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The Forgotten Man: Remembering Michigan trailblazer Willis Ward

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 18, 2012

DETROIT — Willis Ward is a man lost to time.

His gravestone, settled in the shadows of three pine trees in the northwest corner of Memorial Park Cemetery, has sunk beneath the level ground here over the last 30 years. It’s barely visible from any distance, distinguished only by a small blue Michigan flag planted at the corner.

Ward, a standout Michigan football player from 1932-34, was laid to rest on Dec. 30, 1983, two days after his 71st birthday. His story was buried with him.

The block ‘M’ flag was planted by Brian Kruger, one of the loyal historians responsible for unearthing Ward’s story and preserving his legacy. Kruger paced up and down rows and rows of sunken stone markers for three hours before finding Ward’s plot this spring. He didn’t even see the gravestone until he was standing on top of it.

Kruger bent down, pushed away the grass cropped over the edge of the stone and brushed off the dirt to unveil the forgotten name: Willis Franklin Ward.

The name means something different to everyone.

For Gerald Ford it meant his closest friend at Michigan.

For Jesse Owens it meant his fiercest competitor.

For the man himself, it meant being etched in Michigan lore as the only player banned from Michigan Stadium for the color of his skin.

***

Harry Kipke knew a special athlete when he saw one. And Willis Ward was special.

As a senior at Northwestern High School in Detroit in 1930-31, Ward set the national high-school record for high jump at 6-foot-4 — for reference, the Big Ten-champion heights were just clearing six feet at the time — and was named to the all-state football team alongside Gerald Ford.

Ward knew playing football at Michigan was just a pipe dream, since there were no African Americans on the roster, so he was bound for Dartmouth. But Kipke, Michigan’s head football coach, couldn’t let that happen. He stormed into the office of Athletic Director Fielding H. Yost and demanded that Ward be allowed to join both the football and track teams.

“There’s some debate over whether it actually came down to a fistfight in Yost’s office,” said Michigan historian John U. Bacon, who documented much of the Ward-Ford story in his 1996 book “A Legacy of Champions.”

“It at least threatened to come to blows,” Bacon said. “By all accounts, the meeting between the two was very pitched, intense. Physical violence was at least a possibility.”

Yost was Michigan’s head coach from 1901-23 and 1925-26. He won six national titles while compiling a whopping 165-29-10 record. But as Bacon points out, Yost, the son of a Confederate soldier born just six years after the Civil War, never played a single black player.

Kipke won out, with or without Yost’s permission, and brought Ward to Ann Arbor. The college decision didn’t come without a price; the Ward family couldn’t afford to send two sons to college, so Ward’s brother, Henry II, went to work for the Ford Motor Company instead of attending school.

The relationship between Ward and Ford has been well publicized of late, brought to light by a documentary, “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Game,” released this spring by filmmakers Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse.

During freshman orientation at the Waterman Gym along North University Avenue in fall 1931, the pair finally met. That day, Ford and Ward struck up a friendship that would span the rest of their lives.

Working alongside Ford, Ward became the first African-American employee at the Michigan Union, Kruger said.

After biding their time on the freshman squad in 1931 — freshmen were ineligible to play on varsity at the time — they both earned a spot on the varsity squad the next year. During their first round of spring practices, Ford edged out Ward for the Chicago Alumni Trophy, given to the most impressive freshman gridder every spring.

***

It was Oct. 22, 1932: Michigan vs. Illinois.

Harry Kipke motioned for Willis Ward to join him on the sidelines. Kipke, Michigan’s fourth-year head coach, had the Wolverines ahead 20-0 in the second quarter and had already funneled in four substitutes.

Kipke gestured toward midfield and his captain right end Ivan “Ivy” Williamson.

“Let’s give Ivy a rest during the remainder of this quarter,” Kipke said. “You take his end.”

Kipke knew the kid could play. Ward, a sophomore flanker, had given the varsity team fits as a freshman during weekly scrimmages against the yearling squad.

Ward couldn’t contain his nerves or his excitement. He’d toiled for years for this moment.

“Are you all right, Willis?” Kipke asked.

“J-just let me g-get in there,” Ward chattered, “and I’ll b-be all right, Co-oach, honestly, I w-will.”

Kipke relayed that conversation in full two years later in a feature he penned for the November 1934 edition of Esquire, then a one-year-old men’s magazine. Kipke’s essay posited: “The first hundred seconds of any football game are always the hardest.”

“Willis Ward’s first hundred seconds were a classic,” Kipke wrote.

After Ward finally shirked the nerves enough to get out a sentence, Kipke sent him into punt coverage. On the snap, Ward burst out of his stance and down the field, flying far ahead of his teammates.

The punt returner started in Ward’s direction, immediately realized his mistake and ducked.

“When he was still ten yards from the man, Willis sort of took off, like one of these fast-climbing jet planes,” Kipke wrote.

