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(1926, Memphis, Tennessee - 1975, Milwaukee), Football, 1949-1951
Madison's own Ed Withers, a three-year varsity football letter-winner, was one of the first African-Americans to earn a regular starting berth for the Badgers. A graduate of Madison's old Central High School, he was a member of the UW's legendary 1951 "hard rocks defense," and he was the first black Badger to earn All-American honors, a feat he accomplished in both his junior and senior years.
Withers was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1926 but moved soon after and grew up in Madison. At Central High, Withers, nicknamed "Pops" by his teammates, was an all-city performer in both football and basketball. He also participated on the track team, placing second in the broad jump and third in the high hurdles at the 1944 State High School Track and Field Championships. Ed Withers with his son, Ed III, in 1951 (Source: UW Sports Information)
After 1944, however, his high school athletic career was cut short by the draft. Inducted into the Army, Withers served in the occupational army on the Korean peninsula for a year. Upon his return to the States, he received his diploma from Central High and soon enrolled in the University of Wisconsin.
He starred on the freshman football team in 1947, but, in readjusting to academic life from the Army, Withers had some scholastics problems and was ineligible the next year. The speedy 5-11, 190 pound Withers returned to the field in 1949 and immediately won a starting spot as a defensive halfback; a position he would keep for three years.
Withers attracted national attention with a strong season in 1950. Against the University of Iowa that year, Withers intercepted three passes - the second-most in school history - in a 14-0 victory. He returned one interception for a touchdown and set up Wisconsin's other TD with his second pick of the game. Withers' heroics helped the Badgers to a 6-3 record that year.
For his efforts, he received elections to three different post-season All-American teams, including the prestigious Look Magazine/Football Writers' Association of America team, selected in conjunction with legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice.
One All-American voter wrote that "with Ed Withers in the secondary, coaches opposing Wisconsin instructed their quarterback to pass sparingly. [He] was such a fashionable ball-hawk that just about the only time he got the body contact he likes is when he was tackled after intercepting."
Withers, who studied Physical Education, had more responsibilities than the average-college student. Married to his high school sweetheart, he supported his son, Ed III while he was in college.
Despite the busy workload, he maintained his high performance in his senior year. An integral part of the "hard rocks defense," Withers helped lead Wisconsin to a 7-1-1 record and a share of the Big Ten title in 1951. For the season, UW's top-ranked defense actually outscored its opponents 58-53. Withers repeated as an All-American in '51 and finished his career with eight interceptions and a national reputation.
After Withers graduated in 1952, the Green Bay Packers selected him in the NFL draft. His NFL-career was short-lived, however, as the Packers waived him near the end of training camp.
Moving to Milwaukee, Withers worked as a teacher and coach at Roosevelt and North Division High Schools. After teaching for several years he switched to a long career in the insurance business. Withers died in Milwaukee in 1975 at the age of 48.
During his freshman year in college, Withers, like all Badger athletes, filled out a questionnaire for the U.W. Sports-News service. Fittingly, when asked to list his greatest sports thrill, Withers wrote simply: "defense."
Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin