Under most circumstances, a 1-7 season would be relegated to the dustbin of history, never to be spoken of again. However, the circumstances surrounding a 1-7 season back in 1934 led to an otherwise forgettable year becoming one of the most memorable in all of Michigan football history.
In the two seasons prior, the University of Michigan football program had captured two Big Ten championships and finished undefeated in both seasons - carrying a 22-game winning streak into the 1934 season. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines would only notch a single win that year against Georgia Tech. Though the win itself was far from memorable, what occurred leading up to the game made it unforgettable.
It began in 1932 when a freshman by the name of Willis Ward became a track star at the University of Michigan. Ward arrived in Ann Arbor as a Detroit native who attended Northwestern High School, excelling as both at both track and football. During his freshman year at Michigan, Ward would go on to capture the NCAA high jump championship - leading many to believe he was on a path to becoming the greatest track athlete to ever compete at the University of Michigan. Though the high jump was his specialty, Ward excelled in multiple competitions - including hurdles, the long jump and shot put.
By the time his sophomore year had arrived in 1933, Ward decided he would try out for the Michigan football team. Ward's decision to try out for the football team raised some eyebrows due to the fact that he would be risking his track career to compete on the football field. However, the bigger issue was that Ward would attempt to become the first African-American in 40 years to play for the Michigan football program and just the second to do so in school history.
It was 43 years earlier when George Jewett became the first African-American to play football at the University of Michigan, playing as a fullback, halfback, and field goal kicker on a team that had no head coach - led only by captains William C. Malley and George P. Codd.
In spite of the odds against him, Ward proved himself to be more than worthy of earning a spot on the 1933 Michigan Football roster. Ward would end up starting every single game at right end and finished as runner up for the Associated Press Big Ten Athlete of the Year Award that year.
The following year in 1934, Ward returned to the football field alongside teammate, roommate and friend Gerald R. Ford. Though though Wolverines would finish the season with a forgettable 1-7, the week three game against Georgia Tech would become infamous for an ugly incident of racism that occurred prior to the game. Leading up to the matchup in Ann Arbor, Georgia Tech football coach and athletic director W. A. Alexander indicated that he would refuse to allow his team to take the field if Michigan allowed Ward to participate. In fact, Alexander wrote a letter to athletic director Fielding Yost a year prior asking what was going to be done about Ward, making clear that his team would not take the field if Ward played.
As game day approached, word began to spread around Michigan’s campus that Georgia Tech would refuse to take the field if Ward was allowed to play and that Michigan might opt to sit Ward - causing an uproar among both students and faculty. With the controversy boiling over, demonstrations in support of Ward and his right to play began to take place all over campus. It was reported that over 1,500 students and faculty signed a petition that Ward be allowed to play or that the game be canceled, and that roughly 200 students threatened to prevent the game from being played if Ward was not on the field.
Ultimately, the University of Michigan would cave to Georgia Tech’s demands and agreed to sit Ward during for the week three matchup.
As the story goes, few took greater issue with the University's decision more than Ward's roommate, Gerald R. Ford. Furious that the University of Michigan had given into Georgia Tech's demands, Ford reportedly threatened to quit the team in protest. Though Ford would decide to remain with the team and play that day against Georgia Tech, the story surrounding Willis Ward, Michigan and Georgia Tech became yet another etched within our history that would help lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act 30 years later.
With Ward reportedly watching from the Press Box at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines would go on to claim their only victory that season by a score of 9-2 in front of 20,901 fans.
That series of events back in 1934 left a lasting scar on Ward, one that he never fully recovered from. Ward attempted to make the US Olympic track team in 1936, but recalled that the Georgia Tech incident still haunted him.
“Georgia Tech game killed me. I frankly felt they (the Olympics) would not let black athletes compete. Having gone through the Tech experience, it seemed an easy thing for them to say 'Well, we just won't run 'em if Hitler insists.”
"It was like any bad experience—you can't forget it, but you don't talk about it. It hurts."
Eventually, Ward would earn a degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1939 and served as both a Lawyer and a Judge in the Detroit area for roughly 30 years. Ward would also be inducted into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1981 and is still considered to be one of the greatest athletes ever to attend the University.
As far as how the incident impacted Ford, he would later claim that the it shaped his thinking on race and described Ward sitting out the game as "his sacrifice" that "led me to question how educational administrators could capitulate to raw prejudice." Ford served as the 38th President of the United States from 1974 to 1977.