Football is never far from John Dorsey’s mind, especially on a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
So for fun, the Chiefs’ general manager loves to flip through the multitude of college games on television, just in case a prospect catches his eye.
On Oct. 13, 2013, Dorsey settled on Auburn at Texas A&M. The Aggies were led by superstar quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the longer Dorsey watched, the more he noticed No. 30 in white, who sacked Manziel twice on a crucial final drive as Auburn won 45-41.
“When he had to make a play, he made a play,” Dorsey said. “And that’s when I said, ‘This guy is a pretty good player.’ ”
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Seven months later, Dorsey stood next to that player, Dee Ford, who was holding up a red jersey with his name on the back while sporting a fresh, high-top fade befitting his status as the Chiefs’ newest first-round draft pick.
But after months and months of scouting the 6-foot-2, 243-pounder from Odenville, Ala., Dorsey also knew that the Chiefs were getting so much more than a pass rusher with rare acceleration. A beloved son and brother. A piano player with a vivacious personality and passion for music, football and most importantly, family.
They are Ford’s backbone, the people who have been with him every step of the way, from high school — when he was part of his family’s traveling gospel band, the Ford Connection — to college, when he was forced to mature before he could emerge as a pass-rushing terror as a senior.
“Dee being a first-round pick, it means the world to me,” said Ford’s mother, Debbie, while fighting back tears. “I’ve been thinking about it, we’ve prayed about it and we’ve spoken about it. He’s had some challenges, some stumbling blocks.
“But he made it, and I can’t tell you how much that means.”
Roughly a week into training camp, Dee Ford looked a tad haggard as he spoke in a tent that offered a brief respite from the blazing sun at Missouri Western. His high-top fade, so pristine on draft day, had grown unkempt, as had his perfectly manicured goatee.
Ford’s first camp was clearly weighing on him.
“My mama is mad at me because I’m not even talking to her,” Ford said with a wry grin. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m grown now. I can’t talk to you every day.’ ”
Though he is the spitting image of his father, James, there’s little doubt where Ford gets his outgoing personality from.
“I like people,” Debbie said.
But the man with the easy grin and the cocksure attitude to boast he was better than No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney was once a shy child who first found his voice through music, then football.
Debbie said young Dee used to play the drums on five-gallon buckets at home.
“He would set them all around him with two drumsticks,” Debbie said. “You could hear it all over the neighborhood.”
Ford picked up the piano when he turned 12, performed his first concert in eighth grade and teamed up with his mother, father, two siblings and two cousins and performed in nearby churches as the Ford Connection on Sundays. He also performed in a R&B group called Potential, with his brother, James Jr., and a few others.
“Through the music, it was basically a bonding thing,” said James Jr., 26.
But by the time Dee was a senior at St. Clair County High School, he was also making noise on the field. He’d grown into a three-star outside linebacker with scholarship offers from Auburn, Clemson, Mississippi State and Troy, and both of his parents made sure they never missed a game.
“I always wanted to be behind my kids,” said James, who played running back in high school. “I knew how it felt to have somebody that comes around every once in a while. But somebody that comes all the time? I knew they would look forward to it.”
Meanwhile, Dee’s mother saw growth on and off the field.
“He started doing the music and hanging around other people and playing high school football,” Debbie said. “That’s when he started being a leader and coming out more and having more friends and being the talkative guy.”
Ford continued his love affair with music in college by playing the piano on Sundays at Auburn’s New Generation Baptist Church. He even once held an impromptu piano session in front of reporters and fans at SEC Media Days.
“Music is kind of like my vent just to get away,” Ford said. “You know, my refuge, just to settle in and get away from everything.”
As Ford headed off to college after picking Auburn, Debbie and James made sure their son was always close.
“They say I tend to worry (too much), but I am a mom,” Debbie said. “I’m going to have the friend’s phone number, the mother’s phone number, everybody’s phone number because I’m gonna be able to get ahold of you.”
Dee doesn’t necessarily remember it this way, but Debbie said his first two years at Auburn — which was only two hours away from Odenville — were tough.
“He’s a mama’s boy and he wanted to come home every day,” Debbie said. “I was talking to him every day and telling him you’ve got to adjust because you’ve got goals.”
Ford always believed he could go to the NFL, and he played from the moment he stepped on campus, despite weighing only 205 pounds as a freshman.
“He wanted to be there,” James said. “But he had a lot of work he had to do.”
Particularly when it came to being responsible. Ford says he didn’t always go to class his first two years, a problem that reached a personal crescendo when he played little in Auburn’s win over Oregon in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
“I think that taught him a lesson and he wanted to do better,” Debbie said. “It hurt him that he could not play in that spotlight.”
So Ford had to better manage his time. And any time he needed a reminder, Debbie was ready to give it to him.
“He straightened up after that,” James Jr. said with a laugh.
Ford faced another challenge as a junior in 2011, when a back injury forced him to redshirt. But after a bounce-back six-sack season in 2012, he led the Tigers with 10 1/2 sacks and an appearance in the 2014 national title game against Florida State.
The Tigers lost 34-31, but Ford again showed a knack for playing on the big stage. He was a terror for the Tigers, with two sacks and a Pro Football Focus grade of plus-6.8, the highest of any player on any team.
The performance catapulted him into the first-round conversation for May’s draft, but Ford was equally proud of the way he’d matured at Auburn.
“You start to learn that when you’re handling business away from football, it makes football so easy,” Ford said. “But if you’re not handling those things, then your mind is everywhere. You’re not really thinking about the game.”
Predictably, Ford credits his family — which made the 29-hour drive from Odenville to Pasadena, Calif.
“I don’t know how it feels to not have them there,” Ford said. “Maybe I’m spoiled … they’ve just been around, every game.”
In the aftermath of his first NFL game, Dee Ford was drained, yet pleased, as he sat at his locker.
He played a team-high 54 snaps in the Chiefs’ preseason opener against the Bengals, which was by design. Ford has already shown an effective speed rush with his trademark dip-and-rip move, but NFL offensive linemen will quickly catch on to that, so for him, the preseason will be about working on counters.
“His strength right now is speed, so he’s got a lot to develop as far as alternative moves,” Chiefs linebackers coach Gary Gibbs said. “But he’s a hard worker and a gifted athlete, so over time, those things will develop.”
There were signs of it against the Bengals. Ford, who recorded two tackles and two quarterback hurries, used his dip-and-rip to record one of the hurries, but got the other by flattening third-team right tackle Chandler Burden with a nasty bull rush.
“I have it in my arsenal, you know? I have it in my arsenal,” Ford said with his trademark grin. “Don’t sleep on it.”
Still, it was surely just the first tent post on Ford’s journey toward becoming the impact player Dorsey envisions.
And given their knack for being around for big moments, it’s no surprise that roughly 15 members of the Ford family were in attendance.
“Man, the whole family is here,” Ford said. “They’re going to run me crazy. I’m going to try to go to sleep, but they’re going run me crazy.”
The family support Ford has received his entire life won’t be going anywhere just because he’s a professional football player. And to be honest, he would have it no other way.
“Man, I’m gonna talk her head off tonight,” Ford said of his mom. “I’m gonna give her about another week’s worth. Then it’s back to football.”