My afternoon on the tennis court with a true competitor: George H. W. Bush

In the fall of 1985 I received a phone call from Mr. Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA in Kansas City, Missouri, asking if I would be willing to play tennis on Jan. 13, 1986, in New Orleans during the annual NCAA meeting with then Vice-President George H.W. Bush.

I agreed and after background checks by the Secret Service the stage was set for some men’s doubles to be played on indoor courts at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans. At the time I had just completed my tenure as the faculty chairman of the Duke University Athletics Council, the elected ACC representative to the 44-member NCAA Council, president of the reinstated NCAA Faculty Representative Forum and a member of the newly formed NCAA Select Committee on Collegiate Athletic Drug Testing.

George Bush was to attend the meeting to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award – the highest honor the NCAA may confer on an individual. The Award is named after President Theodore Roosevelt whose concern for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906.

The “Teddy” is presented annually to a distinguished citizen of national reputation and outstanding accomplishment. To be eligible the recipient must have graduated from an NCAA member institution and earned a varsity athletics award. Furthermore, the awardee by personal example and contributions to society, exemplifies the ideals to which collegiate athletics programs and amateur sports competition are dedicated.

Following the Awards luncheon presentation four of us – George Bush, Bill Bradford, Donald Gregg (Bush’s National Security Advisor), and Fritz Byers (son of Walter Byers) — took to the courts for 2 ½ hours of intense tennis. The facility was closed for other tennis players. The only ones in attendance included the Secret Service, New Orleans police with their K9 force, and my wife who was allowed to include a few friends to watch the action.

George Bush’s athleticism has been well recognized from his time in Prep School, at Yale, and beyond. His toughness and demeanor on the tennis court demonstrated his capability to take on any task presented to him! He was a true competitor that afternoon, and it was a distinct privilege for me to be a part of the action and in his presence.

I believe that Reverend Franklin Graham, when asked to describe George Bush, said it best: “He was a true gentle giant of a man.”

I shall always cherish the memory of my brief time with him and applaud his many sacrifices and service to his country.

Dr. William D. Bradford is a professor of pathology at Duke University Medical Center.

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