A Rare Talent

Willis Ward as a young man

Willis Ward, 1934-35

Willis Ward arrived on campus to high expectations—his own and others. And he fulfilled them. Indeed, after Ward's freshman year, the famed sports writer Grantland Rice declared him the most outstanding freshman athlete in the country.

Although he was perhaps best known for his numerous track accomplishments, Ward was also determined to make his name on the gridiron. After all, he had come to Ann Arbor only after being guaranteed he could play football, despite Michigan’s reputation for not using Black players.

Ward succeeded in this as well, becoming a key player on both offense and defense for the 1932 and 1933 national championship teams and the acknowledged star of the 1934 team.

Despite his triumphs, Ward was never voted a team captain for either track or football. Furthermore, he was benched, because he was Black, for the game against Georgia Tech during his senior football season, in 1934 (discussed in the next section).

That racist decision crushed Ward, and would have repercussions for his 1935 track season and in his failed efforts to make the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.

This section contains the following sub-sections that tell the story of Ward’s college athletic career in greater detail:

Prev Next