By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 18, 2012
DETROIT — Willis Ward is a man lost to time.
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His gravestone, settled in the shadows of three pine trees in the northwest corner of Memorial Park Cemetery, has sunk beneath the level ground here over the last 30 years. It’s barely visible from any distance, distinguished only by a small blue Michigan flag planted at the corner.
Ward, a standout Michigan football player from 1932-34, was laid to rest on Dec. 30, 1983, two days after his 71st birthday. His story was buried with him.
The block ‘M’ flag was planted by Brian Kruger, one of the loyal historians responsible for unearthing Ward’s story and preserving his legacy. Kruger paced up and down rows and rows of sunken stone markers for three hours before finding Ward’s plot this spring. He didn’t even see the gravestone until he was standing on top of it.
Kruger bent down, pushed away the grass cropped over the edge of the stone and brushed off the dirt to unveil the forgotten name: Willis Franklin Ward.
The name means something different to everyone.
For Gerald Ford it meant his closest friend at Michigan.
For Jesse Owens it meant his fiercest competitor.
For the man himself, it meant being etched in Michigan lore as the only player banned from Michigan Stadium for the color of his skin.
Harry Kipke knew a special athlete when he saw one. And Willis Ward was special.
As a senior at Northwestern High School in Detroit in 1930-31, Ward set the national high-school record for high jump at 6-foot-4 — for reference, the Big Ten-champion heights were just clearing six feet at the time — and was named to the all-state football team alongside Gerald Ford.
Ward knew playing football at Michigan was just a pipe dream, since there were no African Americans on the roster, so he was bound for Dartmouth. But Kipke, Michigan’s head football coach, couldn’t let that happen. He stormed into the office of Athletic Director Fielding H. Yost and demanded that Ward be allowed to join both the football and track teams.
“There’s some debate over whether it actually came down to a fistfight in Yost’s office,” said Michigan historian John U. Bacon, who documented much of the Ward-Ford story in his 1996 book “A Legacy of Champions.”
“It at least threatened to come to blows,” Bacon said. “By all accounts, the meeting between the two was very pitched, intense. Physical violence was at least a possibility.”
Yost was Michigan’s head coach from 1901-23 and 1925-26. He won six national titles while compiling a whopping 165-29-10 record. But as Bacon points out, Yost, the son of a Confederate soldier born just six years after the Civil War, never played a single black player.
Kipke won out, with or without Yost’s permission, and brought Ward to Ann Arbor. The college decision didn’t come without a price; the Ward family couldn’t afford to send two sons to college, so Ward’s brother, Henry II, went to work for the Ford Motor Company instead of attending school.
The relationship between Ward and Ford has been well publicized of late, brought to light by a documentary, “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Game,” released this spring by filmmakers Brian Kruger and Buddy Moorehouse.
During freshman orientation at the Waterman Gym along North University Avenue in fall 1931, the pair finally met. That day, Ford and Ward struck up a friendship that would span the rest of their lives.
Working alongside Ford, Ward became the first African-American employee at the Michigan Union, Kruger said.
After biding their time on the freshman squad in 1931 — freshmen were ineligible to play on varsity at the time — they both earned a spot on the varsity squad the next year. During their first round of spring practices, Ford edged out Ward for the Chicago Alumni Trophy, given to the most impressive freshman gridder every spring.
It was Oct. 22, 1932: Michigan vs. Illinois.
Harry Kipke motioned for Willis Ward to join him on the sidelines. Kipke, Michigan’s fourth-year head coach, had the Wolverines ahead 20-0 in the second quarter and had already funneled in four substitutes.
Kipke gestured toward midfield and his captain right end Ivan “Ivy” Williamson.
“Let’s give Ivy a rest during the remainder of this quarter,” Kipke said. “You take his end.”
Kipke knew the kid could play.