Not many people have the opportunity to play high school football within a football pass away from their back doorstep.
Not many people who have played high school football have become President of the United States.
Ronald Reagan did both.
The future 40th President of the United States, born in Tampico on February 6, 1911, played football for the Dixon Union team in 1926 and 1927 while an upperclassman at North Dixon High School. Dixon Union – a cooperative effort between Dixon High and North Dixon, before their merger in 1929 – played their games in the vicinity of the field that would later be named after Reagan’s high school football coach, A.C. Bowers.
Reagan, a 1928 graduate of North Dixon, lived on West Everett Street north of the athletic fields located within Pleasure Park. The Reagans moved from their home on South Hennepin Avenue in 1924 and crossed the Rock River so that Ronald could attend the more advanced north side high school.
Art, drama and literary contests appealed to Ronald during his first 2 years of high school from 1924 to 1925. Meanwhile, his brother, Neil “Moon” Reagan, starred on the football team during that time as a right end. The 1925 team won the Rock River Conference championship with a 8-0-1 record, and during a 70-0 blowout against Polo, Neil recovered four fumbles and ran one back for the game’s final touchdown.
Eager to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, Ronald was slightly taller than Neil, but not as built. As a junior, he played on the lightweight squad (similar to today’s version of a junior varsity level). Football wasn’t much of a size game at that time, and Ronald was tabbed to play left tackle in his first game. The opportunity came on October 9, 1926, in a 6-0 win against Mendota.
Reagan wouldn’t stay with the lightweights for very long. He may have been called up to play the second half of Dixon’s 34-0 loss to Rock Falls the following Saturday, and 1 week after the lightweights lost 2-0 to rival Sterling, he started in his first varsity game in a 6-0 loss to Rochelle on November 6. Reagan, now playing right guard, saw his team lose when Rochelle used a no-huddle offense to score late in the fourth quarter against holes in the Dixon line.
“‘Dutch’, the lightest but fastest guard on the team, won his letter through sheer grit,” wrote the 1927 Dixonian yearbook. “With ‘Dutch’ returning to the squad, things look good for Dixon in 1927.”
The Dixon Evening Teelgraph’s preview of the 1927 Dixon team considered the group “an average squad,” and as it turned out, they finished 2-5.
The season opened with a
25-0 loss to Mendota, and the Telegraph reported in the following write-up in the 38-7 loss to Rock Falls that “cripples and ineligibles left Dixon with a weak line.” Reagan, however, started the Rock Falls game at left tackle, where he would remain for the rest of the season.
Two more losses followed, and Dixon sat at 0-4 after a 25-0 loss to Sterling and an 18-0 defeat at Savanna. An Armistice Day victory broke a long winless streak against Rochelle. Dixon won 6-0 in a game described by the Telegraph as a downpour, and “fumbles were frequent.”
Mount Morris easily went down the following week in a 44-0 win as Reagan and the rest of the Dixon starters sat out for the second half.
Being a left tackle, Reagan didn’t get to touch the ball much, and didn’t amass stats worthy enough to be mentioned in the Telegraph. His surname was simply mentioned in the starting lineup. However, Reagan’s name made the newspaper in story copy in his final high school football game.
“Reagan kicked off for Dixon to the Sterling 22-yard line.”
The game was a 34-0 loss to Sterling in the annual Thanksgiving meeting, and Reagan was called to kick the ball to start the second half.
While Reagan’s senior year fell short of overall expectations, the 1928 annual described the passion with which he played.
“‘Dutch’ proved to be one of the strong factors in the line this year,” wrote the Dixonian. “He took care of his tackle berth in a credible manner, and certainly had true ‘Dixon Spirit.’”
That spirit was exemplified in more than in just football. Reagan continued his involvement in drama, and joined the school play during his junior year. He was also involved in the Hi-Y club during his upperclass years. During the Dixon North student “pow-wow” retreat near Grand Detour his senior year, Reagan led the festivities as “Heap Big Chief.”
Reagan’s senior year saw the first titles of president be bestowed upon him. He was president of the drama club and president of the North-South student body. Following his 1928 graduation, Reagan became very involved at Eureka College – among his activities were 3 years of playing guard on the football team.
Football wasn’t in Reagan’s future after his Eureka days, as his talents in the arts would eventually lead to major Hollywood motion picture roles in the 1940s and 50s.
At the time Reagan suited up in his No. 33 uniform in Dixon, little did he know that one day he would deal with an important suitcase named after the sport.
Reagan never had to open the nuclear football as the Cold War wound down, but perhaps the very thought of it would briefly bring to mind his days playing football in his backyard.
Those who played against Reagan wouldn’t fully realize until much later that they fought in football scuffles against a future President of the United States. Perhaps the most notable opponent of Reagan’s was former Ottawa Township High School football coach and athletic director Homer Hankinson, who played for Rock Falls.
Did You Know?
• The origin of the football helmet, such as the leather one Reagan wore during his football days, has been credited to another Tampico native. Joseph M. Reeves wore a helmet made of sheepskin in the 1893 Army-Navy football game during his days as a Midshipman.