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William Exum '36
(1910, Rock Island, Illinois - 1988, Frankfort, Kentucky), Football 1929, 1934; Track and Field 1930, 1935-1936
William Exum was the first African-American to wear a varsity football uniform for the University of Wisconsin, and the first black inter-collegiate athlete at Wisconsin since Olympian George Poage in 1904. After leaving Madison, he enjoyed a long career as a successful and highly-respected track coach.
Exum was born in 1910 in Illinois, probably in Rock Island, where his father worked in a factory. The family subsequently moved to Gary, Indiana, which he noted as his hometown throughout his career at Wisconsin. Exum entered the University in 1928, and he immediately took part in extra-curricular activities joining the freshman football and track squads. William Exum on the 1929 football team (Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives (24-1-1 XV7))
He began his inter-collegiate career in the 1929-30 school year when he tried out for the football and track teams. In the fall, Exum was a running back candidate, and the student newspaper approvingly noted his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. His season was abruptly cut short, however, when the faculty ruled that he was academically ineligible.
The Daily Cardinal, told its readers the story: "Bill Exum, the only colored man on the Badger football squad for some years was announced ineligible. Exum has been showing up well as a halfback in the practices this season and was one of the outstanding halfbacks among the squad members. He possessed speed and ability, especially in catching passes, that marked him as an eminent gridiron possibility."
Exum improved his grades enough to join the varsity track team the following spring, and he made an immediate impact as a member of the four-man mile relay team.
After his sophomore year, however, Exum left school for four years to live back in Gary. He did not return to Madison until the 1934-35 school year, but he picked up right where he had left off, re-joining the football and track teams. In the fall, "the colored backfield flash," as the Cardinal called him, was again fighting for a spot in the Badger backfield. Exum kept his grades up, but this time an ankle injury conspired to keep him out of the lineup. The hobbled Exum fought his way back to earn a berth as the starting halfback in practice but a re-injured ankle ended his football career.
He encountered more success on the cinder track, reclaiming his spot on the varsity track squad. He competed in the both the low and high hurdles and was a regular point-winner for the Badgers, earning three varsity letters during his career.
Exum recovered from his early academic troubles to graduate in four years with the class of 1936. He earned his degree in physical education, and he put it to immediate use with coaching jobs at Bethune-Cookman in Florida and at a YMCA in Chicago.
He found his calling, however, in 1949, when Kentucky State University, an historically black school in Frankfort, Kentucky, hired him to head up their Physical Education Department. In addition to his academic duties, Exum served as Kentucky State's athletic director, and he coached several of the school's sports teams.
In 1964, he directed KSU's men's cross country team to the NCAA Division II national championship. A nationally recognized track coach, Exum later served as the manager of the United States Olympic Track and Field team at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. In recognition of his accomplishments, the National Association of College Directors of Athletics inducted Exum into its Hall of Fame in 1978.
He continued his duties at Kentucky State until he retired in 1980 and then lived in Frankfort until his death in 1988. To honor their long-time professor, coach, and administrator, Kentucky State opened the William Exum Athletic Center in 1994.
Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin