Stories You Should Know: Michigan’s Best

University of Michigan’s Most Prominent Football Player

The University of Michigan Wolverines have one of the most storied histories in all of college football. They’ve been selected as the National Champion by a reputable source in 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918, 1923, 1932, 1933, 1947, 1948, and 1997.

They’ve been fortunate to have some of the most successful coaches in history. Fielding Yost guided them to their first six Championships in the first quarter of the 20th century. When they won back to back National Titles in 1932 and 1933, they were led by Harry Kipke. Bo Schembechler roamed the sidelines between 1969 and 1989 where his teams won 13 Big Ten titles. Among the famous players to show their stuff at the “Big House” were; Jake Long, current Michigan Coach, Jim Harbaugh, Anthony Carter, Heisman Trophy winners Tom Harmon, Charles Woodson, and Desmond Howard. Then, of course there was also Tom Brady.

A very rich history indeed, but none of these gentlemen can match the accomplishments of one born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska in 1913. He was the son of Leslie Lynch King, and his wife, the former Dorothy Ayer Gardner. The boy was born into a troubled home. His father was abusive. When Leslie threatened to kill both Dorothy and her infant son, she left him. After some time she wound up at her parent’s home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It’s while she was in Grand Rapids that she met and married the man who would fill the role as father to the young man. Young Leslie would take the name of his new father, and would go by Gerald for the rest of his life. “My stepfather was a magnificent person and my mother equally wonderful. So I couldn’t have written a better prescription for a superb family upbringing,” he said of his youth.

At Grand Rapids South High School, young Gerald excelled at many sports, but he was especially good at football. He was captain of the team, and in 1930 was an All-City selection in Grand Rapids.

Recruited by multiple schools, he chose to stay close to home and attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was the long snapper, and second string center for the team that won back to back National Championships for Coach Kipke in 1932 and 1933. In 1934 the team slumped to a 1-7 record, but Gerald was voted the Most Valuable Player on the team. This was quite an honor for a young man who was a center on offense, and a linebacker on defense. 

Gerald was invited to participate in the end of season East-West Shrine All Star game in San Francisco. He graduated with a degree in Economics in 1935, and immediately drew the attention of the NFL. The Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers tried to sign him, but young Gerald had other plans.

Attempting to get into the Law School at Yale, he took a job as the boxing coach and assistant varsity football coach at that school. At first the school wouldn’t allow him to apply, due to his coaching duties, so in the summer of 1937 he enrolled in the Law School at the University of Michigan. Yale eventually admitted him in the spring of 1938, where Gerald graduated three years later in the top 25% of his class. He passed the Michigan State Bar, and opened a practice in his hometown of Grand Rapids. 

The young man  then got into politics, and became a committed member of the “America First” movement, hoping to keep the United States out of World War II. He supported Wendell Willkie over Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential Election.

Everything changed on December 7th, 1941. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor he joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific on the aircraft carrier Monterey for most of the war. He served in most of the major Naval operations in the South Pacific for the duration of his time. He was honorably discharged from his service in January of 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. 

He moved back to Grand Rapids where he married Elizabeth Bloomer in 1948, and decided to try politics. He challenged the incumbent in the Republican Primary in his Grand Rapids Congressional District in 1948, and beat him decisively by a 2 to 1 margin. The key issue was Gerald’s transformation from an isolationist to an internationalist which had occurred during his time in the Navy.

Gerald would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1973, rising to the position of House Minority Leader in the last eight years. It was while he was House Minority Leader that President Lyndon Johnson infamously said of him that he played “too much football without a helmet.” 

The Watergate scandal broke in 1973. The first victim was the sitting Vice-President, Spiro Agnew. The beleaguered President Nixon was forced to appoint a replacement, and on the advice of leaders of both parties chose the former Michigan football star. Richard Nixon’s tenure as President ended in August of 1974, and with his resignation Gerald Rudolph Ford became the 34th President of the United States.

The irony of the athletic accomplishments of Jerry Ford was that according to the mainstream media and Hollywood in 1976, President Ford was a bumbling klutz. Chevy Chase had a routine on Saturday Night Live where he portrayed the President falling over everything. The media constantly showed him stumbling or falling down. President Ford did have a trick knee, the result of an injury suffered while playing football at Michigan, but the reality was that Gerald Ford was probably the finest athlete to ever occupy the White House. How they depicted him was the complete opposite of how he really was.  He was a very good college football player, an accomplished runner, swimmer and tennis player. He could be found skiing in Colorado well into his 80s. He was famous for once hitting a spectator in a golf tournament, but he was actually a good golfer with a handicap in the single digits. 

How good of a president Gerald Ford was has nothing to do with what kind of athlete he was. He was an incredible athlete. It is illuminating to see how willing the media is to create a false narrative of Ford.

He was in the minority in the House of Representatives for 21 of his 25 years. He was Minority Leader in that chamber 8 years but never Speaker. He’s the only U.S. President to not be elected either President or Vice President to ever hold that office. He replaced as President the only person to resign that office. Then when attempting to win the Presidency he lost by a narrow margin to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The essence of Jerry Ford can best be attested to by a quote from one of the assistant coaches after a losing effort against #1 ranked Minnesota in 1934. He was describing how Ford’s teammates viewed their star center. “They felt Jerry was one guy who would stay and fight in a losing cause.” Lost causes seemed to be his destiny.


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