|Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health Library|
Ford, who could have played professional football had he chosen to, instead went to law school, joined the Navy during World War II and eventually entered politics. President Ford holds the unique distinction of having been the only U.S. President to never have been popularly elected into the office of Vice President or President. (As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the Watergate scandal, Ford was selected to fill the role of Vice President when Spiro Agnew stepped down and eventually became President when Richard Nixon resigned.)
But the character that President Ford demonstrated in leading the country during the aftermath of Watergate was demonstrated years earlier during his time as a Wolverine football player. Detroit News writer John Niyo tells the story of the time in 1934 when Michigan was preparing to play Georgia Tech, a southern school who demanded that Michigan not play Willis Ward, U of M's only African American player.
Sadly, Michigan complied and coach Fielding Yost benched Ward for the game. Ford, who threatened to quit the team because of the unfair treatment of his friend and teammate, was talked into participating in the game but let his play on the field do his talking. This situation had a profound influence on the future president and it was an experience that neither he nor Ward ever forgot:
"On Monday morning, (Ford) and Bill Borgmann told me that they'd done something during the game for me and … I'll never forget it," Ward said. "It seems as though as the game got started, a fellow on the other side of the line made a remark about him loving people like me. And his adjectives, they were 'bleep' adjectives, so I won't use it. Whereupon Jerry and Bill put a block on him that ended that fellow's participation in the game. So they came back that Monday and told me that they dedicated that block to me."Both Ford and Ward went on to lead lives of prominence and their friendship remained strong until their dying days. And while President Ford should be admired for the stance that he took during a time of accepted racial animosity toward African Americans, the real hero of the story is Willis Ward. Here is a man that faced consistent discrimination (the Georgia Tech game is just one example) yet went onto to get a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country and later became a state court judge. His determination and fortitude are to be commended.
Long after his presidency, Ford, who'd remained friends with Ward through the years, noted that 1934 incident "had a significant impact" on his views on race relations.
"I admired him because of his character and intelligence," Ford wrote in 1995, more than a decade after Ward, who served as a state court judge and chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission (1969-73), passed away in 1983. "I deeply resented those who did not treat him as an equal because he was black."
And that played a role in Ford's decision to take another stand at the age of 86, when he publicly backed the affirmative action policies that were under fire at his alma mater and other universities. Ford submitted an Op-Ed piece to the New York Times and quietly encouraged others to fight the legal battle that ultimately led to a landmark 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Michigan Law School's policy.
"Do we really want to risk turning back the clock to an era when the Willis Wards were isolated and penalized for the color of their skin, their economic standing or national ancestry?" Ford wrote in the Times, nearly 70 years after that Georgia Tech game."
Their story, as well as a number of others, will be told in a series of films highlighting the history of University of Michigan football entitled, "Victors." To view the trailer for the film featuring the story of Willis Ward and Gerald Ford, please watch the video below. If the video player doesn't show up please click here.