A couple hours before the Chiefs headed to CenturyLink Field, Justin Houston walked down the hallway of the team’s Seattle hotel in search of a blender to fix a pregame shake.
He stopped when he came to Dee Ford’s room and knocked.
When Ford opened the door and let him in, Houston found what he was looking for. And a whole lot more.
Yes, there there was a blender. There were also coconuts, leafy greens and berries.
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And a knife.
“I didn’t know he had all that other stuff in there,” Houston said with a chuckle. “It was my first time seeing that.”
While Houston dumped the ingredients of his soon-to-be shake into the blender his teammate brings everywhere, Ford, 27, picked up a coconut and the knife. With the same strategy he’s used all season, he deftly cracked open one of the brown, hairy orbs. And then he showed Houston how to do the same with another.
Then the pair poured the liquid contents into a couple of cups and drank it.
“He was only there to use my blender,” Ford said. “He blended up his stuff, and I showed him the coconuts, and before you know it, we’re opening coconuts.”
Everything Ford does is intentional, and this was no exception. Known for clean eating, Ford purposely added the tropical fruit to his pregame snacks that weekend because coconuts provide extra hydration. And because he read Tom Brady’s book recently and the New England quarterback recommended them.
“He’s very big on coconuts, too,” Ford said. “Coconuts, not coconut water. It’s different.”
Ford’s been health conscious since he was a teenager. But now, healthy eating isn’t just a fun hobby. For Ford, who missed the final games of the 2017 season with a back injury, his diet has been the difference between an early retirement and a 2018 Pro Bowl season.
“At this point in my career, for any of us, you survive with your diet,” Ford said. “With your working out and your diet and your habits, that’s how you survive. I’ve been playing football for a long time. So that’s the only way you survive, especially the past five years.”
The road back
To solely credit Ford’s diet as being the thing that got him to this place, to the divisional round of the playoffs after completing the best regular season of his NFL career, would be unfair.
It would discount all of the hours of hard work and rehabilitation that went into his recovery from back surgery in January 2018.
But, Ford said, the role his diet played was undeniably important.
“Things happen that you can’t control, but your ability to bounce back from those things is so crucial,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been able to come back from every surgery that I’ve had. And really improve from before the surgery.”
Placed on injured reserve in December 2017 after playing in just six games that year, Ford had surgery in the offseason and needed close to six months to recover.
Following that curtailed season, Ford played in all 16 regular-season games this year — his first complete season since his rookie year — and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. He registered 55 tackles (42 solo) in the regular season, but more impressively, he recorded a career-high 13 sacks to best his old record of 10 in 2016.
And after missing last year’s playoff game, Ford will be a crucial piece of a defensive game plan designed to thwart an imposing Indianapolis Colts offensive line that gives up the fewest sacks in the NFL.
This year wasn’t the first time Ford had to work through a back injury. In 2011, Ford had to take a medical redshirt after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in his lower back.
Each time he’s had surgery, Ford has recovered to come back stronger. After the 2011 surgery, Ford closed out his Auburn career with 16 1/2 sacks and 25 quarterback hurries over his final two seasons.
“It all works hand-in-hand,” he said. “It just so happens that our job is to be healthy and have energy and be efficient. That’s our job. The more that you can understand how to get those things going, how to execute that, what you need to do, the better off you’re going to be. The healthier you’re going to be. The better you’re going to feel. It helps everything wholesale as far as my approach.
“My thoughts are always clearer. I always have energy. I have ups and downs, but most of them are ups. I know what to do to get back. And it does, it ties into my health.”
Like Houston, fellow Chiefs pass rusher Chris Jones first found out about Ford’s eating habits when he walked into his room earlier this season.
Entering Ford’s dorm room at training camp in St. Joseph in late July, Jones quickly saw that Ford’s stockpile of snacks was a little different from the food he had stored in his own room.
