Today’s article is about a Michigan Man named Willis Ward. It is the fifth edition of my Black History Month Tribute series to Michigan Men of color. Willis Franklin Ward was born on December 28, 1912 and died on December 30, 1983 at the age of seventy-one.
(Note-Willis Ward (#61) , shown above with the 1934 Michigan Football team. Ward is standing in the third row – third man from the right [next to team MVP Gerald Ford #48] Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of Michigan.)
According to the Wikipedia article linked below, Willis Ward was born in Alabama. His family moved to Detroit when Willis was young. Ward attended Northwestern High School in Detroit. He starred on the track and the football field. In fact, he was a record-setting high jumper who was named Michigan High School Athlete of the year for setting a national high jump record. Harry Kipke found about young Willis Ward and convinced him to come to Michigan.
Willis Ward arrived in Ann Arbor in 1931. He did not play football in his freshman year. Instead, he focused on his academics and track and field. Ward distinguished himself in his very first year at Michigan. He specialized in the high jump and won the NCAA championship in the spring of 1932 with a jump of 6 feet 7 and 1/3 inches. Wow – what a start to his athletic career at Michigan!
The talented Ward wanted more in 1932. In fact, against the wishes of some of his track supporters, he opted to try out for Harry Kipke’s Wolverine Football team as a sophomore. Of course, Ward made the team and started four games at end. He played well enough and often enough to earn a letter on Kipke’s first national championship team. Michigan finished the season with perfect records of 8-0-0 overall and 6-0-0 in the Big Ten.
Harry Kipke had five straight winning seasons after he took over for Tad Wieman in 1928. That amazing run ended abruptly in 1934. Actually, the 1934 team was the first Wolverine football squad to lose seven games in one season. The Wolverines finished with a final record of 1 win 7 losses. They were also the first team to lose all six conference games. Yes, it was pretty bad, but Willis Ward was a ray of sunshine amidst all the losing. He started every game but one and led Michigan in scoring.
Unfortunately, the only game he didn’t start in 1934 was the only game the Wolverines won all season. The third game of the 1934 called for a visit from Georgia Tech. When the Georgia Tech AD found out that Willis was on the team, he informed Michigan’s AD Fielding Yost that Georgia would not play a team with a black man on the field. Amidst great controversy, Ward was benched because of his race on October 20, 1934. Apparently, Ward’s benching got his team “fired up” and Michigan played well that day. The Wolverines defeated Georgia Tech by a score of 9-2. So, the Wolverines won a football game, but lost a bigger battle for civil rights that day. It was a sad commentary for what was going on in America at the time.
If you read the attached article, Willis Ward said he lost his competitive fire after the Georgia Tech incident. He had Olympic level talent in the high jump, long jump and sprinting, but he didn’t make the Olympic team in 1936 even though he had beaten many of the athletes who went on to compete in those events in 1936.
Willis Ward was one of the greatest athletes to ever compete at Michigan, especially in Track and Field. He won Big Ten Championships in multiple events during his track career and set many Michigan records. He was also an exceptional football player who did everything he could for Michigan. Too bad his dedication to Michigan was not supported by the University of Michigan when Georgia Tech came to visit in 1934. Despite the sad ending to his Wolverine story, he left Ann Arbor with his head held high and went on to do great things in his life. Willis Ward is also connected to many Michigan Football Firsts. Check them out:
Yes, this fifth day of February is a perfect day to reflect on the Michigan legacy of Willis Franklin Ward. He was an amazing athlete who was induced into the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1981 and the Michigan Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2008. Thanks to Willis Ward, Michigan Men of all colors are treated better in Ann Arbor today than he was in 1934! Go Blue!
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