The white Frisbee glided through the air, drifting further right than anticipated toward the shot-put fence. The intended recipient of the throw, wearing a maize ‘Team 134’ football shirt, rolled his eyes, took a breath and sprinted after it.
Never losing sight of the disc, the man wouldn’t be denied, as he snagged it mid-dive just above the cool grass. The necessity of the dive — a glorified tumble, really — was debatable, but to the man, and his two friends, there was no doubt; victory was in the air at Ferry Field.
They weren’t alone. Thirty yards south, a boy had just defeated his younger brother in a race. Occupying lanes one and two of the track and wearing matching purple soccer jerseys, it surely wouldn’t be their last race. It was the first warm day of the year, and all around them, joggers, photographers and aspiring football players were celebrating the defeat of an impossibly cold winter.
Few on it may know, but Ferry Field is no ordinary track. The orange synthetic polyurethane beneath their feet was once grass whose growth coincided with Michigan football. It then became unbreakable black concrete that reflected the unbreakable Black athletes who blazed trails above it. But despite the tradition, the track’s days are numbered.
An hour later, Frisbee tossers were calling it a day. The sun was setting, and the cool March air Michigan is known for slowly crept in. Walking toward the southeast corner of the track, they dodged several joggers — including the brothers — before exiting toward the parking lot.
As they left, they stopped to read a plaque on the wall. The man of honor wasn’t a Wolverine, but a Buckeye named Jesse Owens.
Since its opening in 1906, Ferry Field has been home to plenty of legendary history, but its open-door policy has also allowed it to host plenty of other stories. From football to Jesse Owens to Frisbees, Michigan history has been embedded in the track.
But in today’s age, history takes a backseat. In Sept. 2012, the Michigan Athletic Department announced its plan to revamp the athletic campus. The $250-million project will provide 16 new or upgraded facilities to the University.
Behind the shining proposals and hype around the expansion, the plan spells the end for Ferry Field. Proposed plans have slated for the once-great facility to be paved over and turned into a parking lot.
Less than half a mile southwest of the track, the Michigan women’s lacrosse team was celebrating its first-ever victory at Michigan Stadium. The storied house that Yost built blared “The Victors” for all to hear, echoing to the storied track where Yost’s teams once played.
The decision to pave over Ferry Field was a monetary decision, but it wasn’t long ago that Ferry Field actually made money for the University. In 1902, realizing that 800 seats were no longer enough to host Michigan football games, the University’s Board of Regents set their eyes on expansion. Dexter M. Ferry, a Detroit businessman and owner of Ferry Seed Company, stepped up.
In part to support the football program, but also to divert students away from tearing up central campus (and his new botany fellowship), Ferry donated 20 acres of land, now home to most Michigan athletics facilities.
After going 87-2-3 at Regents Field, the Wolverines began their 20-year tenure at Ferry Field on Oct. 6, 1906 with a 28-0 victory over Case Western Reserve in a stadium that seated 18,000.
As the years passed, the following of Michigan football expanded beyond just students and locals. By Michigan’s return to the Big Ten in 1917, the Wolverines played in front of crowds of 25,000. For the first time in school history, athletics in Ann Arbor were generating revenue.
Though Ferry Field hasn’t hosted a football game since the ‘20s, its impact on the football program can’t be forgotten. It’s where Michigan football grew from an afternoon activity to a way of life, going 90-13-2 in front of crowds that grew each year. It was where the Little Brown Jug was first won, and where Michigan State and Ohio State became rivals.
After World War I and more successful seasons, the opportunity to expand was brought up again. This time, Michigan coach and Athletic Director Fielding Yost had bigger plans. He would expand Ferry Field to 41,000, and then use increased funds to build a new stadium that would seat 150,000. He settled for Michigan Stadium, which “only” seated 70,000 at the time.
The football team left Ferry Field behind decades ago, but without it, the program wouldn’t be the same. The tunnel to Ferry Field still stands today, and one can look through the archway from South State Street and imagine one of the most storied football programs playing on the grass in the shadows of the Intramural Sports building.
But when the cement trucks come in the summer of 2015, even imagination will be paved over.
