From Pritchardville to Super Bowl.
That’s the dream for Khylo, one of Seahawks defensive tackle Poona Ford's closest childhood friends.
Ford smiles and laughs when I mention the tweet.
“You've done some research, huh?” he joked later on.
That informal research revealed a few things about the soft-spoken rising star. Ford is proud of his South Carolina roots, he loves crab and grits, and, if you’re into horoscopes, he’s a Scorpio man with a complex duality.
Sweet and considerate, yet harsh and cruel - it's an apt way to think about Seattle's fourth-year defender on the brink of full-blown stardom. Ford is a friendly guy with a big smile that brims ear to ear, but he demonstrated cruelty against opposing offensive lines all season long.
Ford punished the opposition on the field this season, earning Pro Football Focus' sixth-highest rank amongst defensive tackles with at least 600 defensive snaps, coming in behind only Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner, Cameron Hayward, and Jeffrey Simmons.
Donald, Buckner, Hayward, and Simmons were all first-round picks. Jones was a second-round pick. With the exception of Simmons, all five players have been selected to at least two Pro Bowls and been selected to at least one All-Pro team.
To the contrary, Ford was not draft and somehow didn't even receive an invite to the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.
While every player faces obstacles and the doubts of others, Ford arguably faced the most of these six in his young NFL career. First and second-round picks are supported, endorsed, believed in. Undrafted free agents aren’t invested in by the draft establishment, often because they’re sized up by scouts who only think about size. It’s hard to believe talents such as Doug Baldwin, Austin Ekeler, and other future NFL stars were underestimated due to their height, athletic traits, and/or the school they played at. But they were. Ford checked off the first box at only 5-foot-11.
It’s something that stuck with Ford, so much so that it’s his pinned tweet on Twitter. With quiet humor, he shrugged at the notion that he was “too short” - short or not, he won the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award at Texas in 2017. He knows what he can do, but he's the type of player who lets his play due the talking.
"Everything they told me I couldn't do, it motivated me even more to prove them wrong," Ford says.
But throughout his NFL journey, there’s always been support from home. All the way from southernmost South Carolina, Ford’s westward journey has been guided by coaches who saw the quick, studious talent that he was.
Hilton Head High School coach BJ Payne advocated on his behalf. Planning to study under prolific linebacker coach Charlie Strong, Ford initially committed to University of Louisville, eventually de-committing and attending Texas just to learn from Strong. Strong and his eventual successor Tom Herman supported him as a Longhorn throughout his time at the school. And with the Seahawks, defensive line coach Clint Hurtt made a world of difference by telling the kid he happened to meet while coaching at Louisville to take a chance and join him in the Pacific Northwest.
The Seahawks are known for drawing talent out of underdogs, whether it's undrafted free agents or players seeking second or third chances. Josh Gordon has been given time and grace in respect for yet-untapped talent despite multiple suspensions. Seattle was one of few teams to consider Colin Kaepernick. Pete Carroll and John Schneider have eyes for talent and although they didn’t draft Ford, he remained on their radar and eventually signed with the team shortly after the draft concluded.
Calling him “smart” and “instinctual," Carroll has given Ford more and more playing time over his three years with the organization, culminating in an impressive 2020 campaign that caught the eye of the entire league.
Now that a trying season for all players amid the COVID-19 pandemic has come to a close, Ford anticipates an offseason full of reflection, growth, family reunions, and home-cooked meals - he just left Seattle to see his coastal family back home this past weekend. He looks forward to working on his game amid ongoing restrictions, but for now, his heart is set on reuniting with those who have always had his back.
"I feel like everybody always knew, but actually seeing it, it's inspiring," Ford says when reflecting on his journey.
Prichardville to Super Bowl.
While he hasn't quite fulfilled the second part of that mission yet, for everyone who's ever known Ford and witnessed his rise to the NFL, nobody is about to doubt him.
Rooted in Football and History
Kaylon “Poona” Ford has loved football ever since he can remember.
When asked about his first football memory, he shared an early glimpse of that relentless determination for a spot on the team.
"My first memory?" Ford repeats, thinking back all those years ago. "That I played football when I was six when the age limit was seven."
So what did he do?
