Theodore Roosevelt, 156-year-old ex-president, soccer fan

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"I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know... and if it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America, I am quite ready to do so. Go team!"

Viewers of the US Men's National Soccer Team competitions during the World Cup have frequently seen this man, this anachronism, cheering on the squad:


Yes, former president Theodore Roosevelt has gone south to cheer on his country's players, as he did during the Spanish-American War, when he formed a volunteer regiment of Rough Riders to serve in Cuba, and as he would have done again in 1917 had President Woodrow Wilson consented to let him do so (well, not south in that instance, but east). Belligerently nationalistic and burdened with views on race (which he thought much too much about in a misinformed Darwinistic sense), economic justice (sure, the rich might have too much, but that didn't mean the poor had too little), and war as a test of manhood that one would like to think he would have been intelligent enough to have let go of given time, he believed so strongly in the benefits of intense competition it's not surprising that he would have thought the World Cup important enough to make the long trip to Brazil despite his having been dead for dead for 95 years at the present time.

"I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life," Roosevelt said in 1899, "the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph." By showing up in Brazil, Theodore (no one called him Teddy, not to his face), is living up to those values and more: Brazil nearly killed him precisely 100 years ago. Arguably, Brazil did kill him, it just took it a little while for it to finish the work.

It was his own damned fault, of course. Theodore Roosevelt was born a wealthy, asthmatic weakling in New York City. Just before his 12th birthday, his father took him aside and said, "Theodore, you have the mind, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should... You must make your body."

Cue training montage, with the 1870s version of "Eye of the Tiger" playing over young Theodore, doing calisthenics and working the heavy bag. He took his father seriously, and by the time he was a teenager, the young man was buff, ripped, and ready to take on anyone in boxing, wrestling, horseback riding, or almost any other competition you might name. He climbed the Matterhorn, roped steer, shot a grizzly bear at point-blank range. He killed an elephant and ate its heart.

During his college years, Roosevelt's doctor told him that his heart was in such ragged condition that he ought to do nothing more strenuous than stamp collecting. Instead, he just kept pushing himself. In 1912, as he was running for president on the Bull Moose ticket, a madman shot him in the chest near the heart. He survived by a lucky arrangement of personal items -- his coat, jacket, a steel eyeglass case, and the folded 50-page manuscript of the speech he was about to give all slowed the bullet, but that he had taken the sunken chest he had been born with and stretched it to the point that it was now a muscular barrel played a part as well. If a son of privilege can be a self-made man, Theodore Roosevelt was very much that.


X-ray of Roosevelt's broad chest after 1912 assassination attempt. The bullet remained in his body for the rest of his life. (Getty Images)

The wonderful thing about Theodore Roosevelt was that he applied the same you-can-transform-yourself effort to everything. "I am only an average man," he said, "but I work harder at it than the average man." He was an amateur naturalist, hunter ("naturalist" and "hunter" were almost interchangeable terms then, when the study of animals relied so much on taxidermy, which TR also practiced), historian, politician, policeman, soldier, and more. This was, simultaneously, the really terrible thing about Theodore Roosevelt. He knew just enough about everything to be very dangerous to himself and others.

This is not to say that he wasn't a great president; on many levels he was one of the greatest, restoring by sheer enthusiasm power and prestige to an office that had been sidelined by Congress in the years since Lincoln. Rather, that on a personal level, he was impulsive and his judgment wasn't always the best. On the funny-in-retrospect side, consider that, during a justifiably depressed period he spent as a cattle rancher in the North Dakota badlands, consider the lengths he went to get the perfect camera shot of that beautiful yet desolate country, which was once described as "Hell with the fires out." From The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward Wagenknecht [sic]:

Once he had himself lowered two hundred feet over a cliff so that he could snap a picture from the desired angle. The picture taken, his companions found that they lacked the strength to pull him up. Roosevelt could perceive no problem: the thing to do, he said, was simply to cut the rope and let him fall sixty feet into the icy stream. His companions insisted that this was suicide. One of them returned to camp, accordingly, for additional rope. This enabled them to lower Roosevelt twenty-five feet more. (By this time he had been hanging two hours.) Since no more rope was available, there was nothing to do now but chance the fall. T.R. was pulled out of the water upon a raft, half conscious.


