The Only Michigan Football Player Not Allowed To Play Because Of His Skin Color
Willis Ward was a champion.
1) Willis was the Michigan High School Athlete of the Year.
2) Set a high school record for the high jump.
3) College track champ at the University of Michigan, excelling in the 100 yard dash, 44 yard dash, high jump, and long jump.
4) A star football player who became the second African-American to win a varsity football letter for the Wolverines (1932, 1933, 1934).
5) Three-time All American.
6) Eight-time Big Ten champion.
7) In 1981, was inducted into the UM Athletic Hall of Honor.
All these accomplishments, and what is he most remembered for?
NOT playing in a game.
In 1934 the Wolverines were set to play against Georgia Tech. However, Georgia coach Bill Alexander refused to play if Willis was part of the opposing team. Some called this move bigotry, others called it a fear of losing to a team with a renowned star athlete as Willis. It became a clear case of bigotry.
Game time drew nearer, and Georgia still said they would absolutely not play against Willis. Standing by their star player, UM students rallied, petitioned, demonstrated, and had continuous meetings. Either Willis Ward played in the game, or just cancel the whole damn thing. Protests were lodged with many groups, including religious organizations, the NAACP, and many others. It was even a featured story in Time magazine.
After numerous protests, pleadings, threats, effigies, and even common sense.....authorities concluded that Ward should not play. It was feared that Georgia Tech players would go out of their way to hurt him on the field, to an extreme where he could be seriously injured. They went so far as to say they would “kill him” if he “set one foot on the field”.
So, Ward did not play that game, but Georgia did slightly give in by benching their star player, Hoot Gibson.
In later years, Willis Ward was a Detroit attorney, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, and a probate court judge. He passed away on December 30, 1983, just two days after his 71st birthday.
Oh, by the way, regarding that 1934 football game in which Willis Ward was not allowed to participate: UM beat the pants off Georgia that day, 9-2.
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