"I played!" he answers with a grin. "I wanted to play football, you know? I mean, I didn't really know because my first year, I came late, I signed up late. It was like little league, it was a little league football team. Yeah, the Hilton Head Gators."
Born in 1995 in Beaufort, South Carolina, Ford has always called South Carolina’s Low Country home. Ford’s roots into LowCo’s sandy marshes runs deep: he is a descendant of South Carolina’s Gullah-Geechee community, a truly unique African diasporic community in the Americas.
Brought to the U.S. from Angola and other West African nations during the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Gullah community was comprised of West African slaves and their descendants. An amalgamation of distinct tribes and ethnicities, the original Gullah shared one critical skill: they were skilled rice farmers, targeted and captured by Southern plantation owners for their knowledge of the cash crop.
Their knowledge of tidal irrigation and successful cultivation yielded such bountiful crop that the area soon became known as the “Rice Coast." But the environment that created this rice also drove plantation owners away, allowing the Rice Coast to become a black-majority region that was able to preserve African culture and traditions unlike any other.
Mosquitos played a major role in shaping Gullah history. While white plantation owners were vulnerable to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever, Africans had an immunity to such diseases, protecting them in marshy rice fields. The white plantation owners soon began to travel inland during rainy months, entrusting their crops to European and African overseers.
Because of this unique situation and the continued arrival of more enslaved Africans, the Gullah community was able to preserve their culture, language, and traditions in a way most New World slaves were unable to. Gullah sweetgrass baskets are nearly identical to traditional coil baskets crafted by the Wolof people of Senegal. Gullah “red rice” is similar to the Wolof’s jollof rice, a traditional dish that remains a popular staple in West Africa. And like the creole languages found throughout the Caribbean, the Gullah people have their own distinct creole language, which borrows words from English and several different African languages.
When his Gullah roots are mentioned, Poona nods accordingly and smiles.
"Being Gullah?" he responds when asked what he can share about the community's identity. "A lot of people don't understand the language. I don't speak it as good as my momma and my grandma and them do, but it's really interesting, and I advise everyone to do some research about Gullah heritage and about the Geechee language and stuff like that and just do some research. You'll be intrigued."
"I'm about to go to Charleston, too," he smiles, revealing some hopeful offseason plans. "Them boys Geechee down out there."
Hilton Head Island normally hosts a Gullah Festival in February, but COVID restrictions make this year's event uncertain. When the festival is mentioned, Ford lights up at the thought of attending. While he has never been there before, he shares that the festival is renowned for its food offerings.
"I hope so, because I always miss it, and I'm gonna go."
His mother and grandmother also know how to make the best Gullah dishes - Grandma’s conch stew is his favorite.
Ford plans to put that historical pride into action soon enough. When asked about how he hoped to live in the legacy of Black leaders he admires like Dr. King and Muhammad Ali, he admits that he’s working on his own project for his community.
"I just try to give back to my people," he says. "I've been trying to keep it under wraps, but I've got something brewing up for back home. It's going to be fun."
Mysterious as ever, all he reveals is that he’ll post about his project on social media in the near future.
Nearly every NFL player finds a way to give back to underserved communities - and Ford has been working with his local Boys and Girls Club - but the opportunity to give back to his community is rather unique. Throughout the past century, the Gullah community has championed for U.N. recognition, linguistic preservation, and land rights. To be able to give back to his community with his platform is a rare treasure - especially for an undrafted free agent. But what was going to stop a six-year old who could hang tough with the seven-year olds on the gridiron?
Inexplicably Missed Pick
After his six-year old debut, Ford played football every year until middle school. He played all the way through his elementary years and eventually returned to the field at Hilton Head High School to play just about every position.
In high school, coaches often find a way to keep exceptional talents on the field, asking them to play both sides of the ball in different capacities. Ford never seemed to leave the field - in his pre-college career, he played offensive line, defensive line, and even fullback. He even spent his entire sophomore season as the middle linebacker. Watch out, Bobby Wagner.
If fans ever see Ford line up at fullback for an Eric Fisher-style trick play, it’s safe to say the backfield will be in sure hands.
Ultimately, Ford was deemed best as a defensive tackle his junior year by coach Payne, garnering a standout reputation and a 93 overall player rating from 247 Sports.