“Ward flattened out parallel with the ground about six feet high and sort of brushed the ball carrier’s headgear and sailed on over him into open territory where his momentum threw him into a series of involuntary somersaults that made the man on the flying trapeze just a low, slow-going thing in comparison,” he continued.

Ward had whiffed on the tackle. But that play meant more than a blow to his pride.

Ward had broken the color barrier for the Michigan football team — again. The Wolverines’ varsity team had not fielded a single black athlete in 40 years since George Jewett graduated in 1892.

Kipke kept Ward in the game for a full quarter, long enough to catch a 15-yard pass down to the four-yard line that set up Michigan’s fourth score of the afternoon.

The next week, Ward was the starter at left end as Michigan topped Princeton, 14-7, en route to the Wolverines’ first of two consecutive unbeaten seasons and national titles in 1932-33.

***

It was Oct. 20, 1934: Michigan vs. Georgia Tech.

Willis Ward was out of sight.

A football game was played on a muddy field that day, a back-and-forth battle in a downpour. But Michigan’s star was gone.

When Michigan athletic director Fielding H. Yost scheduled the matchup a year earlier, he had neglected to remember one glaring problem: teams from the South, in that day and age, abided by Jim Crow laws and refused to face black players.

Ward had run, tumbled and blown through the color barrier two years earlier, but it didn’t erase the black eye from the Michigan football program. That racial battle was far from over.

As the matchup approached, people throughout the University began to realize the potential conflict. In late September, just a few weeks before the game, the National Student League on campus dispatched a committee — the United Front on the Ward Issue — to investigate whether Ward would be allowed to play against Georgia Tech.

Yost stayed mum, as did Kipke and Ward.

“Yost was genuinely naïve about this situation,” Bacon said.

The backlash eventually came in full force. A week before the game, it was clear that Ward would sit out the game; Yost explained that he simply failed to take Ward’s situation into account when he arranged the matchup.

Students, professors and Ann Arbor clergy split on both sides of the issue, some demanding that Ward be reinstated, others pleading that for Ward’s own sake he should take the game off.

Arthur Miller, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was a staff writer for the Michigan Daily at the time. According to Kruger, Miller drove to Atlanta the week of the game demanding an audience with Georgia Tech. He never had a chance. He returned to the Daily and wrote a scathing editorial that his editors determined unwise to print, leaving it lost to history.

An overcapacity crowd jammed into the auditorium in the Natural Science Building on Friday evening for an open-forum debate on whether Ward should play the following day.

“Smoldering feelings on the question of Willis Ward’s participation in the Georgia Tech game burst into flames last night in what was probably the wildest and strangest night rally in Michigan’s history,” read the Daily’s story about that night.

There were hecklers on both sides of the aisle. Some students booed and tossed coins at speakers. At the end of the night, the National Student League drafted a letter that it then delivered to the Georgia Tech team at its hotel in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“You have your blue-blood — what seems to be the fraternity type, maybe higher social class folks — saying, ‘Look, it’s a football game. It’s their rules,’ ” said Michigan football historian Greg Dooley.

“But the most vocal group is this United Work Front, which said, ‘Hey, we’re Michigan. This is what we stand for. We don’t want to live in a society like this. We can’t play this game if Ward doesn’t play.’ ”

Even many of Ward’s closest companions were split.

Harvey Smith, captain of the track team and Ward’s roommate during spring trips, claimed that those who were demanding that Ward play didn’t know Ward. Those who knew Ward best, he said, were more interested in his welfare than his pride.

Gerald Ford, Ward’s roommate during the football season, marched up to Kipke and said: “I quit.” Before the team rendezvoused at the Barton Hills Country Club on the night before the game, Ward convinced Ford to play.

Despite the 11th-hour protests, Ward didn’t play against Georgia Tech. The Daily and Time magazine reported that Ward watched from the press box, but in a 1976 interview uncovered in “Black and Blue,” Ward said he listened to the game on the radio in his bedroom.

In his autobiography, Ford claimed Michigan “hit like never before.” Charlie Preston, a Goergia Tech lineman, hurled racist insults toward Ford for defending an African American. Five plays into the game, Georgia Tech punted. On that play, Preston took a heavy block from Ford and fellow lineman Bill Borgman and was knocked out of the game with a couple of bruised ribs.

“Gerald Ford was a man who never engaged in that his entire life,” Bacon said. “He was a genuine gentleman. By all accounts, Ford went out there, took it personally and flat-out made it a point to kick Mr. Preston’s ass. And he did so repeatedly.”

Michigan won that game, 9-2. It was the team’s only win all season. As Kruger points out, Ward scored all 20 points the Wolverines scored the rest of the season.

“People say this was a dark day for Michigan, and it was,” Bacon said. “But in many ways, the exception proves the rule. The students stood up. The faculty stood up. Many of the alums, powerful alums, the clergy, almost everyone but Alexander Ruthven, the president, stood up.

“If you see the University of Michigan as a family, 95 percent of the family got it and responded accordingly. I think it made Michigan a better place afterwards. But you cannot take these values for granted — you’ll have to fight for them, you’ll have to stand up for them and you’ll have to pay a price for them.”

