The date was Oct. 20, 1934, and the opponent was Georgia Tech. It was a rare occurrence in those days for Michigan to play a team from outside the Midwest, but Fielding H. Yost — the legendary coach who was then U-M’s athletic director — had been looking for a Southern squad to fill out the 1934 schedule. Georgia Tech got the invite.
There was one big problem, though. In those days, Jim Crow was a sad fact of life in college football, and teams from the South generally refused to play against any team that fielded a black player.
U-M’s best player that year was an incredible athlete from Detroit named Willis Ward. He was tall and strong and very fast. He was also black.
Georgia Tech was well aware that Michigan had an African-American on the roster. From the outset, the Yellow Jackets told Yost they would refuse to play the game if Ward were allowed to take the field.
Yost’s feelings on matters of race were no secret. The son of a Confederate soldier, he had never allowed an African-American to play for Michigan during his 25 seasons as coach. Still, as 1934 dragged on, Yost refused to say what he was going to do about Willis Ward and Georgia Tech.
Despite Yost’s silence, word leaked out a couple of weeks before the game that Ward might be benched. This caused a firestorm the likes of which the Ann Arbor campus had never seen.
Angry letters were written to Yost and Coach Harry Kipke, virtually all of them demanding that Ward be allowed to play. The story was front-page news across the country. Petitions were circulated. Rallies were held.
And at the center of it all was a 21-year-old college kid who simply wanted to play football.
No official announcement was made, but a few days before the game, Yost made his decision: Willis Ward would be benched against Georgia Tech. For the first and only time in the proud history of the University of Michigan, a player was going to be sidelined solely because of his race.
When Ward’s teammates found out, they were furious, especially his best friend on the team, a tall lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.
Jerry Ford and Willis Ward had met on their first day at U-M, during freshman orientation. They became fast friends and eventually decided to room together on road trips. When their senior year rolled around, they were both going to be starters, and they were thrilled.
That excitement disappeared, though, when the Georgia Tech incident surfaced. Ford was irate at what was happening to his friend, so on the eve of the game, he went to Kipke and said just two words: “I quit.”
Ford eventually agreed to play against Georgia Tech, but only because Ward personally asked him to. “You need to play — and you need to pound them,” he said.
Pound them he did. A couple of plays into the game, a lineman from Georgia Tech named Charlie Preston started hurling vile racist insults at the Wolverines. Ford had heard enough. He put a devastating block on Preston, knocking him out of the game. “That was for Willis,” he said.
Michigan won the game, 9-2, and it ended up being its only win in a miserable 1-7 season. The Georgia Tech game had sucked the soul out of the Wolverines.
Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse, “Willis Ward, Gerald Ford and Michigan football’s darkest day”, Detroit News, August 9, 2012.
For more information, see
James Tobin, Lonely As Hell, University of Michigan Heritage Project which relates a number of stories about early African American Athletes at the University of Michigan.
Stephen J. Nesbitt, “The Forgotten Man: Remembering Michigan trailblazer Willis Ward”, Michigan Daily, October 18, 2012.
Mike Lopresti, “Michigan to honor black player benched 78 years ago”, USA Today, October 19, 2012.
Joey Nowak, “Future president Gerald R. Ford stood up for teammate against racist policy“, MLive, February 25, 2011.
Black and blue : the story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech football game / Stunt3 Multimedia presents a Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse film. [Grosse Point, MI] : Stunt3 Multimedia, c2011. 1 DVD videodisc (ca. 56 minutes) : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in. MSU Library Digital and Multimedia Center (4 West) GV958.M43 B53 2011 VideoDVD