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The story of Joe Biden, football star

Jay Busbee
·10-min read
The future president-elect (No. 30) waits to get in the game. (Courtesy Michael Fay)
The future president-elect (No. 30) waits to get in the game. (Courtesy Michael Fay)

It was the last game of the season, and it sure looked like Archmere Academy had checked out. The Auks were down 30-0 to Friends’ Central, a Philadelphia high school. Then, something slightly amazing happened.

Archmere’s split end, a tall, skinny, athletic kid, caught a pass to score the Auks’ first touchdown of the afternoon. Then he did it again, and did it a third time. Successful two-point conversions on each touchdown put the score at 30-24.

Alas, the fairytale comeback ended right there. Archmere lost the game and finished the season 1-6. But the team had better days ahead — and so did the talented wide receiver, a junior by the name of Joe Biden.

‘He has a way of connecting with people’

The American success story of President-elect Biden is now set in stone … or, more properly, marble. Raised in a tight Catholic family in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden had a view of Archmere from his bedroom window. He’d spend long hours as a kid staring at its marble facing, imagining scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs for the Auks.

Biden, afflicted with a stutter throughout his youth, used athletics as a way to compensate while he wrestled his stutter under control. “As much as I lacked confidence in my ability to communicate verbally, I always had confidence in my athletic ability,” he wrote. “Sports was as natural to me as speaking was unnatural.”

At Archmere, he’d find a second home. Archmere was housed in the former mansion of John Jakob Raskob, once the CFO of DuPont and a longtime Democratic operative. In his autobiography “Promises to Keep,” Biden described it as “a magnificent Italianate marble pile on a property that sloped down to the Delaware River.” Raskob sold it to a local order of Catholic priests after the incursion of working families and the noise and odor from nearby mills became too much to bear, and soon afterward, Archmere Academy was born.

Tuition at the private school was $300 a year, beyond the reach of Biden’s family. After his acceptance, though, Biden began a work-study program for the summer — washing windows and weeding the grounds — and by the time school rolled around, he was a student just like the rest.

Biden began school as the second smallest boy in his class, 5-foot-1 and barely 100 pounds. By his junior year, he’d grown a foot taller and far more confident.

“In almost any group I was the leader,” Biden wrote. “I was the leading scorer on our undefeated and untied football team my senior year, and I didn’t lack for confidence on the field.”

That sounds like autobiographical burnishment, but his teammates back him up.

“He was the president of our class,” recalls Robert Markel, a teammate on the Archmere baseball team. “He was very much outgoing, he talked to everybody. He has a way of connecting with people, and he was that way back then too.”

(Of note: while Biden was the president of his 56-member class, he couldn’t run for president of Archmere’s entire student body. He’d accrued too many demerits.)

Joe Biden (No. 30) in the Archmere team photo. (Courtesy Michael Fay)
Joe Biden (No. 30) in the Archmere team photo. (Courtesy Michael Fay)

‘You first, Joe’

After the debacle of a winless 1959, Archmere hired a new head football coach for Biden’s senior season, a future Delaware Sports Hall of Famer named John Walsh. Faced with a pockmarked roster, Walsh literally recruited in the middle of Archmere’s cafeteria.

“There wasn’t anything left to do,” Walsh told the Delaware News Journal in 1960. “I had issued several calls, but we got only 18 kids. For a couple of days I stood near the line in the cafeteria and when a big one came by I grabbed him.”

That same article described Biden as “one of the best pass receivers on the team,” but even the best players need help.

“We developed some plays for him,” recalls teammate Michael Fay. “He would come out at different spots on the field and really screw up the defense if they weren’t watching too closely.”

“I wasn’t easily intimidated in a game,” Biden wrote, “so even when I stuttered, I was the kid who said, ‘Give me the ball.’ ”

The season began on a high note. Archmere opened against St. James High, a school that had walloped Archmere by, in Fay’s estimation, “10 or 11 touchdowns” the previous year. In 1960 the Auks knocked off St. James 12-0. A new precedent was being set.

The team got a surprise in Week 2, beating St. Andrews — a predicted walkover — by only 8-6. “It was the best thing that could have happened to us,” Fay says. “We found out we weren’t God’s gift to football.”

From there on out, Archmere rumbled. Three of the next six teams, Archmere had never beaten before, schools like — Fay recites from memory — Tower Hill, Friends School, Friends Central and public schools such as AI DuPont and Louis L. Redding. That year, though, they stomped right through them all.

Biden would go on to become one of the state’s best players his senior year. Over the course of eight games, he’d score 10 touchdowns, and his 60 points on the season ranked third overall in the state of Delaware.

“He was a skinny kid,” Walsh, who died in 2018, told The New York Times in 2008, “but he was one of the best pass receivers I had in 16 years as a coach.”

