I spent four years at the University of Michigan. Went to classes, played in the Michigan Marching Band, worked as a sports editor for the Michigan Daily, attended every single home football game (and many of the road ones). For four years, I lived and breathed maize and blue.
And in all that time, I never once heard about Willis Ward.
After graduating from U-M, I spent the next 30 or so years as a rabid alum – watching football games, going to football games, talking about football games. Again, I lived and breathed maize and blue.
And again, I never once heard about Willis Ward.
I’ve come to find out that as Wolverine fans go, I’m not alone. There are a half-million or so University of Michigan graduates out there, and the vast majority of them have never heard about Willis Ward, either.
It’s time for that to change.
Every U-M student needs to know about Willis Ward. Every U-M graduate needs to know about Willis Ward. Every person who has ever put on a maize or blue T-shirt and rooted for the Wolverines needs to know about Willis Ward. Heck, everyone everywhere needs to know about Willis Ward.
If you’re wondering – like I did – who Willis Ward was, here’s the short version.
Ward was an amazing African-American football player and track athlete who played for Michigan back in the early 1930s. On Oct. 20, 1934, when Georgia Tech came to Ann Arbor for a football game, the visitors from Atlanta said they would refuse to play the game unless Ward was benched.
When word got out that Ward might be sidelined, it caused a firestorm on the U-M campus the likes of which Ann Arbor had never seen. His teammates were especially furious – especially his best friend on the team, a tall lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford, who threatened to quit the team in protest.
In the end, though, that’s what happened. Willis Ward was benched against Georgia Tech. For the first and only time in the proud history of the University of Michigan, a player was benched solely because of his race. He was barred from the game and barred from the stadium.
The Wolverines won the game, 9-2, but to this day, it still ranks as the worst day in Michigan football history.
Despite what happened to him, though, Willis Ward went on to lead an incredible life, blazing trails at every turn.
Upon graduation, he took a job with the Ford Motor Co. (Henry Ford himself was a huge Willis Ward fan), serving as the head of Ford’s ad hoc civil rights division. By the time he was in his late 20s, he was arguably the highest-ranking African-American executive at any big company in America, and he helped thousands of African-American workers get jobs with the company.
After serving his country in World War II, he attended the Detroit College of Law, eventually taking a job with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office handling civil rights case. He later became the first black chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission and the first African-American to serve as a probate court judge in Wayne County.
He died on Dec. 31, 1983, and despite what happened to him back in 1934, he remained a true Blue Wolverine. To his last day, Willis Ward loved the University of Michigan.
And now it’s time for the University of Michigan to love him back.
I became intimately aware of Willis Ward’s story last year, when I wrote the script for a documentary called “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game” (directed by my friend Brian Kruger). The film premiered in late 2011, and since then, it’s been nominated for an Emmy award and has been seen by thousands of people, mostly U-M fans.
The response has been universal: What an amazing story, and what an amazing man.
As another football season kicks off this weekend, the University of Michigan is going to be taking a lot of time this season to honor some of its legends. There are special tributes set aside during the year for Wolverine legends like Ron Kramer and the Wistert brothers.
To date, though, there are no plans to honor Willis Ward. This is sad, but not surprising. In the 78 years since the infamous Georgia Tech game, he has never been honored once at U-M. Not once. Until we revived his story with our documentary, his was a tale that was lost to history.
As luck would have it, Michigan has a home game this year on Oct. 20 – on the 78th anniversary of the Georgia Tech game. The Wolverines are playing some team from East Lansing that day (I can’t remember the name), and I’m hoping you agree with me that the time has come for the University of Michigan to finally honor and recognize Willis Ward.
It has to happen this year (which is the 100th anniversary of Willis Ward’s birth), and it has to happen on Oct. 20. U-M has to honor Willis Ward that day.
It just makes sense. On Oct. 20, 1934, he was banned from Michigan Stadium. On Oct. 20, 2012, it’s time to welcome him back to Michigan Stadium.
We’ve started an online petition, urging U-M to honor Willis Ward on that date. You’ll find the link below.
I hope you sign it, and I hope you send it around via e-mail and Facebook to all your friends.
As a student at the University of Michigan 30-some years ago, I had no idea who Willis Ward was. Now I know.
And now it’s time for everyone to know.
It’s time to honor Willis Ward.
Update: Willis Ward was honored at the U-M football game on Oct. 20, 2012.
This story was originally published on Aug. 29, 2012.