Auburn's Dee Ford is no stranger to controversy

Monday February 24th, 2014

Coaches love Dee Ford's passion and quick first step, but they remain puzzled over his NFL position.
Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

It might've been the best sound bite to come out of SEC media days last July. It came not from a coach, but from a player. Not from behind a podium, but from behind a piano.

Dee Ford couldn't help himself. When he saw that baby grand sitting all by its lonesome, in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., he had to pull up a stool and tickle those keys. Before he could figure out exactly what he was playing -- some sort of jazzy riff -- a crowd gathered with smartphones in hand and started recording, as if they'd never seen a man in a suit and tie play a piano before. If the plastic cup that Ford rested on the piano lid wasn't already holding a few gulps of water, onlookers might have felt inclined to fill it with a few singles.

Then again, maybe it's best that there wasn't any tipping. You know. In case the NCAA got wind of it. An Auburn fan would shudder to think of where the team would have wound up in 2013 if Ford -- a 6-foot-2, 240-pound fifth-year senior defensive end -- hadn't been around to slip on a blue-and-orange suit each gameday. After missing the first two games of that season with a nagging knee injury, Ford became a big part of the Tigers' worst-to-first turnaround.

MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | 2014 NFL Draft Big Board | More 2014 NFL draft coverage

His 10.5 sacks trailed only Michael Sam's 11.5 for the conference lead. And unlike the Missouri end, who padded his stats against cupcake teams, Ford's production was legit. All three of his multi-sack games came against teams ranked in the top 25; four of those six sacks came against the last two Heisman Trophy winners: Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, in a 45-41 Tigers win in October; and Florida State's Jameis Winston, in a 34-31 loss in the 2014 BCS championship game.

And while that defeat stung worse than a piano fallboard slamming on his fingers, Ford couldn't let it spoil the rest of his career. He won a BCS ring as a sophomore after the 2010 season and, after dropping Winston twice in Pasadena, ended his Auburn tenure with 20.5 sacks -- good for sixth all-time.

Now the NFL figures prominently in his post-college plans. Early impressions, though, have been mixed. At the Senior Bowl coaches raved about his quick first step and passion for the game -- "It really pops out," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley gushed back in January -- but remain puzzled over his future position. At first glance, Ford seems too small to set the edge from the defensive end spot, too stiff-hipped to handle the coverage responsibilities at outside linebacker. Just when it looked like he might address some of those concerns at the NFL scouting combine on Monday, Ford pulled out of his scheduled morning workout, citing a doctor's note expressing concern over a 2011 procedure to fix a herniated disc in his lower back.

His excused absence might've gone unremarked upon if Ford hadn't dissed his biggest rival and the very people judging their competition in the same breath. On Sunday he told SiriusXM NFL Radio that South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney "plays like a blind dog in a meat market" and admonished the pro talent evaluators -- who have anointed Clowney this year's best pass-rushing prospect -- for putting too much stock in "the fact that he [Clowney] is a physical specimen. I think the NFL should have learned that by now."

Yes, Ford, projected as a borderline first-round pick before this disastrous start to the week, is already catching hell for this. Attempting to clarify his remarks to NFL Network on Monday, Ford said he was just speaking "matter-of-factly" -- which, judging from Clowney's incredulous expression when that soundbite was replayed for him on the NFLN set, might've voided Ford's attempt to smooth things over before the Gamecocks' end settled into the starting blocks for the 40-yard dash. "I just told him we'll see what happens when we get to the next level," Clowney said of Ford's botched olive branch moment, right before Clowney crossed the finish line in a blistering 4.53 seconds.

Still, it's unlikely any of this will get to Ford. One attribute he has in his favor is thick enough skin to survive at the next level. His Tigers teammates, whom he entertained with lobby piano renditions of Tyrese's "Lately" and Chick Corea's "Spain" three nights before the BCS title game, have made sure of that. "Great piano player, marginal singer" was the review from defensive tackle Nosa Eguae.

Such is life in the spotlight. "I'm just an entertainer at heart," said Ford, unwittingly channeling another pot-stirring Auburn prospect -- quarterback Cam Newton. "I love to be on stage and be performing for people, especially when you're prepared -- musically and athletically. [And] especially those times when you get those loud responses from people. When I play, I love impressing people."

Ford's run to football's biggest stage, though, could have ended before he got rolling. Given the professionalism with which Ford performs on demand now (health permitting), you'd never think there was once a time when he wasn't so great at taking requests.

* * *

Ford has always had talent, and it manifested itself in music first. For his parents, James and Debbie, that was a dream come true. Married as teenagers, they had grand visions of creating a version of the Partridge Family, but with a gospel twist. And why not? Their oldest boy, James, was playing the bass by age five; their middle child, a girl named Jasma, was a proficient keyboard player; Dee, the youngest, had evolved from a bucket-banging toddler into a hypnotic little drummer boy. And all three of 'em could sing.

They were ideal rotation players for an extended family gospel group James already had in place, the Four Connections. But once Dee transitioned from drums to the keyboard, which he picked up mostly by watching his sister, he was destined to spend his Sundays barnstorming around Alabama from one church gig to the next. For James and Debbie, who were growing up right along with their young family (which later welcomed older half brother, Labroderick), this seemed like a surefire way to ensure Dee came out a choirboy.

