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Joe Henderson: 'I Always Felt Mike Would Find A Way'

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Column from the Tampa Tribune's Joe Henderson...

'I Always Felt Mike Would Find A Way'


To the fans at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night, it was just another play in South Florida's eventual 28-13 season-opening victory against Elon - a simple, unspectacular carry by freshman running back Mike Ford. It didn't even gain a yard.

But never have statistics told such a lie as happened in that moment midway through the first quarter. No gain? Are you serious? The people who know Mike Ford best understand just how far he has come to even get on a football field. They understand what he has overcome. And more importantly, they have a good idea of what he is capable of doing from here.

"He has been down some long, winding dirt roads to get to Tampa and USF," said Bob Perkins, who was Ford's coach at Sarasota High School. "Sometimes the road less traveled and the rougher road makes you appreciate it. I always felt Mike would find a way. When somebody talks adversity, he has already been there."

His route to the USF backfield took him from Sarasota to Hargrave Military Academy, to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi, with a stop at Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he was offered a scholarship to play for the Crimson Tide that he couldn't accept because he didn't have the grades to qualify for admission.

He became a father while this was going on. And in July, his own father, Robert Ford, died in Sarasota of a heart attack. Robert, a former college wrestler, didn't learn to read until he was in his mid-40s. Some students at the USF campus in Sarasota, where Robert Ford worked in maintenance, discovered he couldn't read and offered to tutor him.

His father's determination to make a better life was on Mike's mind when things got tough.

"Anything is possible," he said. "What he did encourages and pushes me even more. To be honest, sometimes I wondered if it was all too much. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to give up. [That first game] was so exciting. It felt like a blessing, but it was reality. It was like, 'I'm back!'"

Back From The Dead

Ford was one of the best high school players to carry a football in this state. During his senior season at Sarasota in 2004, he ran for 2,836 yards and 37 touchdowns. He rushed for 200 or more yards in 11 consecutive games, including 368 against Naples Lely.

He had size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), speed and power. He could run around you. He could run over you.

"I was at Ocala Vanguard when Daunte Culpepper was a senior, and I can tell you Mike is blessed," Perkins said. "He's a big kid with big athleticism. What made Mike different is that he worked hard in practice every day. I remember Mike working on the scout team as a junior because it made it better. He'd do anything you asked him to do."

But it was never easy, starting with the minor detail that he nearly died as a child. He was maybe 5 years old when he and cousin Amarri Jackson - a USF receiver - were on a swimming trip to Lido Beach.

"He always wanted to do something crazy," Jackson said, and crazy this time meant slipping away from the adults and floating out into the Gulf of Mexico on an inner tube. There's no telling how many minutes passed before a fisherman felt a bump against his boat and reached into the water, pulling a lifeless boy out by the leg.

"They told me I was dead," Ford said. "I just know I was gone."

The paramedics went to work.

"You should have seen all the water that came out of him," Jackson said. "I remember it like it was yesterday, standing over him with the whole family. We had been looking for him for a long time. Thank God for that guy. If he hadn't been fishing, we wouldn't have Mike today."

Wanted To Quit

As effortless as he made things look on the football field, things didn't come easily in the classroom. Reading was hard - remember, it was hard for his dad, too. All the big colleges recruited him during his senior season, but when he finally made his choice - Alabama - he didn't have the grades for enrollment.

He tried Hargrave Military School in Virginia for a year after Sarasota to get his academics in order. Then it was off to the junior college in Mississippi, where the coach suggested he redshirt last season. The coach figured that because of his grades, it would take Ford three years to get out of JuCo anyway.

That was the worst. Football never seemed so far away as it did then.

"He called me for a bus ticket the first week in Mississippi," Perkins said. "I told him that if I send him anything, it won't be a bus ticket. I told him, 'I'll drive there myself and kick your butt.'"

He stayed and worked on his grades and kept the dream of playing at a big-time school. He probably would have gone to Alabama, but then Mike Shula - who had recruited him - was fired as coach. The calls started coming in again from schools who hadn't forgotten him.

USF was among those schools. Running backs coach Carl Franks recruited Ford out of high school.

"In the back of your mind you're thinking, 'I wonder if this could ever work out and he'd wind up here.' Lo and behold, it has worked out well," Franks said.

Ford said it was totally his decision to try USF. The birth of his daughter, Zhamari, was huge. Playing in Tampa allows him to be close to her in Sarasota. And the chance to play with Jackson, his cousin, was appealing.

He enrolled at USF in January as a freshman and satisfied the academic requirements of the NCAA Clearinghouse to play.

And that first game?

After being stopped on that first carry, he finished with 83 yards on six rushing attempts. He had three touchdowns - two rushing, one receiving. Saturday night he'll be introduced to a national television audience when the Bulls travel to Auburn.

Just in case USF fans had any illusion that Auburn might overlook a freshman who has been out of the game for two years, forget it.

"Auburn knows who he is," Perkins said. "Auburn recruited him heavily. They know all about him."

The story is a long way from over, but Ford has an opportunity now. After all that time seemingly lost and stuck on the back roads, the story might just end well.

"We talk about it all the time. He knows he has to get the job done now for himself and his family. He's got something to prove," Jackson said. "Mike has waited a long time for this opportunity. A lot of people wrote him off when he didn't qualify academically for Alabama. A lot of people quit on him. He has a chance to prove a lot of people wrong."


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great article.  these are the kind of public interest stories we need in the paper to get the common sports fan interested in our program.

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excellent article

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