The world of business and sports alike have lost a great man. William Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions, and last remaining grandchild of the great Henry Ford, passed away late Saturday night at the age of 88.
William Clay Ford Sr. was born on March 14, 1925. Despite his young age, he served his country bravely in the navy corps during World War II. Upon returning home, he married his sweetheart Martha Park Firestone, granddaughter of the famous Harvey Firestone, in 1947. He graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Economics in 1949 and went to work for his grandfather at the Ford Motor Company. He spent some time as the head of the Continental Division at Ford, and was instrumental in the creation of one of the most iconic cars the Ford Company ever made. The Continental Mark II was released in 1955, an upgrade to the original car his father had so carefully designed.
William Ford went on to hold several posts during the 57 years he was an employee or board member of the Ford Motor Company. The most notable of these posts included chairman of the Design Committee for over thirty years, as well as Chief Executive until his retirement in 2005. He remained on the board as Director Emeritus, a post that was given to him out of honor and respect for such a great man.
The passing of William Ford not only affects the business world, but the sports world as well. Ford was the controlling owner of the Detroit Lions right up until he lost his fight with pneumonia at 88 years-old. Ford purchased the Lions for $4.5 million in 1963. Detroit was already a storied franchise during those years in the NFL, having come in to the league during the 1930s. They won four NFL Championships, the last being in 1957. When Ford bought the team, he had high hopes they would go on to win several more crowns. However, in the 50 plus years that Ford owned the Lions, they managed to win only one playoff game, and never again made it to the championship.
The Detroit Lions were not all bad under Ford. They made the playoffs six times during his ownership, five of which came in the 1990s. Many felt that Ford was too soft on his coaches and staff, often holding on too long to personnel that could not get the job done. Friends of Ford simply referred to this as a loyalty that few men possessed. In a world driven by money and winning, Ford had a softer side towards people. His faith in the men he chose to run his team was unmatched by any other owner in professional sports.
Players and coaches alike have fond memories of the great Lions owner. Many recall how often he would come to the locker room before games and talk to the players, offering encouragement and advice. After the game he would meet with his head coach, who would break down the game for him. Ford never interfered in his coach’s decision, but always wanted to be in the loop. He cared about the Lions and their fans, and just wanted to do right by them.
William Ford also had several accomplishments outside the sports and business arena. In 1966, he funded the William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine. The center was a part of the Henry Ford Hospital, and remains to this day a leading authority in sports medicine and research. He spent 32 years as the chairman for the Henry Ford Museum, in honor of his grandfather. Ford also had a love for children, and his contributions earned him a spot as a national trustee for the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America.
The Detroit Lions, as well as the rest of the world, lost a great man when William Ford passed away on Saturday night. His wife Martha, and his four children Martha, Sheila, Bill Jr. and Elizabeth, survive to continue the legacy of the Ford family. Though his death will be mourned across the United States, his contributions to so many people will remain as a living testament to a man whose heart was bigger than Ford field.
Commentary by Chris Chisam