George Jewett attended the University of Michigan from 1890 to 1893. His legacy stretches far beyond that.
Jewett’s accomplishments are impossible to overstate. Not only was he the first Black football player at both Michigan and Northwestern, he was the only Black man to play for the Wolverines until Willis Ward in 1932. Even while playing football, he found time to study for and eventually graduate from medical school.
Despite those achievements, Jewett’s name was relatively unknown for the 129 years that followed. That changes this Saturday, when Michigan and Northwestern will play for the George Jewett Trophy — the first FBS rivalry trophy named for a Black athlete.
“I think it’s one of those things, people are like, ‘Who is he?’ ” Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart said. “I think when you really look at who he is and what he did in the time period he did is really, really impressive.”
For Hart, the chance to honor Jewett’s legacy takes on personal meaning. He remembers stories from his grandfather, who lived in Jim Crow-era Birmingham, Alabama, until he turned 16.
As it will be for everyone, the trophy was an opportunity for Hart to learn.
“I went and looked it up. I just think — you think about the time — the Civil War ended in 1865, right? Jim Crow — Plessy vs. Ferguson was 1896. When you look at the dynamics in America at that time, what he had to go through when he played here.”
For the Wolverines’ athletes, the trophy means even more. Even as football has grown more inclusive over the years, that inclusivity hasn’t been reflected in all aspects of the game.
The George Jewett Trophy is a step forward in that regard. It represents a positive move for a sport that, not that long ago, actively prevented Black athletes from participating. It reflects a growing appreciation in society for the ideas of Black voices — including athletes.
It’s a reminder that football is for everyone.
“(This trophy) definitely is more meaningful,” sophomore linebacker Kalel Mullings said. “Football is dominated mainly by African-Americans, so having that representation outside of just the players, but in trophy games, in referees as we’ve been seeing more lately, it’s definitely meaningful, and it puts more at stake for this upcoming game.”
Added junior defensive lineman Chris Hinton: “With everything that African-Americans have endured throughout this country, for him to set that milestone, I think it’s huge. Another thing, when you look at teams down south … the first African-American to play in the South was not that long ago when you look at it. So I think it’s super significant for him to play at the time that he played.
“It means a lot.”
To be sure, the George Jewett Trophy will hold a unique place among rivalry trophies in college football. For one thing, Michigan and Northwestern aren’t rivals. While most trophies are born out of bitterness and fierce competition, this trophy is purely focused on memorializing an iconic yet underappreciated figure in both schools’ histories.
Frankly, it’s long overdue. But it’s more than welcome.
“We’re tremendously proud and excited that we’re playing for a trophy,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Just the magnitude of the trophy and the life of George Jewett. That was someone who was the first African-American player at the University of Michigan in 1890 and the 1892 season. A halfback, a fullback, had all the kicking duties for the team, all while pursuing a medical degree here.”
“ … Not disparaging other trophies, but this is of great and high significance.”