Just how good was Biden in high school? Judge for yourself. Quarterback Bill Peterman compiled some home movies and put them on YouTube in 2010. First, here’s Biden, at wide receiver, finding space deep but getting tackled just short of the end zone:

(YouTube via Bill Peterman)
(YouTube via Bill Peterman)

Next, here’s Biden taking the handoff and showing some nifty cutback moves to grind out a first down:

(YouTube via Bill Peterman)
(YouTube via Bill Peterman)

And finally, the crowning achievement, Biden shrugging off defenders to score on a perfect throw from Peterman:

(YouTube via Bill Peterman)
(YouTube via Bill Peterman)

The Archmere football team was also the focus of one of the formative events of Biden’s life. One day during the season, eight players, including Biden and Fay, went to a Wilmington restaurant called the Charcoal Pit. One of the eight, Francis Hutchins, was Black. In the pre-Civil Rights era, that was cause for concern, even in Delaware.

The eight players sat down at two tables, four and four. A waiter came up to Hutchins’ table.

“We can serve you if you want to eat outside,” he said, “but he —” meaning Hutchins— “can’t be served in here. The boss wouldn’t allow it.”

“Joe led the walkout of the Charcoal Pit,” Fay says. “It wasn’t a big shouting match or anything, their table just got up and walked out, and we followed them.” Many years later, while on a swing through Delaware, President Obama made a point of going to the Charcoal Pit … and having lunch inside.

The Charcoal Pit incident was one of the few that defined the Class of ’61 Auks … well, that and the undefeated season.

“We were a quiet group, really,” Fay recalls. “I was the captain, and my speech before the first game was one sentence: ‘Hey, all we’ve talked about is going undefeated, so if we’re going to be undefeated, we have to win this game.’ I think Joe would have done a much better job.”

Regardless of the impact, or lack thereof, of the pregame speech, Archmere rolled over Friends’ Central. In the waning minutes of the game, Archmere once again took possession, and Peterman gathered the huddle around him.

“This is it, guys,” Peterman said. “Last possession of our career. We each get the ball once, one chance to score.” He turned to Biden.

“You first, Joe.”

“OK, I’ll take it first,” Biden replied. “But you’re not getting the ball back, Peterman.”

What ensued, at least according to the tale that has survived to this day, was the Joe Biden version of Beastquake, a 45-yard run that covered, in Biden’s estimation, 110 yards. He was right; nobody else got the ball.

Game over, season over, high school over.

Joe Biden led Archmere in scoring. (Courtesy Michael Fay)
Joe Biden led Archmere in scoring. (Courtesy Michael Fay)

‘It’s not as easy as it looks’

Biden was confident in his athletic abilities, perhaps too much so. (Feel free to attach metaphorical significance to this or any other statement in this story.) One day during his senior year, just before baseball was scheduled to start, he wandered out to the Achmere track. A row of hurdles were set up.

“I’m going to give that a try,” Biden said.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Fay said decades later.

Biden hit one of the hurdles and sliced a gash in his thigh so deep it required stitches, forcing him to miss his entire senior year of baseball. That marked the end of his athletic days at Archmere, and from there, he was on to Delaware, where football glory … did not await.

Poor grades his first semester in college doomed Biden’s plans to play spring football his freshman year at Delaware. A second attempt at football during his junior year ended when he found, and fell “ass over tin cup,” in his words, with his first wife Neilia.

“He would have had a good shot to make the team,” Fay said years later, “but he had other priorities.”

Decades later, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Biden’s brief football career would flare up into a minor controversy. At a stop in Ohio, Biden seemed to imply that he was on the football team when Delaware beat Ohio University and Biden joked that he almost “got arrested” for trying to visit a women’s dormitory. Gateway Pundit checked yearbooks from Biden’s era and found, not surprisingly, that Biden never appeared in the football team photos.

Biden hung up his cleats once and for all and went to law school. A few years later, at age 29, he won election to the U.S. Senate, and you know the story from there.

‘He really hasn’t changed at all’

We never really escape our high school selves, and if you’re Joe Biden, why try?

Biden remained loyal to his Archmere teammates long after he went to Delaware and later entered politics. Every Thanksgiving, they’d gather for what they called the “Turkey Bowl” — a touch football game where they could talk some trash and relive some of the glory days of high school.

And for years after that, when they grew too old to be slamming into each other on fields, they gathered for drinks and meals and memories. They’d tell the same stories year after year, laughing at old jokes like the fact Peterman threw Biden 20 touchdown passes, and Biden caught 19 of them … but stone-cold dropped what should have been the 20th.

When Biden ascended to the vice presidency in 2009, several of his Archmere teammates were waiting for him at the Vice President’s Mansion after the inauguration. Later in Obama’s term, Biden invited his entire class to Washington, and 38 of the 56 were able to accept. What they saw was the same old Joe, just a few years older and a little better known.

“If you had a film of Joe back in 1960 and film today, even his mannerisms are very much the same,” Fay says. “He really hasn't changed at all.”

“I remember sitting in his living room. His mother was there,” Markel recalls. “Our buddy Charlie del Campo was lying on the floor. Charlie says, ‘Joe wants to be president.’ Joe didn’t respond, but his eyes lit up, and I could see a little bit of a smile.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 04: Former Vice President Joe Biden looks on during the celebrations after the Philadelphia Eagles win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Biden was in the stadium when the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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