"When I hear people bragging about powerful teens, I take it like a grain of salt. I don't impress easily. But when I first met Antonio, even I was surprised."—Joe Laurinaitis, Road Warrior Animal
Akeley, Minn. is the birthplace and home of the world's largest Paul Bunyan Statue. The kneeling Paul Bunyan is 20 feet tall. The mythic hero might be the claimed 33 feet tall, if he were standing.
Bunyan's birth was somewhat unusual, as are the births of many tall tale legends, as it took five storks to carry the infant. When he was old enough to clap and laugh, the vibration broke every window in the house. When he was seven months old, he sawed the legs off his parents' bed in the middle of the night. Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, his companion, dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. He created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of his campfire to put it out.
Coon Rapids, Minn. is the birthplace of Antonio Maurice Ford. He is hardly a giant, measuring in at just under 5'10" tall and weighing in at a chiseled 205 pounds. Town leaders say there are no plans for a statue. But that may change in five years. Ford is the top-rated running back in the prestigious Future College Athlete Association.
While Bunyan's amazing strength feats included creating the Great Lakes and the Puget Sound with his bare hands, even he would be impressed by the rare combination of speed and power the 17-year-old Ford possesses: 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, 3.9 agility, 345-pound bench press, 515-pound squat, 22 reps with 225 pounds, etc. Antonio really doesn't need a statue: his body already looks like it is carved out of Minneapolis marble.
"Antonio is an exceptional athlete, quick, sees the hole well, has a great first step burst and amazing strength for a running back." stated David Schuman, the CEO of the National Underclassman Combine.
As a sophomore, he shined at Football University (FBU), earning Top Gun honors in Virginia and an appearance at the U.S. Army All-American Combine in San Antonio, Texas.
Antonio Maurice Ford was on the fast track to becoming one of the most sought after tailback prospects in the nation - until one week into preseason drills of his junior year. His high school team was running a counter play to the left. He was stacked up a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. And even though the whistle blew, a defensive lineman unexpectedly pulled him down from behind by his shoulder pads. Antonio was bent over awkwardly.
"I heard something pop. I knew it wasn't good," Ford told me.
Doctors eventually diagnosed the injury as a third degree tear of the medial collateral ligament (MCL). Surgery was avoided. Antonio worked diligently to rehab the ailment. He was back on the field in five weeks. Probably too soon for a recovery period that usually takes two months. He missed the entire preseason, all the scrimmages and the first two games of the regular season. He felt an obligation to get back on the field for his teammates and his community.
While Ford rushed for over 900 yards in the remaining games that season, it was obvious from his film that he was never 100 percent physically.
"I was definitely favoring the knee. It restricted what I was able to do on the field, " said the soft-spoken Ford.
When Coon Rapids was eliminated from the second round of the playoffs, Antonio Maurice Ford knew that he was at a crossroads in his young playing career. Despite a physique that rivals most bodybuilders and weight lifting numbers that would shame most college lineman, he knew it wasn't enough.
"I had to rededicate myself completely," Ford proclaimed.
The already-insane training at the acclaimed Velocity Sports Performance (Champlin, MN) center where he works out would intensify. Grueling marathon sessions four to five times a week with noted trainer Bill Welle. He had to prove his knee was stronger than ever. He had to build his frame up so powerfully that he would be able to absorb the kind of shots that feature tailbacks take game in and game out.
One day, Nico Lopesio, Antonio's close friend and equally dedicated training partner from Wayzata High School, insisted that he come work out with him at a facility aptly called "The Gym." There he met a hulking brute named Joe Laurinaitis. Fans of pro wrestling know Laurinaitis as Road Warrior Animal of the famed Road Warriors tag team of the '80s and early '90s. Fans of Big Ten football know him as the Dad of Ohio State linebacking great James, who now stars for the St. Louis Rams.
When Joe Laurinaitis saw Antonio Maurice Ford manhandling incline dumbbell press weights intended for a teen twice his size, the former Legion of Doom icon was impressed. Powerlifters of such lofty status are a small union. They instantly became comrades in iron.
"I pushed Antonio to physical limits that he didn't even know he was capable of. The same level of training I used with my own son. His power numbers just soared as his body exploded. I'd tell him, 'How's that feel big boy?' He just absorbed knowledge like a sponge. And throughout it all, he was the most genuinely humble, respectful kid. That's what I admired most." Laurinaitis stated.
While weight training is certainly a key component to a football player's success, you still have to be able to perform on the field. So Ford continued attending elite-level, invite-only football camps across the nation.
Among them was the Madden IMG camp in Florida in February. It was run by former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner. All that Sunshine State speed and athleticism. How would the rebuilt Ford compare?
"I won MVP honors. It felt great. I knew I was all the way back and then some. That was the best competition I had ever gone against," Ford said.
"Tonio Ford is a total beast. We have a lot of amazing backs here in Florida. He's as good as any I've seen. He runs with power, can catch the ball and is a punishing blocker. He is the whole package, no doubt about it."
When Antonio returned to Schuman's NUC camp in early May, he simply dominated the competition, becoming the first player ever to capture overall MVP, combine king and strongest man awards. He followed that up with a eye-popping performance in Marietta, Ga. at the U.S. Under-19 Football Team Trials, an ultra-exclusive gathering of the best talent in the nation.
There is no doubt Ford is a diamond in the Minnesota backwoods. He reminds me of former UCLA All-American Maurice Jones Drew. At 5'7". Jones-Drew proved that height was a non-factor in a Pro Bowl back. His five-year stats with the Jacksonville Jaguars verify that.
Antonio Maurice Ford idolizes the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram from Alabama, the only running back taken in the first round of last month's NFL draft (New Orleans). Ingram had a knee injury his final season in Tuscaloosa. It forced him to miss playing time during the Tide's 2010 season. It also planted seeds of doubt in some pro football general managers' minds. He had to prove that he was fully recovered. Like Ford, Ingram did that through personal workouts, camps and combines.
"In two years, I see myself at a Division I program. Working hard to gain the starting tailback berth. Working on a degree in either kinesiology or business management, " said Ford.
It's hard not to like Antonio Maurice Ford. Gives new meaning to the commercial slogan, "Built Ford Tough." Could easily imagine him replacing Johnny Inkslinger as Paul Bunyan's best friend. Rummaging through the wilderness performing jaw-dropping acts of daring lore.
Could also envision him donning the wrestling tights, spiked shoulder pads and face paint as the modern version of the Road Warriors. A loyal partner flying off the top turnbuckle. More realistically, I see him earning All-American honors at the next level. A durable, every-down workhorse racking up multiple thousand-yard seasons against any competition.
The red ribbon in the seal of Minnesota's state flag states the motto, L'étoile du nord (French for "The North Star"). Antonio Maurice Ford is the L'etoile du nord of junior running backs in the FCAA. And when this star is given his college opportunity to shine, he is going to run hard with it.