People | Sports

Willis Ward, Gerald Ford and Michigan football's darkest day

By Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse / Special to The Detroit News

The marquee game of college football’s opening weekend takes place Sept. 1 in Dallas, as a superpower from the South (Alabama) takes on a superpower from the North (Michigan). Fans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line are already salivating over what should be an epic showdown.

The first time that Michigan took on a powerhouse from the South, though, it was a much different situation. It happened 78 years ago, and it was most certainly the worst day in Michigan football history.

The date was Oct. 20, 1934, and the opponent was Georgia Tech. It was a rare occurrence in those days for Michigan to play a team from outside the Midwest, but Fielding H. Yost — the legendary coach who was then U-M’s athletic director — had been looking for a Southern squad to fill out the 1934 schedule. Georgia Tech got the invite.

There was one big problem, though. In those days, Jim Crow was a sad fact of life in college football, and teams from the South generally refused to play against any team that fielded a black player.

U-M’s best player that year was an incredible athlete from Detroit named Willis Ward. He was tall and strong and very fast. He was also black.

Georgia Tech was well aware that Michigan had an African-American on the roster. From the outset, the Yellow Jackets told Yost they would refuse to play the game if Ward were allowed to take the field.

Yost’s feelings on matters of race were no secret. The son of a Confederate soldier, he had never allowed an African-American to play for Michigan during his 25 seasons as coach. Still, as 1934 dragged on, Yost refused to say what he was going to do about Willis Ward and Georgia Tech.

Despite Yost’s silence, word leaked out a couple of weeks before the game that Ward might be benched. This caused a firestorm the likes of which the Ann Arbor campus had never seen.

Angry letters were written to Yost and Coach Harry Kipke, virtually all of them demanding that Ward be allowed to play. The story was front-page news across the country. Petitions were circulated. Rallies were held.

And at the center of it all was a 21-year-old college kid who simply wanted to play football.

No official announcement was made, but a few days before the game, Yost made his decision: Willis Ward would be benched against Georgia Tech. For the first and only time in the proud history of the University of Michigan, a player was going to be sidelined solely because of his race.

When Ward’s teammates found out, they were furious, especially his best friend on the team, a tall lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.

Willis Ward carries the ball for Detroit Northwestern High School.


Willis Ward carries the ball for Detroit Northwestern High School. Ward went on to become the second black varsity gridder at the University of Michigan, under coach Harry Kipke.

Jerry Ford and Willis Ward had met on their first day at U-M, during freshman orientation. They became fast friends and eventually decided to room together on road trips. When their senior year rolled around, they were both going to be starters, and they were thrilled.

That excitement disappeared, though, when the Georgia Tech incident surfaced. Ford was irate at what was happening to his friend, so on the eve of the game, he went to Kipke and said just two words: “I quit.”

Ford eventually agreed to play against Georgia Tech, but only because Ward personally asked him to. “You need to play — and you need to pound them,” he said.

Pound them he did. A couple of plays into the game, a lineman from Georgia Tech named Charlie Preston started hurling vile racist insults at the Wolverines. Ford had heard enough. He put a devastating block on Preston, knocking him out of the game. “That was for Willis,” he said.

Michigan won the game, 9-2, and it ended up being its only win in a miserable 1-7 season. The Georgia Tech game had sucked the soul out of the Wolverines.

The game had a profound impact on everyone involved — especially Willis Ward. As good as he was in football, he was even better in track.

In the spring of 1935, he raced against Ohio State’s great Jesse Owens five times, and beat him twice.

With the 1936 Berlin Olympics coming up, Ward was a near-cinch to make the U.S. team and probably medal in several events. He would opt out of the U.S. trials, though, not wanting to take the chance that Adolf Hitler was going to Jim Crow him the way that Georgia Tech and Michigan had. Instead, he went on to lead a life that was nothing short of remarkable. At every stop, he blazed trails.

