Remembering Willis Ward
Willis Ward

Oct. 19, 2012

By Greg Dooley

Given the pantheon of outstanding football players who have come through Ann Arbor, perhaps no two are better known for what happened to them off the field than Gerald Ford and Willis Ward. Ford of course for being the 38th President of the United States and Ward for being at the center of a drama that played out before Georgia Tech visited Ann Arbor 78 years ago on Saturday.

The Yellow Jackets refused to take the field unless Ward, an African-American end, did not participate in the Oct. 20, 1934, game. The story of that game, and Ward and Ford's friendship, has been chronicled, but there's much more to Ward than that infamous game and incident.

Born in 1912 in Birmingham, Ala., Ward and his family moved to Michigan and settled in the Detroit area. Willis attended Detroit's Northwestern High School, where he starred in football but dominated in track and set the national high school record in the high jump. He considered attending Dartmouth, but Michigan head coach Harry Kipke promised him an opportunity to play football as well as run track. In the fall of 1931, he enrolled at U-M and that's when he met Ford.

The two athletes bumped into each other during freshman orientation activities at U-M's Waterman Gymnasium. Ward admitted later he knew "of" Ford, as they both made the all-state football team in high school. They hit it off right away.

Ward and Ford each got the attention of the coaching staff as freshmen as they were both candidates for the then-prestigious Chicago Alumni Award (now the Meyer Morton Award), given to the player showing the most promise during spring practice. The honor eventually went to Ford, but it was Ward who made the most impact when they were eligible to participate in varsity games the following fall.

While historians tend to offer Ford an active role on the 1932 and 1933 national championship teams, he really had little impact on the field during those seasons. That wasn't the case for Ward, who saw action almost as soon as Kipke could get him on the field. Against Fritz Crisler's Princeton team on Oct. 29, 1932, Ward tallied a safety and a touchdown catch in U-M's 14-7 victory.

While Ward was a standout on the gridiron, he truly excelled on the track, primarily in the long jump, high jump and hurdles events. He was an eight-time Big Ten champion and three-time NCAA All-American and during his time in Ann Arbor, Michigan's teams won five Big Ten team titles (three indoor, two outdoor) and finished in the top five nationally four times.

Perhaps the most famous U.S. track athlete of all-time is Jesse Owens, the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who ran track at Ohio State. In Ward's senior year of 1935, Michigan hosted the Buckeyes in an indoor track meet in Ann Arbor. They raced against each other in three events that day and Ward defeated Owens twice -- in the 60-yard dash and 65-yard high hurdles.

After his athletic career was over, Ward went to work for Ford Motor Company, where he oversaw the hiring of black workers at the River Rouge plant. Soon after, he decided to continue his education and graduated from the Detroit College of Law in 1939. After serving as a lieutenant in the Army during World War II, he followed a career in public service, eventually serving as chairman of Michigan's Public Service Commission. Later, then-Michigan governor George Romney named him as the first African-American probate court judge in Wayne County.

While he had a notable professional career, Ward's athletic exploits at Michigan are recognized for the ages as he was inducted into the U-M Hall of Honor in 1981 and into the U-M Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2008.

Source: Willis Ward, The Trailblazer

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