Sports champs’ White House visits are moments to cherish
Seahawks on Wednesday become the latest champions from Seattle to be feted by the president
Times staff columnist
In the past three months, the Seahawks have turned our football-loving nation blue and green, chapped their lips kissing the Lombardi Trophy and experienced the grandest sports parade to hit Seattle in 35 years.
And those were just the pre-funk activities.
On Wednesday, the celebration doesn’t just continue. It enters another realm of significance when the best football team in all the land visits President Obama at the White House.
It’s an American sports tradition that never gets old. Just ask those who’ve been there before. They’ll tell you that, of the many championship perks, the White House visit is the most unforgettable.
“It was wonderful,” said Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin, whose team went eight years ago to celebrate the Huskies’ 2005 national title. “I was really nervous, for some reason. There’s this tremendous buildup. You go through security, and there are guys with guns and Secret Service everywhere. You enter, and you know you’re in the presence of greatness, of the president of the United States. And you’re with your team, all these people who have gone through this incredible journey with you, and now you’re experiencing something rare together.
“I did not know what to say. It was like, ‘Am I really doing this?’ ”
McLaughlin will never forget hearing a staff member say, “Hey, the president is two minutes away.” Being the meticulous man he is, McLaughlin did a silent countdown. Exactly 120 seconds later, there was President George W. Bush.
He shook McLaughlin’s hand and said, “Jimmy, you kicked their ass.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” a startled McLaughlin replied.
“No, Jimmy,” President Bush said. “You beat ’em 3-zip.”
He was referring to Washington’s victory over Nebraska in the 2005 championship match in San Antonio. The president had been prepped. And it made the Huskies feel like the most important squad in sports.
The Seahawks will be telling these kinds of stories soon. They will remember them in vivid detail. It has been 35 years since Lenny Wilkens led the Sonics to the 1979 NBA title, but he can talk about it as if only 35 minutes have passed.
In the case of Wilkens and the Sonics, however, it wasn’t as magical as what McLaughlin described.
“It was interesting,” Wilkens said of meeting President Jimmy Carter. “He was very polite, but he wasn’t that engaging. You could tell he wasn’t as much of a sports fan as other presidents I’ve met.
“But still, it was quite an honor. There’s nothing like it. You have to enjoy it because it goes by too soon.”
For the Storm, which has won two WNBA championships (2004, 2010), its trip to see President Obama in 2011 included having to break the news that Lauren Jackson couldn’t attend because she needed hip surgery. It was strange hearing Storm coach Brian Agler address a season-altering injury in the middle of such a profound celebration.
Still, the lasting memory isn’t about calamity. Obama added an extra thrill for the Storm, inviting the team into the Oval Office.
You never know what the president will do. You’re dressed impeccably and in nervous anticipation of meeting the nation’s leader. You’re worried you might say the wrong thing. But sometimes, the president is the one who makes the odd remark.
Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has a hilarious tale. Holmgren barely missed getting to take the Seahawks to the White House, but he did visit there several times with other teams. He led Green Bay to a championship in 1997. And as an assistant coach in San Francisco, the 49ers won back-to-back titles in 1988 and 1989.
In 1989, he took one of his daughters, Calla, with him to the White House visit. Holmgren went to shake President George H.W. Bush’s hand, and the former president said, “Mike, you like ’em kinda young, huh?”
The president’s wife, Barbara Bush, quickly interrupted.
“George, that’s his daughter!” she said.
Holmgren also remembers a former 49er linebacker named Sam Kennedy being so excited about meeting Bush that he playfully put the president in a headlock.
“I mean, who does that?” Holmgren said, laughing. “I was worried the Secret Service was going to shoot him.”
When the Packers visited the White House in 1997, Holmgren was worried about missing a flight to attend the NFL owners meetings. President Bill Clinton was running late. Holmgren was told the president was in a meeting. The coach looked 50 yards away and saw Clinton on a putting green.
“He had a meeting with his putter,” Holmgren recalled, laughing.
But Clinton made sure Holmgren didn’t miss his flight. He arranged for a police escort and for the airplane to be held. Holmgren arrived at the airport 15 minutes late, but he still made his flight.
Will the Seahawks’ visit be as eventful or funny? Perhaps. But for those who have had the honor, they know that, regardless of what happens, it will be unforgettable.
“I can’t wait to watch the Seahawks do it,” McLaughlin said. “I can’t wait to hear what Obama says, and I can’t wait to hear what the Seahawks say. You know he’ll interact with a few of them besides Pete Carroll. I’m guessing he’ll have to talk to Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson. I can’t wait. The experience, it’s awesome.”
One piece of advice, though: Don’t put the president in a headlock.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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