By DONOVAN GOLICH, Staff Writer
The Michigan football program is lauded as one of the most prestigious and eminent college football programs in the country. But, every program has its darker moments.
No, I’m not referring to the recent Rich Rodriguez years—although it’s worth noting that Wolverine students and fans don’t necessarily like hearing his name in Ann Arbor. But, does the name Willis Ward ring a bell?
This past Wednesday, a documentary known as “Black and Blue” about the 1934 Michigan football team was screened to University of Michigan-Dearborn students. This documentary focuses on that particular team and for good reason, as it was the only team ever in the program’s history to hold a player out of the game due to his race.
It happened during the Michigan vs. Georgia Tech game at the Big House in Ann Arbor on October 20, 1934. Brian Kruger, co-producer of the documentary, told the Ann Arbor Journal that it was (largely) the fault of then-athletic director and former head football coach Fielding Harris Yost, who hailed from West Virginia. He was the son of a confederate soldier, who prohibited blacks from joining or participating on the football team when he began his tenure in Ann Arbor in 1901.
Kruger noted, “You’ve got to embrace 1934… you can’t look the other way.” While this is most certainly the case now, several teams felt otherwise during that era. In the then-Jim Crow era, it wasn’t uncommon for Southern football teams to impose restrictions on black athletes. Although Midwestern teams, like Michigan, often didn’t find themselves playing Southern teams, it was often that Midwestern teams would impose such restrictions to simply appease the Southern teams.
This is exactly what Michigan, and Yost, did during that time. The documentary noted that there was an open slot for one more football game that season. Michigan looked to Georgia Tech to fill that spot. Georgia Tech agreed to fill it, on one stipulation—Michigan must sit any of its black players for that game. Georgia Tech agreed to sit a player of equal ability to Ward out to even things out.
The documentary noted how Michigan native, alumnus and former President Gerald Ford was especially angry of this decision. In fact, he went so far to threaten to quit the team if Ward were to be benched during that game. Ford was a senior starter at the time.
The University President at the time, Alexander Ruthven, was okay with his athletic director dealing with the situation. But, the student body, faculty and staff, as well as the alumnus of UM made it clear that they were opposed to benching Ward.
But despite efforts to un-bench Ward, Michigan went on to play the game without Ward marking a significant, and rather dismal, milestone in the football program. They went on to win the game 9-2, while Ward listened to the victory from a nearby frat house—he wasn’t even allowed to cheer the team on from the bench. What’s more, that was the lone win that season for the Wolverine football team.
Willis Ward was forever changed by that game. He was on his way to becoming an Olympic athlete in 1936, but decided to take a step back in fears that Jim Crow would prevail once again in such athletic events on a much grander scale this time. He went on to become a judge.
If you didn’t get a chance to see the screening of this historic documentary, copies are available for purchase through several online retailers.