Ward went to work for the Ford Motor Co. (Henry Ford himself was a big Willis Ward fan), where he was put in charge of hiring black workers at the Rouge plant. He also accompanied Henry Ford on business trips to the South, where Ward spoke on behalf of Ford’s minority hiring practices. Ward helped thousands of African-Americans get jobs in the company and served as a liaison between black and white workers.

He served his country in World Ward II and later attended the Detroit College of Law, eventually going to work for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office handling civil rights cases. Ward was the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission and the first African-American probate court judge in Wayne County.

He remained lifelong friends with his old teammate. When Ward ran for Congress in 1954 (as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district), Congressman Gerald Ford came to Detroit to campaign.

The Georgia Tech incident and his friendship with Ward had a profound influence on Ford’s politics as he moved from Congress to the White House, helping to shape his opinion on such things as equality, civil rights and affirmative action.

The story of the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech game had been largely lost to history, but we were able to return it to the public consciousness last year when we released our documentary, “Black and Blue.” The film has been shown around the country and the response has been universal: Everyone has fallen in love with the dignity and class of Willis Ward.

Most of the principals from this story are remembered in some way on Michigan’s campus. There are two buildings named after the school’s most famous graduate, Gerald Ford. There’s a field house named for Fielding Yost. There’s even a street named for Harry Kipke.

But there’s nothing of a permanent nature to remember one of the greatest athletes the school has ever known. Nothing to remember the only athlete ever to be benched because of the color of his skin.

Nothing to remember the amazing Willis Ward.

He passed away in 1983, but this year is the 100th anniversary of Ward’s birth. The U-M Board of Regents has expressed an interest in honoring Ward in some manner, but as of yet, the athletic department hasn’t indicated what, if anything, will be done.

Michigan has another big game coming up on Oct. 20 this year — against Michigan State. That’s the 78th anniversary of the dark day when Ward was kept off the field because of his race.

Wouldn’t it be fitting if that day Willis Ward were honored on the very same field where he was once banned?

The marquee game of college football’s opening weekend takes place Sept. 1 in Dallas, as a superpower from the South (Alabama) takes on a superpower from the North (Michigan). Fans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line are already salivating over what should be an epic showdown.

The first time that Michigan took on a powerhouse from the South, though, it was a much different situation. It happened 78 years ago, and it was most certainly the worst day in Michigan football history.

The date was Oct. 20, 1934, and the opponent was Georgia Tech. It was a rare occurrence in those days for Michigan to play a team from outside the Midwest, but Fielding H. Yost — the legendary coach who was then U-M’s athletic director — had been looking for a Southern squad to fill out the 1934 schedule. Georgia Tech got the invite.

There was one big problem, though. In those days, Jim Crow was a sad fact of life in college football, and teams from the South generally refused to play against any team that fielded a black player.

U-M’s best player that year was an incredible athlete from Detroit named Willis Ward. He was tall and strong and very fast. He was also black.

Georgia Tech was well aware that Michigan had an African-American on the roster. From the outset, the Yellow Jackets told Yost they would refuse to play the game if Ward were allowed to take the field.

Yost’s feelings on matters of race were no secret. The son of a Confederate soldier, he had never allowed an African-American to play for Michigan during his 25 seasons as coach. Still, as 1934 dragged on, Yost refused to say what he was going to do about Willis Ward and Georgia Tech.

Despite Yost’s silence, word leaked out a couple of weeks before the game that Ward might be benched. This caused a firestorm the likes of which the Ann Arbor campus had never seen.

Angry letters were written to Yost and Coach Harry Kipke, virtually all of them demanding that Ward be allowed to play. The story was front-page news across the country. Petitions were circulated. Rallies were held.

And at the center of it all was a 21-year-old college kid who simply wanted to play football.

No official announcement was made, but a few days before the game, Yost made his decision: Willis Ward would be benched against Georgia Tech. For the first and only time in the proud history of the University of Michigan, a player was going to be sidelined solely because of his race.

