Jesse Owens set track world on its ear 80 years ago

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Eighty years ago, one of the most impressive athletic feats in history occurred on Michigan's campus.

And it was accomplished by a Buckeye.

On May 25, 1935, track and field trailblazer Jesse Owens set three world records and tied another at the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor.

That feat is amazing enough — but Owens did all four in the span of 45 minutes.

Owens tied the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash, then had a long jump of 26 feet, 81/4 inches, ran the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds and the 220-yard low hurdles in 22.6 seconds for Ohio State.

Historians marvel at Owens' accomplishments some have called one of the best one-day achievements in sports history.

A plaque commemorates Owens' place in history at Ferry Field. It's ironic that he is honored in Ann Arbor, being from rival Ohio State.

Owens went on to further fame in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, winning four gold medals — in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 relay. That performance was credited with dispelling many of Adolph Hitler's beliefs about Aryan racial supremacy and embarrassing Hitler — so much so that he didn't stay around for all of Owens' victories.

"We certainly feel that what Jesse Owens did that day is worthy of a memorial," said documentarian Buddy Moorehouse. "I'm a Michigan graduate and I would hate to see any other Ohio State athlete ever honored on our campus, but Jesse Owens was certainly worthy of that."

Moorehouse, who made "Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Game," to highlight the integration of black players in the Michigan football program, is looking to make another film about the relationship between Owens and Ward.

In addition to excelling on the gridiron, Ward also was an accomplished track star, having beaten Owens a couple of times.

"The cool thing about the two of them was in the spring of 1935, when Willis Ward was a senior and Jesse Owens was a sophomore at Ohio State, that's the only time they ever raced against each other," Moorehouse said.

At the time, freshmen weren't allowed to compete, so the excitement about seeing Owens compete built throughout 1934 and up to his first meets as a sophomore.

"The great matchup they had was March 2, 1935 at Yost Fieldhouse during the indoor track season. They raced against each other three times and Willis Ward beat (Owens) in the first two races," Moorehouse said. "This was at a time when they thought no one was ever going to beat Jesse Owens.

"Willis Ward beat him in the 60-yard dash and the 65-yard high hurdles. They raced a third time that day in the 65-yard low hurdles and that's the one Jesse Owens won. Today, it would have been a photo finish but back then it was so close, the judges decided to give it to Jesse Owens."

Moorehouse is working with his colleague, Brian Kruger, on the new documentary, but hasn't announced a release date.

The rivalry between Ward and Owens never really reached a fever pitch because Ward had a leg injury later that year. On that historic day in Ann Arbor, Owens won the long jump and Ward finished second; Ward also won the high jump.

"The other thing that people forget was despite all the great individual efforts that Jesse Owens had, Michigan actually won the meet, pretty handily," Moorehouse said.

Moorehouse and Kruger worked, along with a young elementary school student, Genna Urbain, to get more accolades for Ward, who didn't have any commemorative street or building named after him on Michigan's campus — even Owens had a plaque.

They succeeded in 2012, getting acknowledgment at a Michigan football game and, finally, a statewide Willis Ward Day.

Michigan's Board of Regents also agreed to name one of the lounges in the Michigan Union after Ward and that lounge will be dedicated Wednesday, Moorehouse said.

45 minutes that changed track

Competing for Ohio State, Jesse Owens tied one world record and broke three others at a track meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor:

100-yard dash — tied mark at 9.4 seconds (some clocked him in 9.3)

Long jump — recorded 26 feet, 81/4 inches (breaking old mark by more than half a foot)

220-yard dash — timed in 20.3 seconds (old mark was 20.6)

220-yard low hurdles — timed in 22.6 seconds (first to break 23 seconds)