Is the Great American Sport of Football Newt Gingrich’s No. 1 Nemesis?

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We had to custom-make this helmet, too. Photo: Photos: Splash News, iStockphoto

Nestled inside yet another new poll that confirms Newt Gingrich's front-runner status is an ominous little detail. Newt supporters in Iowa are slightly more likely than supporters of Mitt Romney or Ron Paul to be college-football fans. Normally, this would be good news for a politician. What more clearly shows that you're tapping into the pulsing, red-meat heart of America than evidence that the same people who like you as a candidate also like watching young men violently smash into one another? Except the problem in this particular instance is that the Iowa caucus happens to take place on the same day as the Sugar Bowl, which Google tells Intel Noreen is a decently big deal. There is a slight chance that the sort of people who don't have to consult Google for college-football information might be more interested in re-arranging their schedules to accommodate the Sugar Bowl than re-arranging them to accommodate voting in the Iowa caucus. In such an unpredictable race, where turnout is so important, perhaps Newt's college-football-loving supporters won't show up in quite the same force.

We were inclined to dismiss this theory as a little thin, until we happened upon another buried detail that made us wonder if perhaps the sport wasn't haunting Newt's dreams: Gingrich, as a football-playing youth, had such a big head that he couldn't wear a regulation-size helmet.

PETER J. BOYER: [I]n high school in 1960, Newt's brainy political precocity had limited value. Jim Tilton convinced him to go out for football.

JAMES "BUBBA" BALL, High School Football Coach: Newt was a boy that came in that had never played football and really wasn't given a lot of athletic talent. But he came onto the field, wanted to play football. And we had a little trouble getting a helmet that would fit him. Auburn didn't have one. Tech didn't have one, Alabama, Troy State. So we had to call Rudell and they had to make up a special helmet.

LINDA TILTON: Newt has a large head and there were no helmets in Columbus that would fit Newt except for these 1940 football ... these leather things with the little earflaps, I gather. This is what Jim's story always was, anyway.

PETER J. BOYER: Football was a bust and so, apparently, was his social life.

Football: Newt Gingrich's Waterloo?