“You know a guy like me, I have a couple snacks here and there, couple bags of potato chips, like 12 or 13,” Jones said. “Dee had like 30 bottles of veggie milk or something like that. I’m like, ‘Dee, it’s gonna spoil. It’s gonna spoil.’ He was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna drink it before it spoils.’
“Dee does some weird stuff.”
Away from camp, Jones still sees Ford eating and drinking things he’d rather avoid, like a cup of spinach, nuts and water for breakfast.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Jones said. “But me personally, I have to have a variety of things. I see him walking around here with all that weird stuff.’
Though some of his teammates have been slow to catch on to Ford’s diet, it’s something he first started working on when he was a scrawny 10th grader in Odenville, Alabama.
Back then, Ford was a far cry from the 6-2, 252-pound physical specimen he is today. He wanted to bulk up, but he wanted to do it the right way.
“My thing was,” he said, “I didn’t want to get fat.”
So he read dozens of books and consulted bodybuilders before deciding to supplement his diet with health shakes.
“In high school, it wasn’t as efficient as I was now,” he said. “I was pretty much eating what I could get my hands on. I got more healthier toward college. I drank a lot of water. I understood vegetables and all of that.”
Once he got to Auburn, Ford worked with the football staff’s strength and conditioning coaches to devise a more streamlined plan to help him maintain his optimum weight.
As he got older, Ford got his diet down to a science. He consumes small meals when he’s at the Chiefs’ practice facility, mainly sticking to shakes and other small snacks designed to give him a healthy dose of energy.
“I’m moving when I’m here,” Ford said. “You don’t want to eat big meals. You won’t be able to function. I pretty much have timed things up.”
He saves those big meals for home, combining food like chicken and sweet potatoes or rice for dinners of protein and complex carbs.
His diet doesn’t stop when he goes on the road. That’s why he gets groceries delivered to his hotel rooms for away games and why he brings his blender with him everywhere.
“He brings his own blender, his own tools,” Houston said. “I’m telling you, you’d think he’s moving, the bags he travels with. It’s like three big bags.”
Ford admits he strays from his regimen from time to time — and maybe even a little more often than that.
“I cheat all the time,” he said. “I cheat more than I should.”
His favorite weakness? Fried chicken.
“I love fried chicken,” Ford said. “Right now, it’s J’s Fish and Chicken out here. It’s dope. Like crack dope.”
It’s all about moderation, balancing the health food with the fun food, Ford said. He eats the cheat meals toward the beginning of the week before getting back on track to fuel up for the weekend’s game.
“I just know what to do to get back,” he said. “I’m still human. I still have cravings. I’m not looking forward to eating spinach and nuts and all type of stuff. I have what I like, too.”
Ford has plans to pass along his diet and lifestyle tips with a book in the future — and it won’t be targeted to any one demographic.
“It won’t be just for athletics,” Ford said of his book. “You should eat this way to live. And I’m not telling you to not cheat. But burgers every day, it’s no better way to put it. You eat what you want to, but understand that you need to balance it out and have moderation. Because you can’t make spinach taste like fried chicken. You’re going to have your cravings.
“Just understanding there’s a balance and understanding how to stay active and you know, keep your body — your body is an engine. Just want to learn how to keep that thing going so you don’t break down. You don’t have to age.”
Earlier this week, Ford strutted around the locker room before practice clutching a giant bottle of water.
With days to go until the Colts arrived at Arrowhead, the outside linebacker was already fueling up for the weekend. Like every other week, he’ll settle on his pregame snacks and meals after the final practice before the game and then either make a grocery store run or have the food brought to him through InstaCart, a grocery delivery service.
He might elect to go with berries or spinach or even Swiss chard. And, of course, there will be coconuts.
But because the No. 1 seeded Chiefs have homefield advantage, Ford won’t be packing his knives or have the coconuts waiting on him Friday night.
“I don’t have to do it at the hotel,” he said. “I can do it at home now.”