Gerald Ford Fought Racism with Football

By Karen Harris | November 14, 2022

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Former President Gerald Ford played center for the University of Michigan Wolverines. This photo was shot in 1934. (Photo by Michigan University/Getty Images)

Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, may have taken an unconventional road to the White House, thanks to Richard Nixon’s resignation, but on the football field, he was known for running the ball up the middle and making the big plays. As we will see, Ford was one of our most athletic former presidents who was a standout on and off the gridiron. But did you know that he once used his football clout to combat racism? Let’s learn how this happened.

Gerald Ford, Athlete

Gerald Ford was a big man on campus at his high school, South High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was an excellent student and graduated in the top five percent of his class in 1931. He was a whiz at history and government and was named the most popular senior by his classmates. When he wasn’t in class, Ford could be found at his part-time job at a local restaurant or on the football field. He was the center on the offensive line of his high school football team. His senior year, Ford was named one of the best players in the state and was recruited by the prestigious University of Michigan. U of M made him a scholarship member of their football team, the Wolverines.

A College Standout

Gerald Ford excelled in college. Academically, he was a top student and majored in economics. He worked several different part-time jobs while he was in college to help pay for his education. But it was on the football team where Ford really made his name.

As starting center, Ford was a member of the team when they won back-to-back National Championships, in 1932 and 1933. In 1934, his teammates voted him the most valuable player on the team. In 1934, Ford’s senior year, however, the Wolverines had a down year. In fact, they won only one game that year. 

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Teammates and best friends, Gerald Ford and Willis Ward. (

Gerald Ford and Willis Ward

Ford’s best friend on the University of Michigan football team was Willis Ward, an African American. The two roomed together for all the team’s road trips. Ford admired Ward for his work ethic on and off the field and the two shared an interest in political and social justice. He treated his friend as an equal. But it was 1934 and not everyone followed suit.

Georgia Tech’s Coach

William “Bill” Anderson was the head football coach and athletic director for Georgia Tech. He sent a letter to the Michigan athletic director, Fielding Yost, stating that his players would not take the field against an African American player. They wanted Ward benched for the upcoming Georgia Tech versus Michigan game. When the student body at U of M learned of this … and that Michigan was considering agreeing to the demand … there was an outcry on campus. Protests were planned. Petitions were circulated. The NAACP got involved. And even Time magazine covered the controversy. It drew nationwide attention. But not everyone was on the same side. Many of the protests at U of M pushed for Ward to be dismissed from the team for no other reason than his skin color. The top administrators at U of M also voiced their opinion that Ward should not be on the team.