Feb. 27, 2012
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Cornerback Courtney Avery knew he was going to be part of a long and storied history when he committed to play football for Michigan two years ago.
What he didn't know is that he'd also be continuing his family's long and special history with the Wolverines on and off the field. A cousin called to congratulate him on choosing Michigan, and delivered some news that excited and stunned Avery: did he know that George Jewett, the first African-American football player in Michigan's history, was a distant relative?
"I was not very familiar at all with George Jewett, but I read right up when I found out," Avery said. "I guess everybody in our family knew already, and we were the last ones to know. It was pretty exciting."
Jewett is related by marriage, as Avery's great, great, great aunt married one of Jewett's sons. Despite the passage of time and generations, Jewett's legacy continues to remain legendary in many ways to Michigan and college football.
Jewett played for Michigan from 1890-92, coming to the university as the valedictorian, and a track, football and baseball star from Ann Arbor High (now Ann Arbor Pioneer). He continued his outstanding ways at Michigan, studying medicine, and starting at fullback, halfback and as the team's main kicker.
The era he played in had some of the biggest names in football, with Amos Alonzo Stagg and John Heisman coaching teams in the Midwest.
Avery said it was a little spooky reading about Jewett, as they had a lot in common. At the time, Avery was thinking about preparing for medical school with his undergraduate studies at Michigan. He's since changed his career path, majoring in political science and looking toward law school after football. And like Jewett, Avery is known for being a smart and quick football player.
Jewett's time at Michigan features one of the most interesting -- and controversial -- games in the program's history. In 1892, the Wolverines played Oberlin College in Ann Arbor on a chilly November day. Heisman was the famous coach of Oberlin, and it was another charged showdown for Michigan with his good team.
Jewett was the star of the game, scoring four touchdowns and kicking an extra point. The game was close, with Oberlin ahead 24-22 with four minutes left -- according to one of the referees. Remember, in this pre-electronic world, there was no computer keeping time or instant replay to help the officials. There were no helmets or pads. It was just the players, a football and the field. The officials were spare players from both teams.
Michigan marched down the field as the time waned, and Jewett seemed to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired off a short, goal-line run. It looked like a 26-22 Wolverines' victory -- but was it?
Oberlin had walked off the field before Jewett's touchdown play, as their player, who was acting as a referee, said the game time had expired. Michigan had its own version of the time and insisted the touchdown was good.
Oberlin and Michigan agreed to disagree, and both teams still list the game in their annals as a win -- for themselves. According to a 1999 article in the Oberlin Alumni magazine, there was a great party thrown at the school, complete with an oyster dinner feast for the team, for beating Michigan.
But nobody will ever really know what the final result should have been.
"I read about that Oberlin game, and that is really a crazy thing. Wow," Avery said. "And being around Coach John Heisman, everything with the conflict and the win and the referee, that's all really fun. I can't imagine that. It was interesting to learn about."
Avery sometimes thinks about the world he lives in, playing big-time college football in state-of-the-art facilities, studying hard and living in a post-Civil Rights era that welcomes diversity.
What Jewett truly faced, in terms of discrimination and challenges, is lost in the haze of history. But being the first to break the color barrier, nearly 50 years before Jackie Robinson did so in Major League Baseball, shows Avery that Jewett was determined, strong and smart.
Avery is taking a class this semester about race and the law, studying Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other African-American pioneers. Jewett isn't part of the course, but Avery said he's been thinking about what life was like at Michigan in the early 1890s.
"So much is different between our two lives, like night and day," Avery said. "I think it really speaks to Michigan as well, being truly the leaders and best for having him be the first like that. To take that step and stride at that time, for both of them -- wow. I know he had to overcome a lot of adversity, and from what I've read, he did really well, an excellent job handling things."
Jewett left Michigan for Northwestern in 1893 to finish his medical degree. He also lettered in football for the Wildcats, becoming Northwestern's first African-American player. Jewett became a doctor in Chicago but eventually returned to Ann Arbor in 1899 to start a cleaning and pressing shop.
Sadly, Jewett's life was cut short, as he died unexpectedly in 1908 at the age of 38. But his impact lives on, and Avery is proud to keep the family tradition going at Michigan.
"It's exciting to know that my family has this connection to Michigan's history," Avery said. "It makes this place even more special to me."