"He made me put my hand in the dirt," Ford says of that junior year assignment given to him by Payne. "He was like, 'You're gonna play 3-tech for me.'"
During his senior season, Poona fielded offers from several of the nation's best football programs, including Ohio State, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Oregon, and Ole Miss. Ford committed to the Louisville to work with Strong, who then accepted the head coaching gig at Texas.
Strong built relationships in South Carolina as the defensive coordinator for the South Carolina Gamecocks, as his defensive scheme and personality generated buzz for a run as the SEC's first Black coach. Strong and his wife, who is white, firmly believe that race and their interracial marriage played a role in undeserving snubs as he pursued such a position.
When Strong finally got a head coaching job at Louisville in 2009, he had spent two decades scouting, training, and propelling high school athletes into college and NFL stars. In 2013, he set his sights on Ford, eventually taking him along as he took a new head coaching position at Texas. Ford de-committed from Louisville, officially committing to the Longhorns nearly seven years ago in February 2014.
As if choosing the right school among elite Division I programs wasn't challenging enough, Ford faced a trial that even transcended his NFL dreams. His senior year was also the year his mother, Tomeka, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ford remembers what it was like watching her go through that, sitting by her side as she endured chemotherapy.
"My mom got cancer around my senior season in high school and it was really just... It was really unexpected, number one, and I didn't really know how to handle it, honestly," Ford said. "I would just try to always be there for her. When she would go through chemo, I would just be in there, sitting with her, and we would just be talking and stuff. It just motivated me more to achieve my goals and just be successful for her."
Calling her his "why," Ford has taken every opportunity to support her cause through his NFL platform. In December 2019, Ford dedicated his #mycausemycleats to his mother, sporting pink-and-black cleats with her name, the charity of choice (The National Breast Cancer Foundation), and the all-caps rallying cry, "FIGHT CANCER." A year later, Ford partnered with For Bare Feet to design custom sock for their #32Teams32Socks campaign. On a Seattle blue-green pattern, Ford's jersey number lies on one side; his mother's name and a breast cancer ribbon lies on the other.
The courage of his mother, the support of South Carolinian coaches, and his raw talent propelled him onward to Texas in 2014. When my Seahawk Maven colleague Hannah Hoover mentioned she is from Texas during our interview, Ford immediately threw up his hand in trademark fashion and flashed a smile. He made a new home in Central Texas, playing alongside future Ravens safety Deshon Elliot and Chargers linebacker Malik Jefferson.
"Those are my boys," Ford replies. "Brotherhood."
Through his time at Texas, Ford developed under the tutelage of Strong and others, proving to be a wrecking ball destroying Big 12 offensive lines. In his freshman season, Ford only played in seven games with nine total tackles and one tackle for loss, but his production picked up with each season. Totaling 39 tackles his sophomore year and 54 his junior year, Ford's best year came in his senior season. Ford recorded 31 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, earning him the aforementioned Defensive Lineman of the Year award in the conference.
Yet somehow, to the surprise of everyone who's ever known him, Ford wasn't invited to the combine. 52 linemen were invited, but somehow the best lineman in the Big 12 conference wasn't on the list.
Texas coach Tom Herman captured the bizarre snub perfectly, saying, “Why Poona Ford wasn’t invited to the combine, I’ll never know."
Longtime NFL Draft analyst and current Raiders GM Mike Mayock agreed that this was a costly miss, one that may have happened because Ford played out his senior season rather than opting for the draft as a junior.
“Here’s what I think about Poona Ford,” Mayock said back in 2018. “A, he should have been invited to the combine. The Big 12 defensive lineman of the year, productive, tough. I think what’s happening is that so many juniors are coming out this year, they’re holding spots for juniors and kicking some of the seniors out. But there’s no doubt he should have been invited to the combine.”
Then and now, Ford doesn't have much to say about the people who doubted him at this critical juncture.
“I’m used to being at a disadvantage,” Ford said in response to the snub. “I’m a strong person, and I use that to my advantage. God don’t give his biggest battles to the weakest person.”
Ford got through that difficult time by simply taking it one day at a time, ensuring he would be ready for the call whenever it came.
"It's really just your mentality and how you approach every day as far as what can you do to get better," Ford added. "Just keep on bettering yourself, as far as what you can do for preparation."
