Decency, justice and the Michigan-OSU rivalry: The story of Jesse Owens and Gerald Ford

1976, August 5 – East Garden – The White House – Washington, DC – Gerald R. Ford, Jesse Owens – Owens at lectern, speaking, President Ford laughing in background – Presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jesse Owens

By Buddy Moorehouse and Brian Kruger, Producers of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.”

It’s quite true that for much of the year, Michigan’s hatred for all things Ohio State never goes away. And vice versa.

So in the face of all that, here’s a story about a Wolverine and a Buckeye who came together to right a historical wrong. It’s a story of respect and racial justice and friendship, and most of all, basic human decency.

It happened back in 1976, and it’s evidence that yes, while we hate them and they hate us, at its core, this rivalry is truly rooted in respect and decency. It’s a story about two great Wolverines (Gerald Ford and Willis Ward) and one great Buckeye (Jesse Owens). It’s a story about a Michigan man who did a great thing for an Ohio State man, and when you hear it – if you’re a Michigan fan – it’ll hopefully make you feel even more proud that your blood runs maize and blue. And if you’re a Buckeye, it’ll serve as proof that not everyone from “That School Up North” is evil.

The story starts in the fall of 1934, when Gerald Ford and Willis Ward were senior starters on Michigan’s football team. If you’ve seen our documentary, “Black and Blue,” you know this part of the story well. Coming off back-to-back national championships in 1932 and 1933, Michigan was scheduled to host Georgia Tech in the fall of 1934. Athletic director Fielding H. Yost scheduled this game despite knowing full well that like all teams from the south back then, Georgia Tech would refuse to play the game unless Michigan benched Ward, an African-American end from Detroit who was the team’s best player.

When Yost made the decision that yes, he was going to bench Ward for the game, it infuriated Ward’s best friend on the team, Jerry Ford. Ford said he was going to quit the team in protest, and agreed to play only after Ward personally asked him to. With Ward sitting out (Yost wouldn’t even let him in the stadium; Ward had to listen to the game on the radio at his fraternity house), Michigan won, 9-2. It ended up being U-M’s only win of the season. The Georgia Tech incident had ripped the soul out of the team, as the Wolverines finished the season 1-7. It’s still the worst season in school history.

That incident also cemented the friendship between Ford and Ward, though, and for all the days of their remarkable lives, they remained the best of friends. It also shaped Ford’s feelings on matters of race and equality, and it stayed with him as he moved from Congress to the White House, and after that as an elder statesman.

So in the winter of 1935, after Michigan’s horrid football season had ended, Willis Ward turned his attention to track. It’s worth noting here that Ward is most certainly underrated on any list of U-M’s all-time greatest athletes. As outstanding as he was in football – and he was GREAT – he was even better in track. He was one of the country’s most celebrated high school track athletes before he came to Michigan, and continued to set records after he came to Ann Arbor.

College track and field was a huge sport back then – every bit as big as football – and when the indoor track season rolled around in 1935, the country’s attention was directed squarely at Ann Arbor and Columbus. Michigan had the great Willis Ward, and Ohio State had a sophomore by the name of Jesse Owens who was finally going to be making his debut (freshmen weren’t allowed to compete back then). Track fans everywhere were salivating at the prospect of seeing Willis Ward race against Jesse Owens.

There’s probably a feeling among most sports fans that Jesse Owens never lost a race back then. Well, he did. He lost to Willis Ward. Twice.

In the winter of 1935, Jesse Owens and Willis Ward raced against each other five times. Ward won the first two races and Owens won the last two. The one in the middle was so close that if it happened today, it would be a photo finish. But there were no photo finishes in collegiate track meets back then, so the judges narrowly gave it to Owens. But the fact is, back in the day when Jesse Owens was the fastest man on the planet, there was a Michigan man who was just as fast.

Sadly, that was the last time they’d ever race against each other. Ward hurt his leg before the outdoor season started, so he wasn’t able to run the sprints outdoors. He did compete in the high jump, though, and he won most every meet he competed in that spring.

You might be familiar with this next part of the story, too. On May 25, 1935, the greatest day in sports history took place on Michigan’s campus. Alas, it was an Ohio State Buckeye who had this great day. Competing in the Big Ten track meet that day, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in the space of 45 minutes.

Michigan track great Eddie Tolan, left, meets Willis Ward (center) and Jesse Owens on May 25, 1935, in Ann Arbor – the greatest day in sports history.

It was incredible. Four world records in 45 minutes. We’d never seen athletic greatness on that scale before, and we never will again. It was so monumental that in the 1970s, Michigan athletic director Don Canham (a track man himself) made the decision to erect a monument to Jesse Owens at the Ferry Field track. It continues to amaze sports fans everywhere that there’s a monument to an Ohio State athlete on the Michigan campus.

If you saw the movie “Race,” the excellent film about Owens that came out last year, you’ll remember that Jesse’s record-setting day in Ann Arbor was featured prominently.

Here’s a part of that story you probably don’t know. Among the 10,000 or so fans at Ferry Field that day, watching Jesse Owens make history, was a graduating senior at U-M named Gerald Ford. He was probably there to see his best friend Willis Ward (who won the high jump), but the star of the show that day was certainly the skinny sophomore from Ohio State. And as Jerry Ford sat in the stands that day watching it all unfold, he was no doubt thinking, “Man, this kid from Ohio State is pretty fast.”

