Feb. 28, 2011
By Brad Rudner, Athletic Communications Coordinator
A multi-sport star in the early 1930s at the University of Michigan, Willis Ward (1933-35) made his mark on the school's football and men's track and field programs, a mark that still remains to this day.
While he excelled in both, Willis Ward is perhaps best known for his successes in track and field. A pure athlete, Ward was an eight-time Big Ten champion and three-time NCAA All-American, primarily in the long jump, high jump and hurdles. During that stretch, Michigan's teams, led by Ward and helmed by former head coach Charles Hoyt, won five Big Ten team titles (three indoor, two outdoor) and finished in the top five nationally four times.
Prior to his sophomore season, Ward decided to try his hand at football. Michigan had not had an African-American football player since George Jewett in 1890, a span of 40 years. Ward, however, got his opportunity to play during spring practice in 1932 and made the team. Ward started four games at end and helped Michigan win the 1932 national title.
Ward had a dominant season on the track in 1933, as evidenced by his performance at the Big Ten Championships. Michigan scored 60.5 points, with Ward accounting for 18 by himself. He won the 100-yard dash and high jump and placed second in the 120-yard hurdles and broad jump. TIME Magazine said that "[Ward's] 18 points (he won) were what enabled Michigan to beat Indiana. They made his the most efficient individual performance in a Big Ten meet since Carl Johnson scored 20 points for Michigan in 1918."
On the football field that season, Ward started eight games at right end, helping Michigan to its second straight national title. He earned All-America honorable mention and finished second to Purdue's Duane Purvis for AP Big Ten Athlete of the Year. The AP called Ward "Michigan's 'one-man track team.'"
Ward is perhaps most remembered for a football game in which he did not play in. Michigan was slated to play Georgia Tech in the third game of the 1934 season, but Georgia Tech informed Michigan that it would not play if Ward suited up for the Wolverines.
From the U-M Bentley Historical Library:
"At least as early as the fall of 1933, the Georgia Tech athletic director had written to Yost asking what was going to be done about Ward, asserting that his team would not take the field if Ward was playing for Michigan. As game day neared the issue became a major controversy on campus and mass meetings and demonstrations were held. Some students and faculty demanded that either Ward must play or the game should be canceled. Others argued that, as host team, Michigan must respect southern customs and hold Ward out of the game. Yost and Kipke did not publicly reveal their decision beforehand, but when kick-off came, Ward was not in uniform."
Michigan went 1-7 that season, but beat Georgia Tech, 9-2, without Ward. It scored only 21 points the entire season. Ward scored 12 of them.
One of Ward's teammates that season was future President Gerald Ford. The two were roommates for road games, and became friends. When Ford learned that Michigan was going to hold Ward out of the Georgia Tech game, he threatened to quit the team. In Ford's autobiography, he wrote:
"I went to Willis himself. He urged me to play. 'Look,' he said, 'the team's having a bad year. We've lost two games already and we probably won't win any more. You've got to play Saturday. You owe it to them.' I decided he was right. That Saturday afternoon, we hit like never before and beat Georgia Tech, 9-2."
The Georgia Tech incident was demoralizing to Ward, and he soon after lost his will to compete. He participated in the U.S. Olympic trials in 1936 and had a chance to make the team as a decathlete but failed to qualify for the squad. He was quoted in the Michigan Daily as saying, "They were urging me to go out in 36... but that Georgia Tech game killed me. I frankly felt they would not let black athletes compete. Having gone through the Tech experience, it seemed an easy thing for them to say, 'Well, we just won't run 'em if Hitler insists.'"
After his playing career was over, he began a career in public service, becoming a lawyer, judge, and Chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission from 1969-73. His athletic exploits at Michigan were never forgotten, however, as he was inducted into the U-M Hall of Honor in 1981 and the U-M Men's Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2008.