Thursday, March 7, 2002
Nixon's tricks not in Redskins' playbook
By Jennifer Allen Page 2 columnist
It was the most notorious play of the Redskins' 1971 season. It was known as "Nixon's Play." It failed tremendously.
President Nixon honored George Allen and his family at the White House in 1973 after the Redskins won the NFC Championship. The 11-year-old Jennifer Allen is visible over Nixon's left shoulder.
The play was called on the day after Christmas, during the first round of the NFC playoffs, Redskins vs. 49ers. My father, the late George Allen, had led the Redskins to their first playoff berth in more than 25 years. Bing Crosby sang the national anthem in the pouring, windy rain of Candlestick Park.
Deemed the underdog, the Redskins took an early 10-3 lead. In the final minutes of the first half, the Redskins were on the 49ers' 8-yard line, positioned to score. My father called a play he had never before called, and would never call again -- a reverse to the wide receiver -- something he once referred to as a "trick play" and a "gimmicky play." The 49ers defense read the play at the snap of the ball, and turned it into a 13-yard loss. Noting its gross failure, one TV broadcaster quipped, "That must have been a play Richard Nixon called in to George Allen."
The subsequent field goal was blocked, and the game's momentum quickly shifted. Washington went on to lose 24-20. In the postgame locker room, one player claimed that my father had received "executive orders" to call the play. My father neither denied nor upheld the truth of this claim. He simply spoke of the reverse as "the game's big, big play ... when we came away without any points."
The following day, Washington reporters blamed Nixon for the team's defeat. And several days later, columnist Art Buchwald noted, "If George Allen doesn't accept any more plays from Richard Nixon, he may go down in history as one of pro football's greatest coaches."
That was more than 30 years ago. Since then, the story behind "Nixon's Play" has evolved in many ways. Once, I heard someone say that Nixon had called the play during Super Bowl VII in 1973, when the Redskins lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Another time, I heard someone say that Nixon, even in retirement in San Clemente, still called in plays to my father. And to this day, many perceive Nixon as an unofficial off-the-field coordinator who had a direct hot line to my father on the sidelines at RFK.
It is true that the former President often telephoned our home during our seven years in Washington. He called before games, and after games, offering congratulations and condolences. On several occasions, he invited my father to White House dinners, and on many occasions my father declined the invitations. My father demanded 110 percent focus from his team, and believed that he should exhibit the same focus off the field; what would his players think if they saw their coach partying it up at the White House? My father even declined Nixon's request to hold a White House dinner in his honor. The President seemed to understand my father's discipline and supreme devotion to the game -- for these were the very things that first united them in a friendship that would last long past their years in the nation's capital.
Many believe that my father's relationship with Nixon began in Washington, when the two superpowers ran the two biggest teams in town -- the Redskins and Capitol Hill. But they actually first met in New York City in 1951 at an NCAA banquet. Congressman Nixon was the guest speaker, and my father had just completed a championship season (9-1) as the head coach of the Whittier College Poets. Nixon, a Whittier graduate, congratulated my father. They then exchanged a quick discourse on Xs and Os and Arrows, and soon after became apolitical, football-loving friends.
Their friendship continued through my father's tenure with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1960s. As the Republican Party presidential candidate, Nixon sat on the Rams' side in the Coliseum to watch a preseason game against the Chiefs. My father sent my brother Bruce, then the Rams' water boy, up into the stands to offer Nixon a roster card, and a fresh Coke. Nixon kept my brother beside him for most of the game, while my brother offered an astute play-by-play analysis. At one point, when Hank Stram's Len Dawson lined up a few steps away from the center, Bruce sprang up and shouted, "SHOTGUN!" The secret service rose in alarm. Nixon steadied his men, telling them, "Easy, this boy is talking football."
When my father was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Redskins in 1971, the President immediately backed the new head coach. He told the Washington press corps, "I am betting on the Redskins for the championship in either 1971 or 1972." My father returned the compliment, telling reporters, "One of the things I admire in the President is not that he came back and won, but he came back after being beaten twice. The determination to come back shows he is a competitor, and that is why he likes football."
That 1971 season, Nixon often traveled to Camp David, Md., to catch broadcasts of Redskins' home games that were "blacked out" on TV. He once reserved a phone line at his Florida White House to receive the play-by-play of a Cowboys-Redskins game in Dallas. And when the Redskins lost their first game of the season, the president sent my father a handwritten note that was hand-delivered to our suburban Virginia front-door step.
"Dear George," the note began, "I saw the game on TV yesterday. A truly great team must prove that it can be great in defeat, as well as in victory. The Redskins proved they were a great team yesterday." It was signed, "RMN."
My father framed the letter and hung it in his office at Redskin Park. A week later, the Redskins lost again. The team was now 5-2, and my father felt the players could use a lift in spirit. He telephoned the President to ask if he would please pay a visit to the team at Redskin Park. The President obliged, arriving by helicopter on the practice field, surprising not only the players and the local sportswriters, but also the team's public relations director, who my father had failed to notify.
Nixon spoke with many players, calling them by their first names, and impressing everyone with his knowledge of their individual histories -- citing various players' alma maters, where they were born, and where they were rated in the NFL statistically. My father then offered the President a turn at the controls -- allowing him to call an offensive play. The President called a reverse. That day, in practice, the play succeeded quite well.
The following day, newspaper photographs showed two men, one in his trademark burgundy windbreaker and Redskin cap, the other in his wool overcoat, united in seemingly common vision -- to take over the free world. The Redskins won the following week. And my father instantly deemed Nixon the team's good-luck man.
A few years later, Nixon resigned from office, and my father left the Redskins to return to L.A. for an ill-fated stint with the Rams -- he was fired after the second preseason game. In the late 1970s, when Nixon still lived in his Western White House in San Clemente, he would often invite my father down for a visit to his seaside home. By then, the President had acclimated himself to his retirement, but my father was still trying to adjust to what he felt was his forced retirement from the league.
I once accompanied my dad on one of his trips to San Clemente. I remember how the two men greeted one another with an informal handshake and hug. I also remember how I immediately stepped away to allow them their time alone together.
Since that day, I have often wondered why neither my father nor Nixon ever denied or upheld the truth behind "Nixon's Play." Did Nixon really call in the play? And if he did, would my father, known as a do-it-my-way coach, really listen to the advice of an outsider? Maybe neither wanted to take credit for something that failed. Maybe both wanted to protect the other from taking the blame. Or maybe Nixon and my father were simply, like so many others, enamored with the evolution of the story itself.
These were not the questions I considered asking my father or the former President on that late summer day. Just let them be, I thought, as I watched them, the two former leaders, strolling, side-by-side, along the cliffs above the Pacific at sunset.
Jennifer Allen is an occasional contributor to Page 2. She describes her experience of growing up as the daughter of a Hall of Fame NFL coach in her book, "Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach's Daughter."