One Mistake Won't Define Dee Ford

The Chiefs LB has no time for apologies about the penalty that marred his breakout season—and helped put the Pats in the Super Bowl. All that matters now is moving forward and coming back next season "even hungrier."
photo of Dan PompeiDan PompeiNFL ColumnistKansas City, Mo.February 27, 2019

With less than a minute to play in the AFC Championship Game and the Chiefs leading by four, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws a short pass to his right that's intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski. The pass is high and deflects off Gronk's fingertips, landing right in the arms of Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward.       

And that's it.

The Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl.

Except…wait, a yellow flag is on the ground, near the line of scrimmage.

"Offside, defense, No. 55," referee Clete Blakeman announces, hands on hips. "Lined up in the neutral zone. It's a five-yard penalty. Replay third down."

The boos in Arrowhead Stadium are so loud that you can feel them in the center of your chest.

Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford walks to the sideline and finds linebackers coach Mike Smith. "They said I was lined up offsides," he says, sounding incredulous. "Was I?"

Casey Baker @CaseyBake16

Dee Ford oh no 😰 https://t.co/ap4EbDWBIO

Disbelief. Confusion. Despair. He cannot remember another time in his career when he had been penalized for lining up in the neutral zone.

But this time, at the worst time, he was.

Two plays later, the Patriots would go on to score a touchdown and take a three-point lead. A Chiefs field goal would tie the score with eight seconds remaining. Then the Patriots would score a touchdown on the first possession of overtime.

It would be the Patriots going to the Super Bowl—not the Chiefs.

"I couldn't believe it," Ford says now. "It was heartbreaking.

"In games like that, it's going to come down to five or six critical plays. That was one of those critical plays, and it don't feel good. … I feel like I let the team down."

He still can't believe it. The Patriots were in their hurry-up offense, so things were moving quickly. Neither Ford nor his coaches had been warned about lining up in the neutral zone—which usually happens before a flag is thrown. And he was not lined up more than a finger's length over the line of scrimmage.

"When you are looking at it from the angle I was, you can't really tell where your head is sometimes," he says. "I was deliberately looking in at the ball. I'm sort of cocked. Sometimes you can misjudge exactly where the ball is.

"If I had backed up an inch or two, they probably never would have called it."

And the Chiefs would have been off to face the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Instead, afterward, Ford had a decision to make.

He could blame the officials.

He could be bitter and remain scarred forever.

He could try to run from it.

Or he could try to use it to make him better.

The decision he made defines Dee Ford—and reflects everything that led him to this moment.

When Ford showed up to Kansas City in 2014, all the focus was on what he could do. None of the focus was on what he could not do. At 6'2", 252 pounds, he seemed to clearly possess much more of the former than the latter.

He had put up 10.5 sacks the previous year at Auburn. At the Senior Bowl, he had been voted most valuable player. He had worked out impressively at Auburn's pro day.

But Ford had been a 4-3 defensive end in college. The Chiefs needed him to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. He had never dropped into coverage, and he didn't understand how to make a read.

Ford was behind Justin Houston, who was about to have a 22-sack season, and Tamba Hali, who, at age 30, had been rejuvenated by the competition from Ford. On a team that was coming off an 11-5 season, opportunity for a rookie would have to be earned.

Gary Gibbs is known best as Oklahoma's former head coach. He'd also coordinated defenses for Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, the Saints and the Chiefs before becoming the Chiefs' linebackers coach in 2012. He was the man charged with Ford's initial development.

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 21:  Linebackers coach Gary Gibbs of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on from the sideline during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on December 21, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers defeated the Chie
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

And that development did not go so well. He had 1.5 sacks and three solo tackles in his rookie year. Ford says every day, in meetings, Gibbs would pause the tape and ask him what he was looking at. It was evident he hadn't learned the position, never more so than on a handoff to Frank Gore in an October game. The 49ers running back carried the ball to his left, where Ford was waiting. But instead of closing on Gore, Ford turned and ran upfield, clearing a hole for the runner.

It was an embarrassing mistake at the time, but as he plays the video on his mobile device now, he just chuckles about it, explaining what nobody knew then. His only practice reps before that game had been on the scout team. And he had coverage responsibility on the tight end, who released upfield. Ford failed to recognize the tight end was releasing up to block the middle linebacker—not to catch a pass.

None of that mattered, though. The video went viral. Ford was roasted, labeled a coward.

"After that," he says, "it started to create doubt. I didn't doubt. But I could feel the building start to doubt. No one really knew I wasn't getting coached. They were just believing the s--t [Gibbs] was saying. This is not a Gary Gibbs deal. It's just the truth. Even [head coach] Andy [Reid] wasn't sure."

During Ford's exit meeting that season, he says Gibbs told him he didn't work very hard. Ford felt like he was working as hard as 11 men put together.

Those who deal in hot takes and ignorance started calling him a bust.

Not everyone was buying it, though. Then-defensive coordinator Bob Sutton remained a champion of Ford. The coach told him he knew he could do things even Houston and Hali couldn't. One night after an especially dominant practice performance by Ford, Sutton phoned him. "You play like that, I'll tell you right now you are going to be a player to reckoned with," Sutton said. "What are we going to have to do to get you to be that player?"

