William Clay Ford, the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford and owner of the Detroit Lions, has died. He was 88.
Ford Motor Co. said in a statement Sunday that Ford died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Ford helped steer the family business for more than five decades. He bought one of his own, the NFL franchise in the Motor City, a half-century ago.
He was an employee and board member of the automaker for over half of its 100-year history.
To the masses in Detroit, Ford was simply the owner of the Lions who struggled to achieve success on the field despite showing his passion for winning by spending money on free agents, coaches, executives and facilities.
“In so many NFL locker rooms, if the owner is around, players put their heads down and hope not to get noticed,” former Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers receiver Johnnie Morton said Sunday in a telephone interview with the AP. “In Detroit, I noticed right away that players would go up to him to say hello. One time, I hollered, ‘Big Willie is in the house,’ when he walked in the locker room. Some guys were looking at me like I was about to get cut, but then Mr. Ford later came over and cracked up about it.
“It became my pregame ritual to call him ‘Big Willie,’ and sometimes I’d tell him, ‘If we win today, the postgame was going to be at your house tonight.’ He was just a genuine, down-to-earth, cool dude – the epitome of people from Michigan – that just happened to own a car company and the Lions.”
Ford’s first full season leading the Lions was in 1964, seven years after the franchise won the NFL title.
The lone playoff victory he enjoyed was in 1992. The Lions are the only team to go 0-16 in a season, hitting rock bottom in 2008 after he finally fired general manager Matt Millen, a Super Bowl-winning linebacker and TV analyst he hired to lead the franchise without any front-office experience.
“I wish people knew the Mr. Ford that I knew,” Millen told the AP. “He was a very, very fascinating guy who played golf with President (Dwight) Eisenhower, ran with the Rat Pack, talked to President (John) Kennedy on the phone. Talking to him was a history lesson and I absolutely loved it every time.”
Around the league
The New York Jets’ top cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, who was entering the final season of his four-year deal, was released by the team. He was scheduled to cost the Jets’ salary cap $14.98 million this season. … Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen has reportedly agreed to terms on a five-year contract to stay with the team. … Running back Rashard Mendenhall, 26, is retiring from the NFL after six seasons, all but one of them with the Pittsburgh Steelers.