Even as the sun sets over a warehouse by the railroad tracks just west of Ferry Field, the plaque of Owens glimmers. It isn’t a physically large, but it’s impossible to deny the momentous achievement that warranted the honor.
On May 25, 1935, Owens had what Sports Illustrated would call “The Greatest Hour in Sports History.” Setting four world records — the 100-yard dash, long jump, 220-yard sprint and 220-yard low hurdles — in just 45 minutes on a bad back, Owens not only showed what minorities could accomplish in sports, but what the human body can achieve when in perfect sync with itself.
There were, of course, legendary Wolverines who blazed their own trails and broke racial barriers at Ferry Field. William DeHart Hubbard, Booker Brooks, Eddie Tolan, Willis Ward and Bill Watson combined to win 31 individual Big Ten titles, six individual national titles and four Olympic gold medals.
But the highest honor Ferry Field can give didn’t go to any Michigan athlete, but the Buckeye Bullet. A year after beating Michigan and setting four world records, Owens shattered the Aryan elitist ideas of Adolf Hitler on his home turf, winning four gold medals and capturing America’s hearts at the 1936 Olympic Games. His glory shone across the world, but he wouldn’t have gotten there without his day at Ferry Field.
In two years, the plaque honoring one of America’s greatest heroes won’t overlook the track where it all began, but rows of cars. The plaque may be taken down altogether. When the cement trucks come in the summer of 2015, even the work of legends will be paved over.
Legendary stories are, of course, legendary, but what makes Ferry Field special is that you don’t have to be a legend to receive its benefits. Former University President James B. Angell originally committed Michigan to providing “an uncommon education for the common man,” as still found in the school’s mission statement. In Ferry Field, the statement makes a successful translation into athletics.
Michigan has dozens of facilities for its 27 varsity sports, but only one remains unlocked. Even in the dead of winter, Ferry Field is littered with amateur athletes following the colossal footsteps of Yost, Owens and all the other greats that once roamed the grounds.
“They come in droves,” said Michigan women’s track and field coach James Henry. “I’m one of the only coaches anywhere that has to kick people off of our Division I facility just about every day. It’s great to see the community loving our track so much.”
In the decades following the football team’s departure, this — above all else — is why Ferry Field stood out. As the years wore on and renovations have made nearby facilities too lucrative for the “common man,” doors were locked. But at this very second, Ferry Field is open at three different places, giving anyone who desires a place to exercise an opportunity to do so where world-class athletes do.
Beginning in 2016, the men’s and women’s track teams will have a new home a mile south of its current one. That isn’t all a bad thing, many feel that Ferry Field’s current state is unacceptable for Michigan athletics. Both programs have lamented their frustration with recruiting visits gone sour. The puny stands and a run-down track simply don’t cut it anymore.
The track is currently the only one in the Big Ten incapable of hosting a conference championship meet, a fall from grace for a facility that used to host the Olympic trials regularly. After plans for a new track fell through in both 2005 and 2010, Athletic Director Dave Brandon has been adamant about getting a new facility that will be among the best in the country.
But when the cement is finally laid over, more than a century of memories will be buried beneath it. The lore and history of the field is something even the winning-driven Henry will miss.
“It’s a piece of history,” Henry said. “You don’t always think about it, but when someone pulls out a camera to take a picture, it hits you: Every day, we train and compete on the same track Jesse Owens did, or the Michigan football team did, sometimes you just have to step back and say ‘Wow!’
“The new track will be like trading in a ’63 Mustang for a brand-new Mustang. The new one doesn’t have the memories or sentimental value the old one did, but it is a brand new car. You miss the ’63 and keep it in your heart, and you just have to hope the new one can make just as good memories too.”
In recent years, Michigan has opted for the new car time and again. The new facility will be for varsity athletes and paying customers only, not the common man.
With the sun and its accompanying warmth gone, the track has emptied out. A pair of walkers exit the gate, and another man walks in. With short black jogging shorts, a grizzled face and thin limbs, the man — like the track — has seen better days.
Ferry Field is cold and dark, but the man stretches anyway. With numbered days for the track, opportunities like this won’t be around much longer. With a deep breath, the man steps into the outside lane. Sometimes, the best solution is to just start running.