*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations
AUBURN, Ala. - Dee Ford thought he'd gone too far. A promising athletic career might have ended before it really even started.
A sophomore at St. Clair County High School, Ford was in the gymnasium when he saw another student trying to fight his brother. He raced to help, but head basketball coach Bernard Bozeman, an imposing and intimidating figure, stepped in to stop him.
"He was trying to keep me out of it," Ford says. "He pushed me, and I pushed him real hard, which was insane because he is huge. The look he had on his face was like `So you are going to push me?'"
That's when defensive line coach Matt Hicks grabbed Ford from behind. "Son," he said, "what are you thinking?" Ford backed away, but he knew it wouldn't end there. Ford had already been in trouble at two previous schools - Clay County and Oxford. And he knew he was in trouble again.
What Ford didn't know was that he'd reached a turning point in his life, one that would lead him to become a high school football star and eventually to Auburn, where he became a force at defensive end and a leader with a work ethic that bordered on legendary with his teammates and even his coaches.
It was hard to see that far ahead when he was told he would be sent to an alternative school.
"They sent me to alternative school instead of kicking me out of school," Ford says. "You can't put your hands on a teacher. My mama had to drive me 20 minutes away every day. Those were some long, long rides."
During those long days, Ford began to think about what he wanted in his life. Bozeman let Ford return to the basketball team. And today, Ford counts him among his close friends.
"Once I did start to straighten up, I was still a con artist," Ford says, laughing. "I would talk you to death. Everybody knew I was full of it. Every coach knows I'm full of it. I like to have fun. I started to get in touch with that person. I've always been that person, but I started kind of maturing with it and embracing it."
Ford says it shouldn't have been surprising that he found himself in trouble. He'd been walking on the edge of trouble for a long time.
"When you are a kid, that's what you want to do," Ford says. "You want to do crazy stuff, fight, be hard, impress girls. I fought. I got jumped a lot. I didn't talk like I do now. I made a drastic change sitting in alternative school."
It was, Ford says, Hicks and his ever-patient parents, Robert and Debbie Ford, who played the largest roles in helping him turn in the right direction.
"Coach Hicks is definitely one of the pivotal people in my life," Ford says. "That is my second daddy. He put me at d-end on the scout team just to see what I could do. They started to like it, and I liked it. I became this relentless person off the edge. No one could stop me. From then on, I took off."
As junior, Ford started to receive interest from college recruiters. One of those was Terry Price, the defensive ends coach on Tommy Tuberville's Auburn staff. It was Price who convinced Ford that Auburn was the place for him. By the time Ford arrived, Tuberville had been replaced by Gene Chizik. Ford's last season will be Gus Malzahn's first as head coach.
Hicks, who still coaches the defensive line at St. Clair County, says he saw something special in Ford from the start.
"You can't coach effort," Hicks says. "You can't coach work ethic. Dee had that. He's very kind to give me any praise, but it was all him. He was a typical kid, mischievous. But he was just a big kid. We try to steer all of them in the right direction."
Even before he was known for his athletic ability, Ford was known for his musical talent. He played the drums when he was young and learned to play the piano when he was 12. He displayed that talent in church almost every Sunday. Even as he heads toward the opportunity of a lifetime in the NFL, music is as important as ever in his life. He still plays on Sundays when asked and plays keyboard in a band called Good Doctor that also includes his two older brothers.
"My parents were so patient with me," Ford says. "I definitely got disciplined, so that helped. Growing up in the church helped. I had been out doing some crazy things, so when I came to college it was nothing I hadn't seen before. That's why it was easy for me to settle. It's unique because I've been in the church and seen it all at the same time. I've seen both worlds."
James Ford, who coached his three sons in middle school football, says he never doubted Dee would be a good football player, though even he didn't know how good. And he never doubted he would be a good man.
"He had maturity issues," James Ford says. "I don't remember anything bad. Well, he and my daughter accidentally set the house on fire one time. He was real quiet, and he always got into stuff. I think college mellowed him as far as a young man. Watching him mature since he's been at Auburn has been very rewarding."
At Auburn, Ford experienced the best of times and worst of times. He played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2009 and played a significant role as a sophomore on the 2010 national championship team. His 2011 season was wiped out after three games by a back injury that might have been career-threatening for one who didn't work so hard. In 2012, he experienced the sheer misery of a 3-9 record that brought Malzahn and a new coaching staff to town. In 2013, he became a star and helped lead the way to a second appearance in the BCS Championship Game. And he didn’t stop there.
The best pass rusher in the SEC with 10 ½ sacks and 17 quarterback hurries, Ford has been the defensive star of practice for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. NFL scouts and coaches have taken note.
"Once you are losing in this league, life changes," Ford says. "People begin to anticipate losing their jobs and moving and possibly not having a job, so the pressure comes on the players. It's different. It's totally different. When they start to say it's just a game, no, it's not just a game when you are losing. It becomes very real at that point."
So miserable was it in 2012 that, when it was over, Ford gave serious thought to passing up his fifth year and moving on to the NFL. He abandoned those thoughts when a new coaching staff came to town.
Through it all, Ford hasn't changed. It's been his mission to work always harder, and those close to him and Auburn football say that mission has been a success. There were times when Ford, not satisfied that he was doing enough, went after practice to a local gym to do more. It started when he was in high school.
"I used to work out at 5 in the morning, eat breakfast, lift weights during the day and practice," Ford says. "There were times when Coach would tell me, `It's game day. Do not come in here and lift weights.' My work ethic, I don't know where it came from. I really don't know. It sort of came from music, because I was doing the same thing in music, always getting better at something. My daddy really put that in me."
Malzahn, Ford says, made it clear from the first team meeting that there would be little patience for those whose decisions led to trouble for themselves and embarrassment for the program.
"Malzahn is a no-nonsense guy," Ford says. "He came in and told us what to expect. It was the nicest way I've heard anybody say `Your first screwup you are gone.' You had to believe him, and respect it. He's not joking. He really cares about his players. We sit around a table and have senior meetings. We speak to him and he communicates with us. We just feel the heart of the coaches.”
Long before Auburn began to climb in the polls, Ford saw the possibility of special days ahead.
"I definitely think once we come together and play as one, bring our talents together instead of being all over the place, we will be a force to be reckoned with throughout the year," Ford said last summer. "There is no doubt I am going into every game believing we can win it."
He believed that right up until Auburn finally lost to Florida State in the final seconds of the BCS Championship Game.
"I didn't really feel like I do now until I changed my mentality," Ford says. "It takes living it every day. Then that started to become me. You can't just wake up one day and say `I want to be great.' Everybody wants to be great. There came a time in my life when the dream wasn't enough."