Earlier this year, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan announced the creation of a new rivalry game between the two institutions. This Saturday, the Wildcats and Wolverines will battle for possession of the George Jewett Trophy, the first rivalry game trophy named for a Black player in the history of college football. But who exactly is George Jewett, and why have we never heard of him before?
Jewett was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI and enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1890 after being named valedictorian at Ann Arbor High, where he was a standout in track, football and baseball. Jewett also spoke four languages — English, German, Italian and French — and was the captain of his high school debate team.
Jewett’s academic and athletic excellence continued during his college career. He played fullback and halfback for the Wolverines, becoming the first African-American to play football in the Big Ten Conference. He contributed on special teams as Michigan’s kicker as well, all while studying medicine.
A testament to the term “student-athlete,” Jewett played a significant role in the famous game played in 1892 between Michigan and an Oberlin College team coached by John Heisman (yes, who the award is named after). Jewett scored four touchdowns in that game, including an unopposed 45-yard touchdown run after Oberlin thought time had been called and the players had left the field claiming victory. Heisman would later refer to Jewett as a “superior athlete”.
He also took part in the first game ever played between Michigan and Northwestern on October 29, 1892 in Chicago. In that game, Jewett kicked a field goal and led Michigan’s play on both offense and defense. Despite his effort in all three facets, Northwestern prevailed 10–8.
After a reported run-in with the dean of the medical school, Jewett left Michigan for Northwestern before the following academic year to earn his medical degree. He quickly became a phenom in Evanston. When Jewett suited up for his first game, he became the first Black man to play for the Northwestern Purple (the “Wildcat” mascot was not adopted until 1924). In the second iteration of the Northwestern-Michigan rivalry, Jewett scored Northwestern’s only touchdown in a 72-6 loss to Michigan during the 1893 season.
After graduating, Jewett would go on to practice medicine in the Chicago area before moving back to Ann Arbor in 1900. He died unexpectedly in 1908 at the age of 38.
The George Jewett Trophy will become the 16th rivalry game trophy in the Big Ten, and will only add to the storied history between these two teams. Northwestern and Michigan have shared the Big Ten title on five separate occasions, most recently in 2000, the season that featured one of the greatest games in Wildcat history — a 54-51 comeback win against the Wolverines under the lights at Ryan Field.
Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said in his Monday press conference that Northwestern is “honored to have an opportunity to compete for the Jewett trophy and honor his legacy.” The Michigan athletic department announced they are expecting about 16 members of the Jewett family in The Big House on Saturday.
No matter the outcome of Saturday’s game, it will be a special day as a trailblazer and pioneer of the sport is honored on one of college football’s biggest stages.