Hiring Smith in 2016 to be their assistant defensive line coach did the trick.

Smith, the former Ravens outside linebacker and Texas Tech defensive coordinator, saw two things when he started to watch Ford: first, that he was beaten down, and second, that he had one of the best get-offs he had ever seen.

"I'll never forget watching him at practice," says Smith, now the Packers' linebackers coach. "I'm like, This guy's a phenomenal athlete. I just couldn't get why he wasn't playing more. He clearly was one of the best players on the field and a good guy. There was just some gray area that Dee didn't understand, but I also could tell he was a quick learner."

Coaching an outside linebacker like Ford was not part of Smith's job description. But Ford bonded easily with Smith. They started working together after practice every day.

In the offseason, they had dinner together frequently. They spoke on the phone when they were away from the facility—about family, food, music and life experiences.

Ford broke out that season with 10 sacks. He now considers it his rookie year, even though it was his third.

Don Wright/Associated Press

Smith is one of the people, Ford will tell you, who changed his life. "I needed Mike five years ago," he says. "He literally laid the foundation for me, from ground zero. I needed to do it the way he did it."

Smith facilitated Ford's breakout, but it was Ford's determination that drove it. Ford was upset about how he was being perceived, and he decided to approach every practice snap like he was playing in a Super Bowl with the game on the line.

"A lot of the credit goes to Dee because of how he trained," Smith says. "He was on a mission to prove a lot of people wrong. He knew what was being said about him. Dee's a bust. He used that as fuel."

Training camp in 2017 started the way Ford had hoped: with Chiefs offensive tackles either whiffing at him or being plowed backward by him. But as the reps piled up, he began losing more and more battles. A lower back problem that had necessitated surgery in 2011 was bothering him again.

For a long time, he refused to think about giving in to the injury. But by the season opener, Ford suspected he couldn't last more than a few more games. His entire right leg often was numb. In a game against the Broncos in late October, he landed on his back and knew something was terribly wrong. It would be his last game of the season.

If you weren't around Ford all the time, you wouldn't have been able to tell how much he was hurting. He hid it well. But Amanda Hicks, who has been his girlfriend most of the time since they met in the ninth grade at St. Clair County High School in Odenville, Alabama, saw him struggle to get in and out of bed. She saw him have to go extra slow up and down stairs. She heard the moans.

When Ford visited Andrew Cordover, who performed surgery on him the first time, the discussion wasn't about how to get back on the field. "The conversation was about being able to walk," Ford says. "He was terrified of me playing again. He told me if I still wanted to play, he wasn't sure if he wanted to do surgery."

In December, Cordover relented and performed a lumbar discectomy (removal). After a few weeks of hardly being able to walk, taking pain pills and having no appetite, Ford showed up for the Chiefs' playoff game against the Titans in January.

"That was probably the darkest I've ever seen him," Smith says. "At one point, I think his weight dropped down to 215. It was hard for him. I spent a lot of time talking to him on the phone, keeping his spirits up."

It's not a natural state for Ford. "You have to understand the type of person I am," he says. "I'm super, super optimistic—probably on an unnatural level. I've always been that way. If you say I have a 10 percent chance of coming back, that's enough for me."

Before long, though, Ford's infectious enthusiasm was back, lifting others.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 28: Dee Ford #55 of the Kansas City Chiefs laughs on the sidelines prior to the game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on October 28, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
David Eulitt/Getty Images

The following offseason, Ford couldn't work out as usual or participate in practices, but he could become a rehab warrior. He could play Lumosity, an app that trains the brain for optimal reaction time. And he could follow a stringent diet that Brady might endorse.

Ford read Brady's book, The TB12 Method, and follows some of Brady's tenets. Diet, he will tell you, is the key to healing. He researches brands of bottled water in an effort to drink the cleanest, most natural water he can find. He's tried many, and at the moment is partial to CForce, which is said to come from a sustainable aquifer deep beneath Chuck Norris' Lone Wolf Ranch in Navasota, Texas.

As he walks into his suburban Kansas City home, he picks up a package of food on his doorstep left by Instacart. The same service makes deliveries, including whole coconuts, to hotels when Ford is traveling with the team. And wherever Ford goes, his Vitamix blender goes with him. He's big into liquefying his food.

A typical meal might be two chicken breasts and copious portions of kale and berries—all consumed through a straw.

He also finds intermittent fasting helpful, just so long as he hits his daily goal—whether fasting for a portion of the day or not—of at least 4,000 calories. He had a dozen eggs for breakfast before speaking to B/R. Two or three cases of spinach a day is normal. His daily routine, he says, is his obsession.

He does allow a cheat meal once a week. He and Hicks usually dine at Eddie V's Prime Seafood, and his order is the same every time. He and "his lady," as he calls her, split a jumbo lump crab cake appetizer and a kung pao calamari appetizer. And then, to the consistent amazement of waitstaff, Ford puts away the Eddie V's Tomahawk—a 34-ounce, $95 on-the-bone ribeye.

