Play highlights gridiron story of pair of 'Victors'

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

This fall, when the college football season is in full swing, students from two Detroit schools will be treated to a play at Mumford High School that is all about “Black and Blue.”

On October 21, nearly 85 years to the day of the 1934 football game between the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech, a true history lesson will be offered to students from Pershing High School and Nolan Elementary-Middle School, according to Detroit attorney Fritz Damm, a longtime member of the Detroit Athletic Club.

“The students will have the pleasure of seeing ‘Victors of Character,’ the story of former President Gerald Ford and former Wayne County Probate Judge Willis Ward, who were teammates on the 1934 U-M football team,” Damm explained. “As has been said, it’s a story of ‘loyalty, integrity, and the courage to make a difference.’”

The play also will be staged at the DAC that evening for members and guests, and will feature a “tailgate theme” highlighted by an introductory talk from Jack Harbaugh, father of current U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh.

The 45-minute play, written by Dr. Allison Metz, a professor of theater at Grand Valley State University, is based on the 2016 documentary “Black and Blue,” a film that tells the back-story of the Michigan-Georgia Tech game. The Yellow Jackets agreed to play the Wolverines in Ann Arbor that season on the condition that U-M would not suit up Ward, the team’s only African-American player.

According to Metz, “many of Ward’s teammates were outraged when athletic officials at the University of Michigan agreed to the demand. The most outraged Wolverine was Ward’s roommate, a lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.”

The future president threatened to quit the team in response to Ward’s benching, but changed his mind at the urging of his teammate. In response, Ford reportedly played one of his finest games as a Wolverine, helping the Maize and Blue to a 9-2 win over Georgia Tech.

For attorney Damm, the story depicting the harsh reality of racial discrimination in the 1930s is particularly relevant in the turbulent world of today.

“Obviously we still have a long way to go when it comes to grasping the importance of racial understanding and social justice,” said Damm, whose father was a U-M teammate of Ford and Ward. “This play really highlights how two men made a significant difference in changing perceptions.”

Ford, while serving in Congress, supported the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and, as president, presided over the first Black History Month in the U.S.

Ward made his mark as a “supervisor for racial integration at Ford Motor Company, as a civil rights lawyer, and ultimately as the first African-American probate judge in Wayne County,” Damm related.

Coincidentally, Damm would come to know Ward in his judicial capacity with the Wayne County Probate Court. In 1981, he appeared before Judge Ward in an effort to become the legal guardian of a 14-year-old Detroit boy named Patrick.

“As we were getting ready to go to court, I told Patrick to grab a sport coat and tie out of the closet so that he would look sharp for the appearance,” Damm recalled.

By chance, the tie that Patrick hurriedly chose sported a special color combination.

“It was maize and blue,” Damm said with a smile. “Judge Ward got a kick out of that.”
 

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