The Little Missouri River winds through what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (Getty Images)

On the not-so-funny-in-retrospect side, Roosevelt's maneuvering to end the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 in a way in which the Russians were preserved as a Pacific counterbalance to a rising Asian superpower (white man's burden, you know -- Rudyard Kipling was a pal) cut short the bloodshed and led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but also left the Japanese feeling shortchanged to the point that the country's militaristic side began to assert itself politically and, yee-hah, the stage was set for World War II before World War I had even happened.

Those are just two moments from an impossibly packed life -- we're condensing like crazy here. Say that due to an assassin's bullet you become the youngest president in the history of the United States. You hold that office for about 7.5 years and, though you enjoy the hell out of the job, you rashly announce you're not going to run again. What next? Well, you travel a lot. You give a lot of speeches, write more books, magazine articles, newspaper columns. You attend state funerals and shoot more animals. In 1912, having rethought the whole not-being-president thing, you run again. There are four major candidates and you are somehow still the youngest of the four. Far more popular than the other guys, the election should be yours, but the Republican machine blocks you, you're forced to run as a third-party candidate, and all you succeed in doing is electing the Democratic candidate by splitting the GOP in a way that affects American politics down to the present day.

So you're 54, still in the prime of life, and out of a job again. What do you do now? Eventually, you get around to checking out South America.

Roosevelt's original plan was to make some speeches and do some hunting. Roosevelt wanted to bag a jaguar for himself and a tapir and a peccary for the museums. Along the way, he got diverted. The Brazilian government suggested that he become co-leader of an expedition to explore an unmapped river, Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. It was thought to flow into the Rio Madeira, itself a tributary of the Amazon. At that time, most of the Brazilian population lived on the coast. A good deal of the interior was still impenetrable jungle, sparsely populated by Indians of indeterminate friendliness. Exactly where the river went, or even if it really wound up feeding into the Madeira -- who knew? No satellite maps in 1914.

"Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to be an oyster." -Theodore Roosevelt to his children, as quoted in Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

"I want to be the first to go down the unknown river," said Roosevelt with customary lack of thought as to consequences. Problems: After all that strenuous life stuff, the middle-aged TR had let himself go a bit. He had not only become an enthusiastic trencherman, but his various adventures had led to a lifetime of broken bones, arthritis, recurrent malaria, and other infirmities that ended his lifetime exercise habit. He had become, to put it gently, obese. His heart, however successfully he had pushed it over the previous half-century, was not in a good way. He also wasn't really an explorer; he was more an unusually well-read politician with a gun. Yet, he, along with his son Kermit, Brazilian Colonel Cândido Rondon, a more qualified adventurer, and about 17 others plunged into the wilderness of Mato Grosso.

It turned out to be an adventure for a much younger, healthier man. Roosevelt dashed off a quick summary in a telegram sent just after the expedition finally emerged from jungle. From the Library of America's Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches:

No less than six weeks were spent in slowly and with peril and exhausting labor forcing our way down through what seemed a literally endless succession of rapids and cataracts. For forty-eight days we saw no human being. In passing these rapids we lost five of seven canoes with which we started and had to build others. One of our best men lost his life in the rapids. Under the strain one of the men went completely bad, shirked all his work, stole his comrades' food and when punished... he with cold-blooded deliberation murdered the sergeant and fled into the wilderness. Colonel Rondon's dog, running ahead of him while hunting, was shot by two Indians... We have put on the map a river about 1500 kilometers in length.

Roosevelt's telegram left out a great deal. "Forcing our way down" meant pulling their boats out of the water and hacking a road out of the jungle parallel to the river so as to avoid being dashed to death or drowned trying to shoot impassible whitewater hazards. It was demanding physical work not meant for those with bad arteries. Once the rapids were bypassed, you got back in the water until, all too soon, there was another obstacle. The river also turned and looped, so that one might have to row several miles for every mile of actual progress towards the end goal. Supplies were lost to the river, mysteriously vanished, or too rapidly consumed. There were also the standard hazards you might worry about in a South American jungle: insatiable bloodsucking insects, piranhas, snakes, and the blood-seeking miniature catfish called the candiru, whose interest in exploring human reproductive anatomy may or may not have been mythical but could still keep you up with worry and a full bladder.