After three years with the Seahawks, Ford admits that he's seen negative things posted about him on Twitter, choosing not to elaborate at length what was said and by whom. The NFL video game franchise Madden slighted him as well, assigning Ford a lowly 75 overall rating.
"It wasn't ever to my face," Ford says when asked if anyone has told him "no" directly. "I heard, but you see stuff on Twitter and stuff. I don't even know what was said, but I just knew it was being talked about."
Ford swats at the criticism as one would a pestering gnat, because that's exactly what these critiques have become: a tiny, inconsequential flitter against a powerful body of work. When the tape speaks for itself, there's no need for Ford to answer back.
"I was like, 'I'm just gonna play football,'" Ford laughs. "That's all I can do, honestly. That's all you can do, just keep playing. That's what they say. 'Play through the bad down, play through the good down,' just keep playing."
Seattle's Quick Study
The talent that falls into Seattle's lap is rather remarkable. Rather, it's the talent (or "grit," as Carroll and Schneider like to say) that escapes the eyes of others that somehow comes into clear view of that sharp Seahawks gaze.
In 2019, every single NFL team had the opportunity to draft DK Metcalf in the first round. The Patriots, who were in desperate need of a wide receiver, chose N'Keal Harry instead. Who others dismissed became a Pacific Northwest treasure and a budding superstar. Ole Miss instructor Mike Azlin couldn't believe Metcalf fell in the draft. Still, he went in the second round.
Going undrafted, Ford was yet another underestimated talent who would find his way to Seattle and rapidly become a key contributor.
The endless, grueling hours that it takes to lead to this momentous point - the hopeful beginning of an NFL career - is impossible to encapsulate in words. Ford gave everything he had to push through Hilton Head, through Texas, to get to the league in the spring of 2018. And here he was, waiting on a call.
He finally got the call in May 2018 with, as Field Gulls eloquently put it, the "The-Draft-Is-Over-You-Idiots Pick" of the 2018 draft. Here, Kenneth Arthur shared just how many scouts were shocked Ford fell to free agency, how similar Jarran Reed and Ford are in build (they would end up becoming close friends and teammates), and just how slim a chance any NFL player has at holding one of a handful of starting spots.
The only reason Ford fell is truly something as superficial and, quite frankly, overrated as height. Here is the 2014 announcement that Ford would play for Texas, per Arthur:
"The only thing holding Ford back from being a high four-star prospect is his height. However, height matters as little for defensive tackles as any position, as long as they are right about in the six foot range, as Ford is, because leverage is such an important consideration in the trenches – winning the leverage battle often determines which linemen wins the overall battle along the line of scrimmage."
Fortunately for everyone involved, Seattle saw what Mayock, Herman, Strong, Payne, and countless others saw: Ford needed, at the very least, a shot to compete for an NFL roster spot. He explained what the process was while the Seahawks considered him.
"After my Pro Day, I only had one [Top 30 invitation], and that's the only team that invited me to fly out," Ford said of the Seahawks. "That's when I found out Clint Hurtt was the [defensive] line coach, and we go kinda way back because he recruited me while I was in high school when he was at Louisville. On Draft Day, I didn't get a phone call that I was drafted and what not, but [Hurtt] called me and told me and encouraged me to come to Seattle and that everything would work out. I trusted his word, and I haven't really looked back since."
Securing a roster spot wasn't easy for the incoming undrafted rookie, but Ford made sure he found a way to stay on the team.
"I knew coming in undrafted, you're a rookie too, you're going to have to earn the respect of your teammates, and you're going to have to show that you know your assignments from plays and stuff like that," Ford says. "You're going to have to just earn the trust, really. All that I tried to do every day was come in, work hard... I don't really say much, but I know how to play football."
Looking back now, Ford's status as a 2021 starter is pretty much a given. Back then, he only had two months to prove himself just to land a backup spot on the 53-man roster.
"I did all I could do to show them that I deserved it. Every practice, from OTAs up into training camp and preseason, up until the kickoff of the first game of the regular season."
Back in August 2018, The Athletic deemed Ford "a hidden gem" amongst Seattle's undrafted free agents crew, arguing his deservedness of a roster spot. This was after two preseason games. Like his college career, since then, Ford's numbers have only increased with each passing year, as has the spotlight surrounding him.
