Young Jerry Ford, A Book Report
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Wednesday, October 29, 2014
In the 2013 book, Young Jerry Ford, Athlete and Citizen, author Hendrik Booraem looks at the early years of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, Jr.
He was born on July 14, 1913 as Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His father was from Omaha, Nebraska and his mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner, was from Harvard, Illinois. Leslie was the brother of one of Dorothy’s friends in college. They were married in September 1912 in Illinois, but on their honeymoon, Leslie revealed himself to be an angry, violent and abusive husband.
Just weeks after Leslie Jr. was born in Omaha, Dorothy left Leslie and returned to Illinois to be with her parents. In December 1913, she was granted a divorce. Leslie was ordered to pay alimony and child support, but he never paid a dime to either of them. Their son would be known simply as “Junior” until he was a teenager.
Dorothy took a job in Chicago and, soon after, her parents then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where her father had taken a job. In May of 1916, Dorothy’s father passed away and so she moved to Grand Rapids to be with her mother. It was about that time that Charles King, Junior’s biological grandfather, began paying the $25-a-month child support to his grandson that his own son never did. This would continue until Charles died in the spring of 1930.
While in Grand Rapids, Dorothy met Gerald R. Ford at a church social. The two were married in February 1917. The three became a family and Dorothy and Gerald eventually had three more sons; Tom, Dick and Jim.
Early in life, Junior exhibited the same temper as his biological father. His kindergarten teacher even referred to him as “naughty Junior Ford.” Gerald and Dorothy were very patient in dealing with Junior and his anger issues. They used reason, psychology and faith as opposed to physical punishment, which they did not believe in.
Junior began to stutter in the second grade and it was later determined that this was brought on by the fact that his teachers were trying to make him write with his right hand. He was naturally left-handed. Once they allowed him to be left-handed, the stuttering stopped.
One of the outlets that Junior had for his anger issues while growing up was sports. Another was the Boy Scouts, which taught him discipline. Gerald Ford, Sr. was involved in the Boy Scouts for several years, but his traveling schedule for work did not allow him to be a Scoutmaster, so he volunteered and served on several committees. Junior was 12 years old when he joined the Boy Scouts and Troop 15 in December 1925. He loved everything about scouting and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout on August 2, 1927 at the age of 14. In 1928, Junior Ford began referring to himself as Jerry Ford or Gerald, Jr., after his step-father. His teammates began calling him “Junie,” which was a combination of Junior and Jerry.
In August 1929, Jerry was invited to be one of the first scouts to form an honor guard at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the upper part of Michigan. Eight eagle scouts from around the state were selected. They were all brought to the state capital in Lansing and had their picture taken with Governor Fred Green. From there it was on to Detroit and then they were taken by steamship to the island. The scouts camped at the fort during the entire month of August and gave tours to the visitors. This tradition of having scouts from around the state giving tours at the fort still continues to this day.
When it came to sports, Jerry Ford was a natural. He was a big kid compared to a lot of his teammates. Football was his passion, but he also played basketball, threw the discus and shot put on the track team and was on a swimming team at the YMCA. He tried out for the JV football team at South High in the spring of 1927. The coaching staff put him at center because of his size. He worked hard to perfect snapping the ball in various situations. In those days, the school used the double-wing formation, which meant that sometimes the center had to hike the ball to a runner who was already moving.
After that, Jerry could always be found with a football in his hands. He played on the JV team just one year and was moved up to the varsity team in 1928 as the backup center. When an injury to the starting center occurred before the season even began, Jerry became the starting center. He played so well that he remained the starter for the entire season. Because players played both ways in those days, Ford also played linebacker on defense. The 1928 South High Trojans won the city championship and Jerry was named the center on the All-City Team by the Grand Rapids Herald.
His fame as a football star led to a lunchtime job across the street from the school at a hamburger shack called Bill’s Place. Bill, the owner, knew that the kids would flock to the joint with Jerry working there. He was right.
Jerry injured his knee during a practice in the third week of the 1929 season, his junior year, and spent a considerable amount of time on the bench after that. After the season, a new South High teacher, Danny Rose, offered to take Jerry to the University of Michigan to have his knee examined by the athletic trainers at the college. Rose had been a star basketball player at Michigan just a year earlier. Rose was also the school’s new basketball coach and an assistant football coach.
In early 1930, Dr. Carl Badgley, a member of the U of M training staff, operated on Jerry’s knee. It was a complete success. Jerry Ford, Sr. paid for the operation.
Later that year, in his senior high school football season, Jerry was named team captain and was also named to the Grand Rapids Press All-City Team at the end of the season. The city championship came down to the last game of the season between two undefeated teams, South High and Union High. Not only was it for the city championship but it was also for a state title. The game was played in terrible, snowy conditions on Thanksgiving weekend. It ended in a scoreless tie so both schools shared the title. But soon after, it was discovered that Union had a player who had accepted money from a major league baseball team that he was expecting to sign with after he graduated from high school. This caused him to lose his amateur status and therefore, made him an ineligible player. Union had to forfeit all of their wins and therefore, South High alone became the city and state football champions.
Jerry knew that he wanted to go on to college and study law so he had been taking college prep classes during high school. His grades were just average, however. He took the entrance exams to get into Michigan State and Northwestern, but did not pass either one. The University of Michigan allowed the top 15% of students in each school in the state to qualify to take classes there, so Jerry was able to enroll at Michigan, the school that had fixed his knee and saved his football career.
In his freshman season with the Wolverines, Jerry was named the Outstanding Freshman Player. He played center at Michigan on the varsity team from 1932 to 1934. The Wolverines won back-to-back national championships in 1932 and 1933. Jerry was named Michigan's Most Valuable Player as a senior in 1934.
He went on to play in the East-West Shrine Game after his senior season. He played so well in that game that he had offers to play professionally from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Instead, after he graduated from Michigan, he took a job as an assistant football coach at Yale University, where he also enrolled in its law school.
It was not until after he graduated from Michigan in 1935 that he legally changed his name to Gerald R. Ford, Jr. in honor of the man who raised him.
In 1994, Ford’s number 48 was retired by the University of Michigan. It was un-retired in 2012 along with several others. Players who wear the un-retired numbers now also have a “Michigan Legends” patch on their uniforms with the name of the player who the number had been originally retired in honor of.
A 2011 documentary called Black and Blue contains an interview with Ford about an incident that occurred during his senior football season. Willis Ward, an African-American wide receiver on the team was at the center of a controversy prior to a game against Georgia Tech. Ward was Ford’s roommate when the team travelled to away games and a close friend. As many southern schools felt at the time, they did not want to play schools that had African-American players on their teams. Georgia Tech threatened to walk off the field if Ward played in the game. Ford was going to sit out the game as well in protest, but Ward convinced him to play. Ford took out his anger during the game and helped lead the Wolverines to a 9-2 victory.
To the world, he may only be known as the former President of the United States. But in the world of football, he was a high school star and a state champion, a college star and a two-time national champion and a college coach at an Ivy League school. That in itself would be an impressive resume for any athlete, but it is even more impressive when you realize that sports was not his only claim to fame.