On March 27, about a month into the trip proper, one of the pontoon boats that carried supplies for the expedition broke away and was in danger of being smashed against some rocks. Roosevelt was among those who jumped into the water to pull it back. In doing so, he cut his right leg. The wound festered and seemed to trigger a recurrence of TR's malaria. He popped a 104 degree fever, had chest pains. Given that his left leg had previously been injured when he had been thrown from a moving car (as President, no less) and hadn't truly recovered, that meant he was largely done walking and had to be carried. He became delirious, repeating lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree..."

At some point, Roosevelt decided he was a potentially fatal drag on the expedition and made peace with dying for the good of the party. He had always packed a lethal dose of morphine for just such a moment as this. Depending on who you read (say Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt or Candice Millard's The River of Doubt), the moment he asked to be left behind happened with greater or lesser drama. In Millard's version, Roosevelt called out to his son and George Cherrie, a naturalist sent by the American Museum of Natural History. "Boys," he said, "I realize that some of us are not going to finish this journey. Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go on. You can get out. I will stop here."

Kermit refused to abandon his father, and TR, despite his diminished state, realized that his son would not abandon him, nor, if it came to it, his remains. This might doom son along with father. "I knew his determination," Roosevelt wrote. "So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was come out myself."

(In the Morris version, Roosevelt asks co-leader Rondon to be left behind, and Rondon, perhaps mindful of what it might look like to abandon a highly popular American ex-president in the jungle -- one would be second-guessed for all time -- said politely, "Let me point out that this is called the ‘Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition,' so we cannot possibly split up.")


The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition stops to eat before it all went to hell. Colonel Rondon is second from left. Kermit Roosevelt sits cross-legged on the ground. Theodore Roosevelt is seated at right.(Wikimedia Commons)

As bad as Roosevelt's condition was then, there was still room for it to worsen. While quinine checked the malaria, he developed a pair of abscesses on his thigh and buttock. One was lanced and drained alongside the river despite the lack of anesthetic.

"As I emphatically disbelieve in seeing Harvard or any other college turn out mollycoddles instead of vigorous men... I do not in the least object to a sport be cause it is rough." -President Roosevelt, speech at Harvard University, 1907

They did finally make it out, of course, the river successfully mapped. Roosevelt had dropped 50 pounds in the jungle. The weight was quickly restored. His overall health was not. The fevers recurred, as did the abscesses. In the ensuing years there would be frequent hospitalizations, confinements to wheelchairs. When his youngest son Quentin, a flier, was killed in the First World War -- the conflict President Wilson had forbidden Theodore to join -- the emotional resiliency with which to resist his failing health went out of him. He died in bed at Sagamore Hill almost exactly five years after his trip to South America, his heart finally giving out. He would have been the 1920 Republican presidential nominee. The war had made the Democrats so unpopular, everyone knew it was his year. The river washed that possibility away.

Today the River of Doubt is known as the Rio Roosevelt or Rio Teodoro. The Arena da Amazonia, one of the stadia hosting the World Cup, is in Manaus, where the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition finally returned to civilization. Another, the Arena Pantanal in Cuiabá, lies not too far off the path of his journey to the River of Doubt. We can at least be grateful that the Arena Fonte Nova, where Tuesday's match against Belgium will take place, is far from the site of the great man's ordeal.

Still, when you see Theodore Roosevelt, and you will, remember what he sacrificed to get out of there, what he's undoubtedly gone through to get back, and remember that though he might have been a jingo, he was the greatest, most eccentric, entertaining jingo we have ever had, and if any our many deceased patriots would come back to the scene of his greatest trial just to cheer for an soccer team, it would be him.

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

"Bully!" -- Both Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

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