KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Football is never far from John Dorsey’s mind, even on a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
So for fun, the Chiefs’ general manager loves to flip through the multitude of college games on the television, just in case a prospect catches his eye.
On Oct. 13, 2013, Dorsey settled on Auburn’s road test at Texas A&M. The Aggies were led by a superstar in quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the longer Dorsey watched, the more he noticed No. 30 in white, who eventually sacked Manziel twice on a crucial final drive to seal a 45-41 Auburn win.
“He was coming off the ball,” Dorsey recalled, “but when he had to make a play, he made a play. And that’s when I said, ‘This guy is a pretty good player.’”
So it was on that date that Dorsey filed away the name of the No. 30 in white — Dee Ford — for the future.
Seven months later, Dorsey stood next to 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 — and touted him as a young pass-rusher with rare acceleration, bend and big-game chops.
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. 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 ones that have been with him every step of the way, from his days in high school — when he was a part of his family’s traveling gospel band called the “Ford Connection” — to his days in college, when he was forced to mature and overcome some bad habits before he could emerge as a pass-rushing terror as a senior.
“Dee being a first-round pick, it means the world to me,” Ford’s mother, Debbie, said 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 addressed the media in a tent that offered a brief respite from the blazing sun at Missouri Western. His high-top fade, so pristine during his introductory news conference, had grown unkempt, as had his perfectly-manicured goatee.
Ford’s first camp was clearly weighing on him, the grind of it all a tad overwhelming. And what’s more, his mother was on his case.
“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.’”
Ford, however, knew her harping has always come from a good place. Though he is the spitting imagine of his father, James, there’s little doubt where Ford — who once held an impromptu piano session in front of reporters and fans at SEC media days last July — gets his outgoing personality from.
“He gets the energy and enthusiasm from me — his dad’s kind of quiet,” Debbie said. “I like people, and he gets that from me.”
But for all of Dee’s charisma — the easy grin, the cocksure attitude (he once boasted he was a better pass-rusher than 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney) — both Debbie and James said he was once a shy child who first found his voice through music, then football.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. As a young child, Debbie said 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.”
Dee picked up the piano when he turned 12, performed his first concert in eighth grade and would team up with his mother, father, two siblings and two cousins and perform in nearby churches as the Ford Connection on Sundays.
“Through the music, it was basically a bonding thing,” said Ford’s brother, James Jr., 26.
But by the time he was a senior at St. Clair County High School, Dee was also making noise on the field. He’d grown into a three-star outside linebacker with offers from Auburn, Clemson, Mississippi State and Troy, and both of his parents made sure they never missed a game.
“I got (parental) support but it wasn’t like that, (so) 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 in their son, both 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.”
Dee continued his love affair with music in college by playing the piano on Sundays at Auburn’s New Generation Baptist Church. It was his release, he said, his refuge.
And early on, it certainly came in handy, as he had his challenges with living away from home. Still, Debbie and James made sure their son was always within reaching distance.
“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 a hold 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 — weren’t without their bumps in the road.
“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.”
Dee always believed he would go to the NFL, and he played from the moment he stepped on campus, despite weighing only 205 pounds as a freshman — a testament to his talent in a meat-grinder like the Southeastern Conference.
“He wanted to be there,” James said. “I don’t want to say he was homesick, but he had a lot of work he had to do.”
Particularly when it came to being responsible. Dee admits 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 national championship Game.
“He’d gotten in trouble about going to class all the time,” Debbie said. “I think that taught him a lesson and he wanted to do better. It hurt him that he could not play in that spotlight.”
So Dee had to start managing his time better. And any time he needed a reminder, Debbie — who was only a phone call or a short drive away — was ready to give it to him.
“He straightened up after that,” James Jr. said with a laugh. “Yeah, she fusses about everything so she was gonna be on him about that.”
Dee faced another challenge as a junior in 2011, when a back injury forced him to redshirt. But after a bounceback 2012 season, in which he racked up six sacks, he broke out as a senior in 2013, leading the Tigers with 10 1/2 sacks and an appearance in the national championship game against Florida State.
The Tigers lost 34-31, but Ford again showed that knack for playing on the big stage that Dorsey first spotted against Texas A&M last fall. He was a terror for the Tigers, racking up 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 Dee was equally proud of the way he’d matured during his time 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., for the championship game — for assisting him through his five-year stint at Auburn.
“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, Ford was drained, yet pleased, as he sat at his locker.
He played a team-high 54 snaps in the 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 linebacker 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 also recorded 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 Chiefs general manager John Dorsey envisions him being.
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 to witness it.
“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.”
But before he goes to sleep, you can bet he’ll talk to his mom. Debbie has a lot she needs to get caught up on, you know, because the familial support Dee has received his entire life won’t be going anywhere just because he’s now a professional football player.
And to be honest, Dee would have it no other way.
“Man, I’m gonna talk her head off tonight,” Ford said with a grin. “I’m gonna give her about another week’s worth. Then it’s back to football.”