If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

President Gerald R. Ford was born on this date 100 years ago, the only American to serve as both vice president and president without ever being elected to either office. President Nixon selected him to replace Spiro Agnew in 1973 after Agnew was forced to resign because of his own bribery scandal. When Nixon resigned a year later, Ford inherited the Oval Office.

NPR's Don Gonyea looks back at Ford's legacy, including a little-known story from his days as a college football player at the University of Michigan.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: In 1973, Gerald Ford was a congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had risen through the ranks to become House minority leader. In those days, though, before C-SPAN, Ford was barely known to most Americans. That all changed when President Nixon introduced his new vice president.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan.

GONYEA: That was in December. By the following August, Nixon was out. Ford spoke to the nation.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works.

GONYEA: That line would have to be number one on any list of Gerald Ford's greatest hits. But it would be followed barely a month later by another moment.


FORD: And by these presents do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed...

GONYEA: It was an act of healing for Ford, but unforgivable for many Americans. In the White House, Ford also had to deal with a worrisome economy marked by rising inflation.


FORD: We must whip inflation right now.

GONYEA: Not to mention the final days of the Vietnam War. He also chose to continue Nixon's aggressive and complicated pursuit of better relations with the Soviet Union and China. In the 1976 presidential campaign, Democrat Jimmy Carter pledged a fresh start after Watergate and government corruption. Ford lost a close election and his bid to win the presidency in his own right.

These are all familiar elements of Ford's bio, but in recent years, another interesting story has come to light, one that's likely you haven't heard. It has to do with his days as a college football player at Michigan some eight decades ago.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Sing to the colors that float in the light.

GONYEA: This music is from a documentary film called "Black and Blue." Released last year, it explores an incident from the fall of 1934. Georgia Tech was visiting Ann Arbor for a football game against the Wolverines but only on the condition that Michigan's lone African-American player, Willis Ward, not be allowed to play. Ward was also Gerald Ford's roommate on road trips. Ward passed away 30 years ago after a long career as an attorney and judge in Michigan.

Buzz Thomas, a former Michigan state senator is Ward's grandson. He tells the story.

BUZZ THOMAS: Jerry Ford was incensed that the University of Michigan would dare to bench one of their other star players and his good friend then. So Ford went to the coaching staff and said that if Willis Ward doesn't play, I will not play.

GONYEA: Ultimately, Ford did play in the game at the request of Willis Ward.

THOMAS: And it was Willis Ward that came back and urged Jerry Ford to play in that game and to excel and really, you know, lay on a good hit for him that day, which, in fact, he did.

GONYEA: That game against Georgia Tech was Michigan's only victory that year. The story of Willis Ward's benching is not a great moment in the school's storied football history, but people close to both men say it speaks to Ford's character. The incident was on Ford's mind in 1999 when he took one of the final political stands of his long life by writing an op-ed piece for The New York Times supporting the University of Michigan and its use of affirmative action in its admissions policies.

Two lawsuits challenged that practice. Barry Rabe, a professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in Ann Arbor, sees a direct link between the young Ford - the football player who took a stand - and the aging former president.

BARRY RABE: 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 question about, but to act with a sense of public spirit and in the public interest.

GONYEA: Former President Gerald Ford died in 2006. He would have been 100 years old today. Don Gonyea, NPR News.


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