This is a graduation story. That’s the way Josh Ford wants it. Forget football for a second. Forget the opportunity that awaits, a Hail Mary of an NFL chance for a former junior-college receiver who had just nine catches in his Kansas career.
Forget the NFL opportunity that will come from the Atlanta Falcons after the dust settled from the three-day NFL Draft.
“I’m trying to balance it out,” Ford says, “but I’m really focusing on graduating.
“I’m definitely more excited for this than the whole football, NFL thing.”
As Ford sits on the Kansas campus after two seasons on the football team,this
is an opportunity to walk down Mount Oread next Saturday and get his college degree. He’ll be the first person in his family to finish college, he says. His mother, Cynette, will probably cry. So will older sister Letisha, maybe older brother Marion.
Josh just might cry, too.
“He’s my miracle child,” Cynette says.
Six years ago, he was a high school junior starting his 12th school in 11 years. He had been kicked out of two high schools; he would watch eight friends become victims of gun violence by his 19th birthday; his family was often on the move around the Washington D.C. area, pushed out of numerous homes after they couldn’t pay rent.
“I was always getting into fights,” Ford says now. “That was just me doing stupid mistakes, just me being mad at my family for not being stable. I just went through one stage where I was mad at the world.”
It all feels like a lifetime ago.
Now, Ford is set to graduate from Kansas with a degree in the liberal arts. He would like to coach someday, and the degree could open doors at the high school or college level, wherever he ends up.
But before that, comes a new possibility. In the months after a disappointing final season at Kansas, Ford began hearing from some NFL teams. They saw his 6-foot-3 frame, and his solid speed and athleticism. They saw the way he played on special teams, like a maniac, blocking punts and making tackles.
“Special teams really is just effort,” Ford says. “Some people just don’t take it as serious as offense or defense.”
Ford signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons after going undrafted Saturday. But this is a graduation story. And like all stories, this one needs a beginning.
Football was not the savior. Josh Ford doesn’t see it like that at least. That would be the easy story — clean, neat and familiar.Football saves a lost kid from the streets.
It’s been told many times.
But that’s only part of it. Football, Ford says, was more of the structure. His turnaround really began with the people in his life. His mother, his siblings, two mentors and youth football coaches: Tony Little and Dimitri Lee.
“I feared letting them down and my family down more than myself,” Ford says.
When he arrived at Coolidge High School as a junior, he was on his fifth high school. He had gone to five elementary schools and two middle schools, shuffling in and out before he could make lasting relationships.
“My dad wasn’t around, so I didn’t have many role models,” Ford says. “So I started hanging out with my boys. My ninth- and 10th- grade years, the only reason I switched schools was because I got kicked out.”
He had grown up playing football for Little and Lee in the Palmer Park area, and he had elite speed on the track. But by his junior year, he hadn’t managed to stick on a high school football team. Too much change.
“The family moved more than any family I’ve seen,” Lee says. “It felt like every three months.”
By his junior year, Ford says, he started to mature. The fights in the neighborhood were starting to turn too violent. Ford says he started to realize what was important. And the football program at Coolidge would serve as an engine for growth.
“I didn’t want this life for me and my family,” Ford says. “I figured I had to find a way out.”
Football gave him a reason to care about school. Some success in the classroom gave him motivation to try harder. He got a 2.0 that first semester during his junior year, and it felt like straight A’s.
“It was the environment he was in,” Lee says. “When he started hanging with football players who were doing the right thing, getting good grades, and trying to be successful, he wanted that, too.”
The future is coming fast, but for now Ford is still focused on today.
After high school, he landed at Arizona Western Community College. He hauled in 78 catches in two years, getting a Division I scholarship to Kansas. The statistics and on-field success never quite came at KU. The Jayhawks suffered through two quiet years on offense, and the program lost 20 games in two years.
But Ford established a niche on special teams. He took it seriously, setting a goal on each play. He wanted to score. If he was on kickoff return, that meant setting the perfect block. If he was in coverage, that meant ripping the ball away from the returner. He blocked three punts in two seasons.
This is what caught the eye of NFL scouts. After Kansas’ pro day, he took calls from the Packers and Texans. He heard other teams might be interested, too. He talked to some former KU teammates who had also gone the free-agent route, Toben Opurum and Bradley McDougald.
“Once you get there, it’s really on you,” Ford says. “There’s really no secret on staying on the roster.”
Ford is ready to give football a go. But for now, he’s focused on his school. He’s still around six hours short of graduation, and he’ll stick around this summer to finish up. But he’s still close enough to walk in next Saturday’s ceremony at Memorial Stadium.
“This is something new,” Cynette Ford says. “There’s really no words … it just brings our family a lot of joy to push Josh along.”
Six years ago, Cynette didn’t see this day coming. She was a single mother, and her youngest son was struggling. Now he’s graduating and getting an NFL chance, chasing two dreams in the same week.
“It’s amazing just because I’m the first person in my family to graduate,” Ford says. “It’s a big thing for me, it’s a big thing for my family.
“Football is not necessarily second. But my primary focus is graduating.”