NPR explores defining moment in the life of the young Gerald Ford

July 14, 2013

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gerald Ford, Don Gonyea of NPR's "All Things Considered" examines an incident at the U-M in 1934. Ford was a student and football player at the time, and the incident—and its outcome—not only reveals the character of the future president but also served as an ethical benchmark for his thinking, decades later, on affirmative action.

The event is recalled in the documentary Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.

The film, directed by Brian Kruger and written by Buddy Moorehouse, examines the 1934 football game between Michigan and Georgia Tech, which refused to field their team unless the U-M agreed to bench their star end, and only black player, Detroit-born Willis Ward. Ward's friend and roommate, Gerald Ford, was outraged by the decision—along with many within the U-M and Ann Arbor communities—and initially threatened to quit the team, until Ward convinced the young Ford to change his mind and play in the game. It was the only game Michigan won that year.

"The story of Ward's benching is not a great moment in the school's storied football history," said Gonyea, "but people close to both men say it speaks to Ford's character."

Gonyea also mentions President Ford's recollection of the Georgia Tech incident in his op-ed for the New York Times, decades later, in support of affirmative action.

In the segment, Barry Rabe comments on the football game's significance for Ford: "I think that tale, as a 21-year-old in Ann Arbor, leads us fast-forward to see someone who would be willing to take tough decisions that reasonable people might disagree with or raise questions about, but to act with a sense of public spirit and in the public interest."

In January, the Ford School screened the documentary Black and Blue as part of its yearlong celebration of President Ford's centennial and the U-M's MLK Day events. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Buzz Thomas, Willis Ward's grandson, and Steve Ford, son of President Ford.