***

It was April 13, 1934: Michigan vs. California.

Bing Crosby was betting against Willis Ward.

Rumbling up the West Coast by train from Los Angeles to Berkeley, Calif., two of Ward’s teammates — Dave Hunn and Bill Kositchek — met Crosby and struck up a conversation. Before walking away, there was a bet on the table.

For $10, who would win the 100-yard dash later that day between Ward and California’s George Anderson? Crosby took Anderson, the Michigan tracksters took Ward.

Anderson edged Ward by a hair at the finish line, and Hunn and Kositchek paid up their half of the bargain by taking out an ad in the corner of the Daily later that week congratulating the crooner.

Ward didn’t lose often. For all Ward’s prowess on the gridiron, it was nothing compared to his skill on the track. He was referred to again and again as “the one-man track team.”

During the spring of his senior year, the track and field community was building to a fever pitch in preparation for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Ward, who regularly participated in the dash, high hurdles, low hurdles, high jump and shot put for Michigan, was eyeing a berth for Team USA in the decathlon.

Anderson wasn’t Ward’s only competition. The main billing that spring pitted Ward against Ohio State’s Jesse Owens. The duo traded blows in the 100-yard dash and the 220-yard low hurdles, passing new world records between them each time they met.

In the final meet of the year, the Big Ten Championship at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Ward and Michigan took the conference crown, but Owens shattered three world records.

Owens punched his ticket to the Olympics. But Ward, hampered slightly by injuries, decided to give up his dream of an Olympic berth.

The simple explanation? He didn’t want to get shut out by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics like he did by Georgia Tech — and his own school — at Michigan Stadium.

“He would have without question been an Olympian in 1936 had he not been so turned off about what he’d gone through in 1934 that he couldn’t stomach any more,” Bacon said.

Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, but his return home was a crude juxtaposition.

He arrived to a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. That night, Bacon and Kruger both explained, there was a reception held in Owens’ honor at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. But Owens, the honored guest, was forced to take the freight elevator up to the reception.

Ward, meanwhile, took a job at Ford’s River Rouge plant. According to Kruger, once Ward rose to become the highest-ranking African-American executive officer in the country, he turned back and hired Jesse Owens to join him at Ford.

***

The story of Willis Ward is as old as the cracked, worn leather ball that sits in Susan Marino’s kitchen in southern California. It’s the game ball from the Michigan-Georgia Tech game 78 years ago Saturday, given to Marino by her father, John Regezci, Michigan’s fullback that day.

There are signatures etched into the leather, but they’re impossible to make out. Kruger and Dooley have scoured Marino’s images, but every indication is that Ward didn’t sign it.

Ward and Ford went on to lead somewhat parallel careers, both graduated from law school, served in the armed forces and entered politics. When Ford was campaigning for Congress in 1956, he drove from Grand Rapids to Detroit to help Ward campaign for a seat as probate judge in Wayne County.

They both got the jobs.

When Ford took assumed the presidency in 1974, he remembered his friend Ward, inviting him to Washington D.C. for a visit. And the seed planted at Michigan spread nationwide. In 1976, he pushed to create Black History Month, which is now celebrated every February.

“You can say (Ford’s) first true stand as a man in the public eye was in 1934 and Georgia Tech,” Bacon said. “His life of public service honored that the rest of his life. And if you’re a Michigan alum or Michigan student, that’s a guy you can say is a Michigan Man.”

Ward, to his credit, though he never ran at the Olympics, was a pioneer every step of the way.

“You might argue that his life after Michigan was at least as impressive as his life at Michigan, which is in his case a hell of a statement,” Bacon said.

It just took some time for Ward’s legacy to come to the fore.

Melanie Ward was caught completely by surprise. She knew that her great-uncle — her grandfather’s brother — played football at Michigan and befriended Gerald Ford but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t until Kruger reached out to Melanie, now an LSA senior, while Kruger and Moorehouse were creating the Ward documentary that she finally understood the significance of Ward’s legacy at Michigan.

Kruger didn’t even hear Ward’s story until then-President George W. Bush mentioned Ford and Ward’s relationship and the Georgia Tech game during a nationally televised eulogy at Ford’s funeral in 2006.

Somewhere along the line, Ward’s story got lost in the mix.

But thanks to Genna Urbain, an 8-year-old 3rd-grader from Howell, Mich., the state legislature passed a resolution to make Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 — the 78th anniversary of the Michigan-Georgia Tech game — Willis Ward Day across the state. Urbain watched the documentary and then came to petition the Board of Regents to get his achievements recognized by the University.

The Michigan football team included the Ford-Ward connection in a tribute video last weekend when Ford’s No. 48 jersey was put back into circulation, and the program plans to “have an acknowledgement” of Willis Ward Day on Saturday, according to Athletic Department spokesman Dave Ablauf.

It’s Oct. 20, 2012: Michigan vs. Michigan State.

Finally, Ward will have his day.


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