President Gerald Ford dies at 93

Updated: December 28, 2006, 12:26 PM ET news services

LOS ANGELES -- Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of Richard Nixon's scandal-shattered White House as the 38th and only unelected president in America's history, has died, his wife Betty said Tuesday. He was 93.

Gerald Ford
AP Photo/U. of Michigan Sports PublicityGerald Ford was named Michigan's Most Valuable Player his senior season.

"My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age," Mrs. Ford said in a brief statement issued from her husband's office in Rancho Mirage. "His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

The statement did not say where Ford died or list a cause of death. Ford had battled pneumonia in January 2006 and underwent two heart treatments -- including an angioplasty -- in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93. Ford had been living at his desert home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.

While known predominantly for his actions as the post-Watergate president, Ford was also a highly decorated athlete. Playing center for the University of Michigan, Ford helped lead the Wolverines to the national championship in 1932 and 1933. Michigan went undefeated in both seasons.

"At Michigan we have lost a legendary figure who represented the highest ideals of the 'Michigan Man' -- a gentleman who was integrity personified," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "We love him and we will miss him, but we are compensated by the knowledge that his spirit and his love for the University of Michigan will endure."

During a 1934 game against the University of Chicago, Ford became the only future U.S. president to tackle a future Heisman Trophy winner when he brought down halfback Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman the following year.

"When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it," Ford said after Berwanger's death in June 2002.

Ford was the Wolverines MVP his senior year in 1935. He also was the captain of his football team at Grand Rapids South High School and was an all-state center in 1930, his senior prep season.

Former President Gerald Ford
Gary Newkirk/Getty ImagesGerald Ford was rumored to have a mid-teens handicap -- even in his 80s.

Following his graduation from Ann Arbor in 1935, Ford received contract offers from at least two professional NFL teams. Perhaps as an indication of where Ford would eventually end up, he spurned offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers to instead attend law school at Yale. Ford put himself through law school as an assistant varsity football coach and a freshman boxing coach.

A member of the 1935 Collegiate All-Star football team, Ford's No. 48 jersey was retired on Oct. 8, 1994 during halftime of the Wolverines' game against Michigan State. His jersey is one of only five numbers that have been retired in the history of Michigan's storied football tradition.

Ford's death marks the second loss for the Michigan football community this year. Legendary coach Bo Schembechler died last month, a day before Michigan played archrival Ohio State.

During an interview in August, Schembechler told The Associated Press that whenever Ford visited Ann Arbor in his later years, he would call on the team and join the players for dinner at their training table.

"At practice he would say, 'Bo, do you mind if I get in the huddle?'" said Schembechler, who coached the Wolverines from 1969-89. "There was one rough-looking Secret Service guy that always was looking over President Ford's shoulder.

"Once when the president was leaning into the huddle, the Secret Service guy was standing between the ball and the huddle, and our quarterback said, 'What should I do?'" And I said, 'Run over him.'"

Later in life, despite the demands on his time and the myriad work he continued to perform in the public service, Ford devoted significant time to his passion for golf. According to some accounts, Ford had his handicap as low as 12 and was sporting a mid-teens handicap at the age of 80.

In one famous quote attributed to Ford, he said, "I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators."

Along with golf, Ford swam daily while president, played tennis regularly and was also an accomplished skiier and a promoter of alpine skiing in Colorado.

Though Ford first began skiing in 1939 in New England, his first taste of the slopes of the Rockies came in a 1968 vacation. Among his contributions to Colorado skiing was his role in bringing two World Alpine Ski Championships to the state, providing a unique opportunity for Colorado to showcase its world-class venue.

Former U.S. President Gerald Ford
AP PhotoGerald Ford, even while he was vice president, took the time to enjoy the snowy slopes of Colorado.

In 1982, Ford established the Ford Cup in Vail, which is now called the American Ski Classic. Later, he combined his recreational passions when he created the Jerry Ford Invitational Golf Tournament. The tournament lured top golf professionals to Colorado, promoting Vail not only as a winter destination, but summer one as well.

Ford's athletics achievements stood in sharp contrast to a public perception that he was not coordinated. In his memoir, "A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford," he bitterly recounted how a brief stumble recorded by a television camera turned into a national story.

"There was no doubt in my mind that I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years … [but] from that moment on, every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else. … [This] helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn't funny."

Ford was a little more game about the comedian Chevy Chase's "Saturday Night Live" portrayals of the president stumbling around. In 1986 when Ford spoke at a symposium on humor and the presidency, he said: "On occasion I winced. But on the other hand, Betty and I used to watch 'Saturday Night Live' and enjoyed it. Presidents are sitting ducks, and you might as well sit back and enjoy it."

In recent years, age began to take its toll and Ford slowed down. He had been hospitalized in August 2000 when he suffered one or more small strokes while attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

The following year, he joined former presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton at a memorial service in Washington three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. In June 2004, the four men and their wives joined again at a funeral service in Washington for former President Reagan. But in November 2004, Ford was unable to join the other former presidents at the dedication of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.

In January, Ford was hospitalized with pneumonia for 12 days. He wasn't seen in public until April 23, when President Bush was in town and paid a visit to the Ford home. Bush, Ford and Betty posed for photographers outside the residence before going inside for a private get-together.

The intensely private couple declined reporters' interview requests and were rarely seen outside their home in Rancho Mirage's gated Thunderbird Estates, other than to attend worship services at the nearby St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.

OTL: Gerald Ford
Wednesday on "Outside The Lines," a look back at former President Ford's athletic accomplishments.
(5 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Ford, though, will be remembered as an accidental president, Nixon's hand-picked successor, a man of much political experience who had never run on a national ticket. He was as open and straightforward as Nixon was tightly-controlled and conspiratorial.

He took office minutes after Nixon flew off into exile and declared "our long national nightmare is over." But he revived the debate a month later by granting Nixon a pardon for all crimes he committed as president. That single act, it was widely believed, cost Ford election to a term of his own in 1976, but it won praise in later years as a courageous act that allowed the nation to move on.

The Vietnam War ended in defeat for the U.S. during his presidency with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. In a speech as the end neared, Ford said: "Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned." Evoking Abraham Lincoln, he said it was time to "look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.