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Ward, Golden Bulldogs to be honored at halftime

November 01, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — On Nov. 3, 1933, a legend was born when an 18-year-old Calexico High School footballer died on a field of play.

Willis Ward, a right tackle for the golden Bulldog 11, died that night during a 12-0 home loss to El Centro High School.

As the legend goes, Ward told his worried mom before the fateful evening, the first league game of the year, "I'd rather die, mother, than miss that game."

Three weeks before the game, Ward was examined by doctors for a crack on the nose.

As this was 1930s-era football — no face guards or hard plastic helmets — a cracked nose was common.

Ward played.

During the first three quarters, Ward and the smaller Bulldogs fought El Centro to a scoreless tie.

In the fourth quarter, as time was winding down, Ward suffered a head injury at the bottom of a huge pile-up following a running play.

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He was taken from the field and died minutes later at the Kathryn Griffin Hospital in Calexico.

Doctors determined during an autopsy that Ward died from a subdural hematoma. The doctors said the crack on Ward's nose was "negligible" in his death.

In the decades that followed the on-the-field tragedy, before what was the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in Calexico, Ward's determination and moxie — his will to keep playing — would live on as grist for the motivational speeches of coaches and a source of pride for Bulldog students.

In 1957 the new football field was named after Ward and in 1997, high school administrators dedicated the last home game of the year to him as well.

This year, the "Willis Ward Game" will pit the Calexico Bulldogs against El Centro's Central Union High School.

The match-up is appropriate, according to Assistant Principal John Moreno because Central Union, formerly just El Centro High, was the first ever opponent for the Bulldogs in 1915 and the last team Ward faced.

During a halftime ceremony, Ward and the rest of the "Golden Bulldogs" will be honored.

The "Golden Bulldogs" often dominated the early Imperial Valley league, racking up 15 championships in 28 seasons.

They are called "golden" because the team wore gold and white uniforms from 1915 to 1944. New team colors, burgundy and gold, were introduced in 1945.

Ward, a transplanted Mississippian, only played half a year of football for the school.

He had transferred to Calexico the previous year but was not allowed to play football.

He did play baseball, though.

A moment during his Bulldog baseball career foretold the grit he would exhibit on the football field.

According to the Calexico Chronicle, "The young man sustained a broken left leg just below the knee last April in a game of baseball at Brawley. Instead of dropping out of the catcher's position, he played gamely on until spectators noticed his limp as he returned the ball."

Athletes from across the Valley attended Ward's funeral and he was buried next to his father in a San Diego cemetery.

A picture in the 1933 yearbook shows Ward in a crouch, decked out in his catcher's gear.

His had short wavy hair and ears that were noticeable but not too big to be made fun of.

He had a big smile.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com

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