Saturday, August 13, 2022

Willis Ward and the Football Game that Should Never Have Been Played

Willis and Ford
Willis Ward with President Ford

*It was 1934, the depth of the Depression. Few Michigan residents had much to cheer about – certainly not the University of Michigan football fans who would watch their team blunder through its worst season of the century. Despite the leadership of their tough captain, Gerald R. Ford, the Wolverine eleven won but one game that fall – and that was a game that should never have been played.

Beginning in 1901, Coach Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost had launched Michigan’s golden era of the gridiron. His “point a minute” teams set records yet to be broken. Born in West Virginia the son of a Confederate veteran, Yost fell in love with the game of football. Unfortunately, he carried some southern baggage to his northern coaching career: a deep-seated racial prejudice.

While George H. Jewett, an Ann Arbor High School star, had broken the color barrier to letter on the Wolverine team in 1890, during Yost’s 25 years as head football coach, his teams included not one black athlete. Yost stepped down as football coach after the 1926 season but continued as athletic director. Still, the racial situation remained unchanged until the appointment as head football coach of former Michigan All-American Harry Kipke in 1929. Kipke, who had played with black teammates at Lansing High School, had a different philosophy.

That is when Willis Ward entered the picture. One of the greatest athletes to come out of Detroit’s Northwestern High School, Ward won the city high jump title as a freshman. He went on to set state records in the low and high hurdles, and as a junior he bested the world in interscholastic high jump mark. Voted an all-city end for two years, he earned unanimous selection to the all-state football team in his senior year. An A student, Ward graduated near the top of his class.

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Willis Ward
Willis Ward

Realizing he had no chance to play football for Michigan, Ward debated going to Dartmouth or Northwestern University. But when the Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Guy Miller, a Michigan alumnus, learned of the situation, he conferred with Michigan Regents James Murphy and Fred Matthai, president of the University of Michigan Club in Detroit. They decided to buck the system.

After Ward agreed to try to end the team segregation, they approached Kipke, who responded, “You’re darn right I’ll take that kid.” But Kipke faced an uphill battle against Yost and some coaches and alumni who could not understand why Michigan needed a black football player – that the team had won many a game without one. As Ward later learned, “on several occasions, Kipke took his coat off and was prepared to fight with those who bitterly opposed having a Negro play for Michigan.”

The feisty Kipke, with the backing of Miller, Murfin and Matthai, prevailed. Ward enrolled as one of about 30 black students on campus. When he showed up at the field house to be assigned a locker, Judge Miller’s son, captain of the swim team, met him. “I’m Bob Miller,” he said, “my father told me you were coming, and if you have any problems, let me know.” Kipke also encouraged other key athletes to smooth Wards way.

Kipke found a much-needed part-time job for Ward washing dishes at the Parrot Cafe. But when the manager ordered him to only use the back door and Ward told his coach, Kipke got him a better job washing dishes at the Michigan Union.

Ward soon proved that Kipke’s trust had not been misplaced. Starting as a right end in 1932 and 1933 he was named to the Big Ten and National Championship teams both years. The following season he made the second-team All-American roster. And in track, he consistently set records in the high hurdles, dash and high jump. In 1935, he beat Ohio State’s Jesse Owens in the 65-yard-high hurdles and tied a world record by outracing Owens in the 60-yard dash.

Sometime in 1933, as Ward wowed track and football crowds, Yost scheduled a match in Ann Arbor for the 1934 fall season with Georgia Tech, then coached by his good friend William A. Alexander. By December 1933 correspondence between Yost and other southern cultures centered around “what he was going to do about the detail.” The detail being that Georgia Tech and most of the Southern collegiate teams had never played against black opponents and had no intention of doing so in the future.

It was [an] era when many northern schools, including Ohio State and NYU, routinely bowed to that prejudice by benching their black players. Others, such as Harvard and Dartmouth, refused to be a part of the racism. What would the University of Michigan do?

Negotiations continued through the winter of 1934. Georgia Tech took the stance that if Ward was to play, they would cancel the game. Michigan was reminded that as a “well-bred host” out of courtesy it should take the feelings of Georgia Tech into consideration. In January, Michigan’s Board in Control of Athletics discussed at length the racial implications of the match but reached no conclusion. In May, with no decision yet made, Georgia Tech remained adamant in its position.