In 2018, Ford played 11 games with a single start as a rookie. He finished with 21 combined tackles, three tackles for a loss, and two quarterback hits.
In 2019, Ford played 15 games with 14 starts. He finished with 32 combined tackles, five tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, and 0.5 sacks.
Then in 2020, Ford started all 16 games alongside Reed. He finished with 40 combined tackles, eight tackles for a loss, nine quarterback hits, and 2.0 sacks. He also racked up 28 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, continuing to evolve as a complete player. Still, through it all, Ford has remained down-to-earth.
"I'm not surprised," Ford said when asked about his NFL success thus far. "That's all I can say. I'm not surprised, but there's still more work that needs to be done, and that's my goal this offseason, to sharpen up my game even more."
People from Ford's hometown have commended him for that, but when asked about how he manages to stay humble when he's finally getting that attention, he shrugged. Ford stays grounded, even in conversation, even when others are praising hard-won recognition.
"Humble?" he muses after being asked how he remains so in light of an incredible season. "I don't know, I try not to put too much thought into it, I just try to stay the same person. I always call [friends] and stuff, I talk to them every day and we just talk. We always just reminisce and... I don't know, there's just something about friends and family that helps me keep peace mentally."
As he says repeatedly, he just lets the tape speak for itself.
But Ford doesn't only let his own tape speak to others — he gets better every year by letting the tape speak to him. Like every smart, instinctual, competitive player in this league, he studies film extensively, giving him the ultimate advantage against opponents.
In a sense, defenses are always at a slight disadvantage. They are tasked with stopping the momentum of an offense, forcing short yards, incompletions and, in the best cases, a turnover. Gridiron chess relies more on reads and football knowledge than physical talent, really - a 6-foot-5 receiver is rendered useless if he runs the wrong route or, worse, a predictable one.
The "undersized," underestimated Ford has used this to his advantage, which is why he's been getting more tackles, pressures and sacks as the years go on. His favorite film study moment this season came in the deafening 40-3 blowout win against the Jets in Week 14. He explained how he saw something in real time on a sideline tablet that he used from his 3-tech position to burst into the backfield and tackle Jets running back Frank Gore for a loss.
"It was a play in the Jets game... It wasn't really film, it was just kind of common sense, honestly. We went over it on the sideline, he did exactly what [the coach] just told me. He was like, 'If you get a motion into the boundary, the ball is coming to you. So, loosen up a little bit, and get off the ball, go make [tackle for a loss], and that's what I did versus the Jets and I tackled Frank Gore for a loss."
"I feel like that was a good one because that was my first on-field one," Ford said of the observation. "Like, during the game, you know how we go to the sideline, we look at the Windows tablet or whatever, and that's what we saw, so that's why I thought it was pretty cool. And then that next drive, we killed it."
"Studying film helps a lot," Ford continued. "I feel like each season, I get more and more comfortable with just seeing everything as far as formation, the stances of o-linemen, just stuff like that."
Talking film is the most animated Ford got during our interview. When the spotlight shines on his success, his hardship, or what charitable work he does for his community, Ford offers concise responses. But when the attention is refocused to his mother, his two Southern homes, or the new home he's made in Seattle, he elaborates on the details. What he does and doesn't say tells an incredible amount about the kind of person and player Poona Ford is.
Following a crushing end to a record-breaking year with a 30-20 wild card round loss to the Rams, Ford stayed behind in Seattle while some of his teammates apparently journeyed down to Cabo to kick off the offseason. Instead, he joined us online from his couch, relaxing in a grey sweatshirt and folded black beanie. He wore two thin gold chains, with the longer chain culminating in a diamond-encrusted lightning bolt pendant. It's the perfect balance of relaxed glitz that few have mastered as well during a year of constant video calls.
He may not have been in Cabo, but an offseason break is still a break indeed. After being forced to stay in Seattle all season long, Ford is more than ready for a journey back home.
When asked what he missed most about home as an NFL player, Ford was quick to say that it's his family and friends.
