A closer look at Hillary Clinton family’s Penn State ties

With Hillary Clinton running for president this year, her family’s direct ties to Penn State are once again in the news.

Both her father, Hugh Rodham, and brother, Hugh Rodham Jr, graduated from Penn State, and both played football for Penn State. However, contrary to what has been reported elsewhere, only the senior Rodham earned a letter. Hugh Jr. was solely on the scout team, part of the cannon fodder for the varsity, and never came close to getting on the field during a game.

I profiled Hugh Sr. in my 1998 book, “The Penn State Football Encyclopedia.” I never knew about Hugh Jr.’s Penn State football connection until recently. I also didn’t know he was in the same fraternity as I was, Theta Delta Chi, separated by 14 or so years.

Hugh Sr. was from Scranton and enrolled at Penn State in 1931, graduating in 1935 with a degree in physical education. Rodham was on the team at the start of a period from 1929-1949 when Penn State de-emphasized athletics and scholarships were eliminated. The Nittany Lions did not have a winning season from 1930 through 1936, and like most of his teammates Hugh Sr. was not recruited but went out for football on his own.

Based on my research, Hugh Sr. was a reserve end on the team during his three varsity years (1932-34). I have found no evidence in newspaper game stories of those years and Penn State football sources that he played in a game, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t because record keeping was less thorough back then. One indication that Rodham may have played in 1934, the only year he earned a letter, is a facial photo of him wearing his helmet that is in the 1934 college yearbook, LaVie. He is one of 18 lettermen and three other players singled out with a similar photo, three to a page, in seven pages of write-ups about each game that season. His photo is the last one on the last page about a 13-7 loss to Bucknell that ended the season. That 1934 team finished 4-4 and among Hugh Sr.’s teammates were two future assistant Penn State coaches, center Jim O’Hora and halfback Al (Mikelonis) Michaels. One also can see Rodham in the team photos of the 1932 and 1934 yearbooks, sitting in the front row at the right end of the bench in 1934 and wearing jersey number 69.

Rodham’s second son, Hugh Jr., was raised in the close-in Chicago suburb of Park Ridge where Hugh Sr. raised his family and became a businessman in the textile industry. Hugh Jr. was a Penn State freshman in 1968 and graduated in 1972 with a degree from what was then the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. He also was a virtually unknown football walk-on for three years (1968-70) but in a far different Penn State football environment, the early years of the legendary Joe Paterno era when the Nittany Lions were evolving into one of the elite college football programs in the nation.

What is not true is that Hugh Jr. was “a backup quarterback” for Joe Paterno, as has been often reported elsewhere. The official Rodham family biography, posted on the internet at CNN.com since 1996 and occasionally updated since, takes it a step further stating that Hillary’s youngest brother “played second string quarterback on the football team at Penn State.”

In my research I found only two references to Hugh Jr. regarding football and both were in the 1970 football media guide. In the two-page spread (pages 10 and 11) listing the 84-man roster, Rodham’s name appears on the alphabetical list, 63 players from the top, between the names of sophomore offensive tackle Bob Rickenbach, Audubon, N.J., and senior defensive halfback Darrell Ritter, of Altoona. Ritter is another unknown walk-on but Rickenbach became a three-year letterman. Hugh Jr. is described as a junior defensive back, 5-11, 203, 20 (years old), from Maine Township High School in Park Ridge, Ill.

Hugh Jr.’s name also is found on page 14 of the 1970 media guide, which has the title “Lions Enrolled in Varied Majors.” He is listed under physical education, along with one of the more familiar former Penn State players, Fran Ganter.

Freshmen were ineligible back then and none of those media guides from 1968 to 1971 had a list of freshmen. I also could not find Hugh Jr.’s name in any of the official Nittany Lion freshman football files in the university’s library archives

However, Ferris Atty, another fraternity brother was also a football walk-on in that time period and he remembers Hugh Jr. Atty, whose father had been a graduate assistant for Coach Bob Higgins in the late 1940s, was an invited walk-on as a freshman in 1967.

“Rodham came out the following year as a walk-on,” Atty recalled in a telephone conversation. “He and I hit it off and that’s one of the reasons he joined our fraternity.”

In the fraternity section of the 1971 yearbook, there is a photo of the Theta Delta Chi brothers that shows Hugh Jr. standing in the back row, fifth from the left, wearing a flashy white sports coat. Atty is sitting in the first chair in the second row.

“We were on the scout team or (what was called) the foreign team bomb squad,” Atty said.

The scout team practices on the same field as the varsity but is there to help prepare the varsity for its games, acting in the role of the opponent. They are nicknamed the bomb squad because the players usually take a beating during their weekly scrimmages against the starters and varsity reserves.

“We were both on the team those three years, and he showed up at practice every day,” Atty said. “Rodham played quarterback on the scout team but was never a backup or anything close to it. I graduated in 1971 and I know he wasn’t on the team that (fall) when he was a senior.”

Atty never played in a game, but nowadays he is a regular at the Letterman’s Club Lounge in Beaver Stadium and the club’s reserve parking lot on football game days. Hugh Jr.’s name is sometimes brought up by the players as being a backup quarterback, Atty said, “and they say, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ Most of them don’t remember him at all even from the scout team.”

Lou Prato is a Penn State football historian who covered the Nittany Lion football team from 1967 through 1969 for a Pittsburgh television station and as a freelance writer from 1961-69.