Ward had returned home to Detroit for the summer vacation when he learned the outcome – he would not get to play against Georgia Tech. Sensitive and proud, he wrote Coach Kipke that he was quitting the football team. Kipke rushed to Detroit to explain that Georgia Tech absolutely would not play against a black. Then he reminded Ward of the battles he and others had fought to get him on the team and said that he would never do so for another black if Ward quit. Crestfallen, Ward agreed to stay on the team.

Roy Wilkins, assistant Secretary of the NAACP, and some Michigan alumni campaigned on Ward’s behalf to no avail. As the October 20th game date drew near, five Jewish sophomores organized “The United Front Committee on Ward.” University of Michigan students staged a massive rally on Friday. That night hundreds of students marched eight miles to demonstrate outside the Ypsilanti hotel where the visiting Yellow Jackets were lodged.

Yost had heard rumors of a planned student sit down in the middle of the football field during the game. He hired a Pinkerton detective to identify the ring leaders and sent a number of students to infiltrate the rally and disrupt the sit-down plans. Still, the strength of the student movement continued to worry him.

Legendary Georgia Tech coach “Bobby” Dodd, then an assistant to Alexander, remembered in his 1987 autobiography how Yost and Alexander debated the dilemma over a bottle of whiskey, well into the night. Alexander kept saying, “We cannot play the game against a black man. We could not go back to Atlanta.”

Finally, the coaches had negotiated a compromise. Ward would not play but neither would Georgia’s star right end, E.H. “Hoot” Gibson. Joint announcements Saturday morning that Ward and Gibson had “volunteered” to sit out the game diffused the explosive situation.

That afternoon a one-third capacity crowd watched what Dodd recalled: “as poorly played a game between two major college teams as I have ever seen.” Michigan won 9 to 2. Ward had been refused permission to watch the game from the bench or press box. He sat out the event in the fraternity house.

Following the game, the Michigan Daily editorialized: “Michigan’s principles are incompatible with the south’s position on racial differences. Let Michigan of the future play with those who are of her own eminently worthwhile type.” The Georgia Tech game became a cause celebre on campus. University President Alexander Ruthven confided to a friend, “My life is being made miserable by arguments with the colored brethren… I wish now that I had taken the Ward matter into my own hands.”

As a result, Michigan did not play another southern football team for 19 years. And it would be seven years before another black athlete, Julius Franks, would play for the Michigan eleven.

As for Willis ward, in a 1970 interview, he said, “That Georgia Tech game knocked me right Square in the gut. It was wrong. It will always be wrong, and it killed my desire to excel.”

Nevertheless, Ward would excel in later life. Following graduation, he worked for the Ford Motor Company. Attending night school, he earned a law degree in 1939. He became an assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, sat on the first governing board of Northern Michigan University and for six years served as chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission. In 1973 Governor William Milliken appointed him as the first black judge of probate for Wayne County. When Ward died in 1984, his old teammate, former President Ford, said, “I have lost one of my dearest friends…He was truly a great American in every way. He contributed so much to a better society in America.”

One other thing about the black hero who suffered the humiliation of racism in 1934 should be mentioned. Ward, who had an excellent chance of taking gold medals in the high jump, hurdles and decathlon, refused to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. A quarter-century later, Ward said: “It was just as bad as if they’d done it to the blacks, to me, what they did to the Jews. I’ve never regretted not having competed in the Olympics.”

Author Larry B. Massie resides in Allegan, Michigan. Email:
From his book “White Pine Whispers”
Author and Michigan historian Larry B. Massie resides in Allegan, Michigan. Email:
From one of his book volumes “White Pine Whispers”

Larry Buford
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, and author of Book/CD titled "Things Are Gettin' Outta Hand" (Steuben Pub.) He writes Human Interest articles and entertainment reviews for various newspapers across the country. He is also an editor, and provides services for press releases, interviews, business letters, resumes, etc. A native Detroiter, he is a former Motown songwriter.




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