But Dee found plenty of trouble when the family came home from the road, back to Odenville, Ala. James and Debbie were determined to be attentive parents, but they couldn't always keep tabs on Dee while James was working as a sanitation truck driver and Debbie as a nurse. They trusted that Dee would heed their repeated orders to behave. But he was too curious, and about all the wrong things, including the gang signs some of his peers were throwing up, like a siren call. Dee began skipping classes and getting into fights just as they were.

James and Debbie, working long and extra shifts, were oblivious to Dee's misbehavior until his little sister ratted him out when he was 15. Her news flash couldn't have been timelier. Not long thereafter, Dee was fingered as part of a group that had brought a gun to school. There was talk of expulsion. Had it not been for his parents, and Dee's humble reputation in their gospel band, that talk might've turned to action. "Because he was a good boy, his teachers dealt with him," Debbie said. "His problem was he was a follower."

What he needed was another course. A familiar course. Football. Dee's first snaps had come when he was 6 on a community center team coached by his father. James, who had played quarterback and tailback in high school, taught his son how to run with the ball and how to tackle. Now, he carved out time to work with Dee outside of his JV football practices at St. Clair County High (Ala.). Dee's energy redirected, he seemed set to give himself over to the sport, which, along with basketball and the Four Connections, would keep him too busy to run off the rails.

One more fight, though, during his sophomore year at St. Clair, nearly halted all of Dee's momentum. His brother had gotten into a scrape in the stands while watching Dee play in a JV basketball game. Compelled to defend him, Dee pushed through his coach to get into the crowd. Or he tried to, anyway. The coach didn't yield, and when another -- the football team's defensive line coach, Matt Hicks, who was watching the game -- grabbed a fistful of Dee's jersey, he knew that expulsion talk would be on again. This time around, however, Dee caught two breaks: 1) Instead of being kicked out, he was sent to another public school in the area for the rest of the school year; and 2) the form he showed trying to bowl over his basketball coach impressed Hicks enough to give Dee a try at defensive end the following year. After Dee finished with 87 tackles and 12 sacks as a junior in his first varsity season, St. Clair's principal called Debbie to say her son might be a D-I prospect (and she should get a jump on prepping for his standardized tests). When she first heard the principal's voice, though, Debbie was convinced Dee was in trouble. "I had no idea what [D-I prospect] meant," she said. "All we knew is that he was a good football player. We didn't know it would lead him to college."

* * *

Still, nobody promised that football would keep him there. The jump in campus size (from an enrollment of 600 to 25,000 at Auburn) and the pressure to compete for playing time with peers who'd soon be taking snaps on Sundays quickly had Ford sliding back into some of his old habits. Like skipping class. Tracy Rocker, Auburn's defensive line coach during Ford's first two seasons, wasn't having it. He called Debbie. "He just said, 'We've got to get a grip on this. Dee's just down here taking his education for granted,'" Debbie recalled.

Rocker's resulting intervention seemed to scare Ford extra straight. He went to class. He got up at five in the morning to lift. He gave up his pizza-and-hamburger-based diet for one built largely around fresh produce and whole grains. He carried a gallon jug of water everywhere he went. Most important, he attended his classes. (In December he graduated with a degree in public administration -- making him the first member of his family to progress through a four-year college.) Suddenly Ford's days of playing in the background seemed through. He looked like a guy who wanted to lead. Discipline, once Ford's most suspect trait, had emerged as a core value.

With that as a foundation, Ford could apply all the perfectionist traits he had been developing as a self-taught musician. "Whenever I would learn a song, I would always start slow to figure it out and then play it over and over and over again until it became second nature," Ford said. "Same thing on the football field. There are certain drills where I just work on fundamentals -- like explosion, for instance. I want to have the same strength all the time and be able to find it when I need it. And that doesn't come just from playing. It comes from a more solid core." Hence the urgency to get to the gym before dawn.

That laser focus is what kept Ford fighting for a starting role on Auburn's D after he made 26 spot-duty appearances in his first two years. And it's what kept him on his grind after suffering the herniated disc injury that would limit his junior year, in 2011, to three games. He received a medical redshirt for that season, and in 2012, Ford started seven games and made 34 tackles and a team-leading six sacks -- but Auburn won only three games.

Things didn't quite come together for both Ford and the Tigers until coach Gus Malzahn returned and brought along defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who took an immediate shine to Ford. "He's playing with a lot of intensity," Johnson told reporters early in the 2013 season. "Good players like that, when they're playing hard, they're going to get their opportunities and make them count."

Playing in Auburn's old defense had been a struggle for Ford. "It was more of an NFL-type defense," he said. "It just had a lot of things in it that would take a couple years to learn. But coach Johnson just lets you play. He believes it's about the players. That's pretty much the difference."

Now, before another one of Ford's honest answers triggers a mini-controversy, consider: he had seen two coordinators come and go before Johnson settled in. Once the coach installed his system, the defense jumped from the SEC cellar to second-best in the red zone (73.1 percent conversion rate allowed). In fact, it was right in that area that Ford dropped Manziel twice to seal the Tigers' win over the Aggies in October.

Given the chance -- and, again, the benefit of health -- Ford will meet the moment. As for his knack for creating sound bites, call it a byproduct of being a dedicated musician: Some improvise. Some stick to the score. But the best all find a way to end on a good note. Time will tell if Ford earns a Sunday encore.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.