When Ward’s teammates found out, they were furious, especially his best friend on the team, a tall lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.

Jerry Ford and Willis Ward had met on their first day at U-M, during freshman orientation. They became fast friends and eventually decided to room together on road trips. When their senior year rolled around, they were both going to be starters, and they were thrilled.

That excitement disappeared, though, when the Georgia Tech incident surfaced. Ford was irate at what was happening to his friend, so on the eve of the game, he went to Kipke and said just two words: “I quit.”

Ford eventually agreed to play against Georgia Tech, but only because Ward personally asked him to. “You need to play — and you need to pound them,” he said.

Pound them he did. A couple of plays into the game, a lineman from Georgia Tech named Charlie Preston started hurling vile racist insults at the Wolverines. Ford had heard enough. He put a devastating block on Preston, knocking him out of the game. “That was for Willis,” he said.

Michigan won the game, 9-2, and it ended up being its only win in a miserable 1-7 season. The Georgia Tech game had sucked the soul out of the Wolverines.

The game had a profound impact on everyone involved — especially Willis Ward. As good as he was in football, he was even better in track.

In the spring of 1935, he raced against Ohio State’s great Jesse Owens five times, and beat him twice.

With the 1936 Berlin Olympics coming up, Ward was a near-cinch to make the U.S. team and probably medal in several events. He would opt out of the U.S. trials, though, not wanting to take the chance that Adolf Hitler was going to Jim Crow him the way that Georgia Tech and Michigan had. Instead, he went on to lead a life that was nothing short of remarkable. At every stop, he blazed trails.

Ward went to work for the Ford Motor Co. (Henry Ford himself was a big Willis Ward fan), where he was put in charge of hiring black workers at the Rouge plant. He also accompanied Henry Ford on business trips to the South, where Ward spoke on behalf of Ford’s minority hiring practices. Ward helped thousands of African-Americans get jobs in the company and served as a liaison between black and white workers.

He served his country in World Ward II and later attended the Detroit College of Law, eventually going to work for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office handling civil rights cases. Ward was the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission and the first African-American probate court judge in Wayne County.

He remained lifelong friends with his old teammate. When Ward ran for Congress in 1954 (as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district), Congressman Gerald Ford came to Detroit to campaign.

The Georgia Tech incident and his friendship with Ward had a profound influence on Ford’s politics as he moved from Congress to the White House, helping to shape his opinion on such things as equality, civil rights and affirmative action.

The story of the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech game had been largely lost to history, but we were able to return it to the public consciousness last year when we released our documentary, “Black and Blue.” The film has been shown around the country and the response has been universal: Everyone has fallen in love with the dignity and class of Willis Ward.

Most of the principals from this story are remembered in some way on Michigan’s campus. There are two buildings named after the school’s most famous graduate, Gerald Ford. There’s a field house named for Fielding Yost. There’s even a street named for Harry Kipke.

But there’s nothing of a permanent nature to remember one of the greatest athletes the school has ever known. Nothing to remember the only athlete ever to be benched because of the color of his skin.

Nothing to remember the amazing Willis Ward.

He passed away in 1983, but this year is the 100th anniversary of Ward’s birth. The U-M Board of Regents has expressed an interest in honoring Ward in some manner, but as of yet, the athletic department hasn’t indicated what, if anything, will be done.

Michigan has another big game coming up on Oct. 20 this year — against Michigan State. That’s the 78th anniversary of the dark day when Ward was kept off the field because of his race.

Wouldn’t it be fitting if that day Willis Ward were honored on the very same field where he was once banned?

About the authors

Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse of Stunt3 Multimedia are the producers of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Black and Blue: The Story of Willis Ward, Gerald Ford and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.” A DVD of the film can be ordered at stunt3.com. They are currently working on a companion film to “Black and Blue” called “A Race in Time: The Willis Ward Story,” to be released in 2013.