a bench player for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Love was known for his energy and defense, not his shooting touch. He attempted just two 3-pointers in college, missing both. So when Love plays these days, he frequently stays at least 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket and fires shots at will.

"His judgment is not always right," Obama playfully said of Love. "He still believes that he's got a 3-point shot. Coach K, to my understanding, shut that down."

Obama also frequently pokes fun at Love's social life, noting that Love always seems to be out until at least 2 a.m. Love's star quality reached a new zenith when People magazine listed him as one of this summer's hottest bachelors. He used to get noticed along only Tobacco Road. Now it seems he can't find a corner of the country where someone doesn't recognize him.

During an economic summit in Pittsburgh in June, two women, probably in their mid-20s, were at the front of a boisterous crowd of Obama supporters. As the candidate approached to shake hands, the women's gazes and smiles were fixed on Love, who abandoned his duties for a few moments to chat with them.

"I don't take it too seriously," Love said of the attention. "When a campaign has been going on for 16 months, you kind of run out of stuff to write about. So you start writing about people like me."

Love is no stranger to public attention, even from crowds that swell into the thousands. He averaged only 1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in his three basketball seasons at Duke, but he was playing for one of the most recognizable brands on the college landscape.

"I think he played 18 minutes in the ACC championship game that year in Atlanta in front of 40,000 people," Krzyzewski said, referring to the final between Duke and North Carolina in 2001.

That game was Love's finest moment as an athlete. Two games before the tournament began, Carlos Boozer broke his right foot, forcing Krzyzewski to use his bench. Duke was still loaded with healthy players, including Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Jay Williams and Duhon. But the task of guarding 7-foot Tar Heels center Brendan Haywood in key stretches of the ACC final went to Love. He sprinted as much as possible that afternoon, wearing out Haywood and grabbing a career-high eight rebounds. Duke won, 79-53.

The Blue Devils beat Arizona a few weeks later for their third NCAA title. Love didn't play in the national championship game because Boozer had recovered. But his fingerprints were all over Duke's championship run, thanks to the momentum he provided as Boozer's understudy.

And in an interesting twist, Love got his first taste of national politics later that year when the Duke team was honored at the White House by President George W. Bush.

If it seems as though Love has led a charmed life, here's where the story gets a little sticky. At the end of Love's sophomore season, when he was 19, reports surfaced that he had been arrested four months earlier for allegedly driving under the influence. Love's blood-alcohol level reportedly was below the legal limit, and he was never sentenced by a court. But Krzyzewski suspended him for the 2002 ACC tournament.

"He needed to be punished for that mistake, he needed to take responsibility for it, and he did," Krzyzewski said. "His reputation got hurt."

Love didn't return to the basketball team the next season, partly because of a knee injury he suffered in his junior season of football but also because his off-field problems had become a distraction. Embarrassing pictures taken of him while he was passed out at a fraternity party had surfaced on the Internet.

"Thankfully, I was able to learn from it and move on," Love said. Asked whether Obama's office ever expressed a concern about the drinking incident, he added: "Not to my knowledge. I guess if there was, they probably wouldn't have hired me."

Duke didn't seem bothered, either. Days after Love's tryout with the Packers ended in 2004, he got a call from Johnny Dawkins, then an assistant on Duke's basketball team. Dawkins explained that Duke lacked frontcourt depth and that Love was still eligible to play basketball. Love agreed to return and was selected captain of the 2004-05 squad. He remained mostly on the bench but showed a newfound maturity, mentoring younger players.

This maturity is reflected in the trust Obama has placed in Love. Obama has even vowed that if he makes it to the White House, Love will continue to have a role on his staff. As for Obama's other team, he recently hinted that, if elected, he would install a basketball court at the White House. The 3-point territory, presumably, would be reserved for Love.

And how does Love envision his future? He has tossed around the idea of going to law school. But his path from Duke to the NFL to Obama's inner circle has been so improbable that it's probably pointless to predict how the next chapter of his life might unfold.

Obama, however, already has a script in mind.

"What I am counting on is Reggie making loads of money," Obama said with a grin, "so that when I am out of politics, I will have someone who can hire me and I can get a corner office and not do much."

David Picker is a producer for E:60.