Ward’s athletic career effectively ended that day. Although he would have been a favorite in several events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Georgia Tech incident had damaged him too deeply. He told people at the time that he was afraid Adolph Hitler would Jim Crow him the way that Georgia Tech did, and he didn’t want to take that chance.

So Willis Ward retired from sports and went to work for the Ford Motor Co. as the head of its ad hoc civil rights division, serving as the liaison between black and white workers (Henry Ford was a big Willis Ward fan, and had personally recruited him for this). Jerry Ford went on to law school at Yale, while Jesse Owens went on to win four gold medals in Berlin in 1936.

And this is where the story takes another turn. Following the Berlin Games, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited the entire Olympic team to the White House. Well, almost the entire Olympic team. He invited the white athletes. He didn’t invite Jesse Owens. Refused to let him come to the White House. (This was also highlighted in the movie “Race.”) It was a snub that Owens felt deeply for the rest of his life. Speaking later that year, he told an audience, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

That was in 1936. Forty years later, in 1976, the White House’s occupant was a Michigan Wolverine, Gerald R. Ford. The same guy who had watched with amazement when a skinny kid from Ohio State ripped up the track four decades earlier.

And here’s where the story turns a wrong into a right.

On Aug. 5, 1976, President Ford invited the U.S. Olympic Team to the White House. All of them – black, white, everyone. The Montreal Games had just wrapped up four days earlier, and the Americans had a splendid showing. Led by the likes of Bruce Jenner, Sugar Ray Leonard and Edwin Moses, the U.S. won 94 medals, second only to the Soviet Union’s 125. So President Ford happily invited all of them to the White House.

He also invited an Olympian whose glory came 40 years earlier. Knowing his history – and knowing how President Roosevelt had snubbed Owens four decades hence – President Ford decided it was time to make it all right. A Michigan Wolverine was going to invite an Ohio State Buckeye to the White House.

Owens thought that he was coming to the White House just to help celebrate the 1976 team. He had no idea that Jerry Ford had other plans.

As the entire U.S. Olympic delegation looked on, President Ford presented Owens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive. This was a total shock to Owens. He wasn’t just coming to the White House for a visit; he was coming to the White House to receive the highest honor a civilian can receive.

Jesse Owens was blown away.

President Gerald Ford of Michigan pins the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jesse Owens of Ohio State.

And in his speech, President Ford invoked the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. As well as the name of a certain coach whose eyewear lives on in the rivalry today.

This is in part what President Ford said that day: “I don’t have to tell any of you who studied the history of the Olympics of his phenomenal career. I happened to be a student at the University of Michigan when Jesse Owens was a student at Ohio State – as Woody Hayes calls it, that school up north. I saw Jesse Owens at a Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, as one of some 10,000 or 12,000 spectators, when he broke three world records and tied a fourth. His performance that day in the broad jump – 26 feet 8 5/16 inches – was not equaled for 25 years.

“Fifteen years later, revisiting the same stadium, Jesse Owens received a standing ovation when he urged his audience, and I quote, ‘to stand fast with us for freedom and democracy.’ Giants like Jesse Owens show us why politics will never defeat the Olympic spirit. His character, his achievements have continued to inspire Americans as they did the whole world in 1936.

“Jesse, it is my privilege to present you today with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that your country can bestow. And I present you with this medal on behalf of the people of the United States. For them in particular, and especially for the athletes like those here today, your character, your achievements will always be a source of inspiration.”

There’s no doubt that when November rolled around that year, there was no love lost here. Ford was rooting for Bo’s boys to win, and Owens was rooting for Woody’s guys. But on this sunny day in August, in the East Garden of the White House, Jerry Ford was doing the right thing. A Wolverine was helping a Buckeye right a wrong. Ford’s incredible character came from his upbringing, but his sense of racial justice and equality came from Willis Ward and Georgia Tech. So when the time came, he knew the right thing to do, and it didn’t matter that the guy he was helping was a Buckeye.

Jesse Owens was barred from the White House in 1936. He was finally invited there in 1976, and the invitation came from a man who bleeds maize and blue. And really, that’s not so remarkable. That’s just how we roll in this rivalry.

Jesse Owens died just four years later, in March of 1980. He lived a remarkable life, and there’s comfort for all of us in knowing that the snub he felt in 1936 – from his own president – had been erased by another occupant of the Oval Office.

So yes, Michigan can hate Ohio State and Ohio State can hate Michigan, but let’s all remember that deep down, the rivalry is more about respect than anything else. Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and Jesse Owens taught us that.

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The Livingston Post is the only locally owned, all-digital information and opinion site in Livingston County, Mich. It was launched by award-winning journalists who were laid off from the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus by Gannett Co. Inc. in 2009.

1 Comment

  1. This is missing my favorite part of the story. It is true, and it is what is remembered, that Owens set four world records at the Big Ten championships in 1935. What is forgotten is that Ohio State only finished second – the Leaders and Best were the University of Michigan by a margin of 48 to 43.5 over OSU.

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