Ford hoped to traveled to South Carolina this past Saturday for the first time in several months. Like every American who lives far from family, COVID restrictions separated him from his loved ones, making the gauntlet that is an NFL season even more grueling. Rather than post-game hugs or bye-week visits, Ford kept in touch through video calls from one coast to another.
"At first, it messed everything up." Ford explained. "I had plans to have my family and friends come out here this season to support me. It wasn't really that hard, but it messed everything up. As far as adjusting to it, it was a little bit annoying at first, but once you got in the groove of everything, it went a lot smoother."
Although coping became easier with time and the presence of his teammates and coaches helped, Ford missed his family a great deal this season.
"I just missed being around them every day," Ford says poignantly. "I missed my mom, my grandma, my little brother, all my nieces. I just tried to FaceTime them so they could see my face and so I could hear their voices and stuff."
Like Austin, TX, Ford has found a way to make Seattle his home in its own right. Although Seattle is bigger with "more of a city feel," he says it wasn't too hard to get adjusted to his new environment. However, making second and third homes in Texas and Washington is the last thing he could have imagined.
"In my entire life, growing up, there's two states I would have never thought I would have set foot in, and that was Texas and Washington," he says. "But really, what made me feel comfortable and at home was my teammates. People I'm around every day, they just made me feel more and more comfortable about being out there and being far away from home."
Ford has developed a close bond with many of his teammates, especially the one he lines up alongside in Reed. When asked which player he's connected with the most, Ford gives credit to his entire team.
"Everybody, honestly," he commented. "Everyone that came in that I was able to talk to for a couple seconds. I feel like every one of them has given me some good advice. I just listen and do what they said, honestly."
When they weren't combining for sacks and tackles, Ford and Reed hung out with their teammates as much as players could amid COVID restrictions. While it was admittedly a challenge to team-building in 2020, it's obvious that Seattle's defense found a way to connect.
"You're going to have to come together outside of football too to build that chemistry as well," Ford said. "I feel like that plays a big part of it."
This season, the Seahawks were barely able to build that chemistry early on, relying on group FaceTime sessions "just talking about nothing" in order to bond with one another off the field. They also spent time in the locker rooms talking - six feet apart, of course. This may be why the early-season defense appeared disconnected. The end of the season was entirely different, as they gave up less than 16 points per game over the final eight games.
"Everything was starting to come together as a whole defense at the right time going into the later season and heading into playoffs," Ford said of that later-season defensive surge. "I don't know what it was, I guess it was just everybody flipped that switch in their head, you know, like, 'We've got all the pieces we need to be a Top 5 defense,' so let's start preparing, let's start practicing, and let's start playing like it."
Whenever Ford did feel a little homesick, comfort food was never too far away. His favorite place in Seattle is The Comfort Zone, a soul food spot that Ford proudly mentions is a Black-owned business.
"That's where I go when I want that back-home-feeling food," Ford smiled.
In a year when racial injustice was centered at the premiere of the NFL season rather than sidelined as it was in 2016, Ford showed his support by wearing a black t-shirt stating "We Want Justice" before every game. His helmet carried Breonna Taylor's name all season.
Once he leaves Seattle, Ford plans on keeping touch with his fellow defensive linemen virtually, working out in small, safe position groups as they did late last offseason. In the meantime, he'll continue to work on his game mentally.
"Just keep working my craft, get back with Cliff [Avril], and just keep working on my pass rush and just d-line fundamentals and stuff. Just stay on top of that and keep sharpening them up."
His biggest takeaway from an outstanding 2020 season is something everyone should keep in mind for upcoming Madden ratings, future Pro Football Focus ratings, and possibly All-Pro voters.
"I may play nose, but I can get some sacks, too," he grins. "That's how I feel, like... I can get some sacks. I felt like, this year, I left some out there a little bit, but that's why I'm going to work on my craft some more and then we're going to come back next season and run the tables."
What does the first NFL offseason look like amidst a global pandemic? Once players are home, most likely the same as usual. There will be a little film study to increase sack totals once again next year, a bit of NBA2K, potentially some golf, and perhaps a rewatching his favorite movie. And maybe, if the world becomes a little safer, there could be a Gullah festival and some partying with those Charleston Geechee boys.
It's not hard to imagine Ford enjoying his first taste of home in months, but it is impossible to imagine it without a bowl of Grandma's conch stew.