Whether it was the Tomahawk or the chicken shakes, something clicked after his surgery. In early July of last year, Ford texted Smith a video that showed the defender flipping a tire. "You could tell it was hotter than hell," says Smith, who had been promoted to outside linebackers coach in the offseason. "He had his shirt off. It said, I'm ready to go. And he was."

Despite not having the benefits of typical offseason training, Ford rushed the passer better than ever. In October, he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month. He finished the 2018 season with 13 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and seven forced fumbles. And he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 13: Dee Ford #55 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates after a sack at Arrowhead Stadium during the third quarter of the game against the San Diego Chargers on December 13, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Ge
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

"It was so great to see his work pay off," Hicks says. "We were excited and wanted to celebrate, but he kept a poker face the whole time, drinking his shakes, talking about next week."

For a man who owns 12 blenders (including five Vitamixes), 30 shaker cups, 50 cases of bottled water, 25 keyboards and eight guitars, there is a surprising absence of clutter in Ford's mind.

He sees things as they are. He laughs easily, leaves things in the past when they are best left there and trusts until he has a reason not to. "It seems like nothing ever bothers him," Hicks says. "He's one of those people. You'll always see a smile on his face. If you don't, maybe he's playing in his studio until he gets back to where he needs to be."

Ford's music studio, in the basement of his home, is an escape, the place where the noise he makes drowns out the noise from the rest of us. In his aptly named control room—surrounded by studio monitors, audio interfaces, digital audio workstations, analog hardware, acoustic panels, instruments and more—Ford is transported.

Photo by Dan Pompei

He's not a car guy. Jewelry, he gives away. He is most comfortable in sweats and a hoodie. The only extravagances in his life are the diet it takes to make his living and the equipment it takes to make his music.

Ford has been making music for most of his life. He wrote his first song, "Color Blind," when he was in the third grade. He has written many more songs and fragments of songs since.

Music is in his bones. He can have a nuanced conversation about anyone from Frank Sinatra to J. Cole. When "Let's Stay Together" plays in a Panera, Ford has to pause to soak it in. "Al Green, oh my God," he says.

Ford never was taught to read music, but he plays piano, guitar and drums. He and his family played gospel in churches when he was young. The Ford Connection, they called themselves.

Ford sits down to his baby grand almost every day, and he considers himself a jazz pianist at heart. Today, he plays "Waltz for Debby," a jazz piano number from 1956 by Bill Evans. The other day, he was working on "The Wind Cries Mary," one of Jimi Hendrix's finest, on his guitar. But he thinks he was playing it with too much tempo and needs to slow down.

Photo by Dan Pompei

Music, he is certain, has helped him become a better football player. "I play music by ear," he says. "Imagine having a whole set of songs where you are playing certain progressions. What helps to remember those songs? Photographic memory. Music has helped develop that. All these years, I didn't realize I was building my brain in different ways that a lot of people don't trigger. Now I can look at a playbook and I have a photographic memory."

Ford also attributes his unusual grip strength to playing guitar, piano and drums.

Today, he's married to football, and music is just a "platonic friend." But someday, he says, music—writing and producing—will be his livelihood.

Ford's rookie contract expires in March, six days before he turns 28. Free agency is an intriguing option. But there is something to be said, he knows, for staying in Kansas City with one of the NFL's most promising teams, a head coach he knows has his back and an MVP quarterback.

The Chiefs have a new scheme under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. In it, Ford would be a 4-3 defensive end, as he was at Auburn. He's cool with that.

And the franchise tag—which would guarantee him a one-year salary of somewhere between $15 and $17 million, depending on how he would be classified—also wouldn't bother him.

There is unfinished business here—and it really has nothing to do with his infamous play in the AFC Championship Game.

"I don't have anything to make up for, nothing to apologize for," he says. "You make mistakes in games. But I do feel I'd like to stay here. We've started something we want to continue."

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 27: Dee Ford #55 of the Kansas City Chiefs in action during the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium on January 27, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Wherever he goes, it won't be long before his home will be filled with a different kind of music—gurgles and coos. Soon there will be pink and that wonderful smell of baby. Hicks is due in April, and Alayah Kree will be her name.

Newborns are all about hope and promise—another chance to get it right.

Ford has many tomorrows to look forward to.

The night after the AFC Championship Game loss, Ford was subdued and introspective. He went straight home and didn't say much.

The next day, he walked into Smith's office at the University of Kansas' training facility, head bowed. He closed the door.

Smith: "Pick your head up. You had a hell of a season."

Ford: "Mike, I'm going to use this as fuel. I'm going to come back even hungrier. I'm going to work even harder."

His face said more than his words could have. "There was this look in his eyes," Smith says. "A lot of kids these days, it doesn't mean anything to them. But you could see what it meant to him. It was the same look I saw when he was 215 pounds. It was: I'm not going to let this bring me down. That's the kind of guy he is."

Coach Reid had a talk with Ford, too. Reid told him all of the Chiefs could have been a little better, maybe just a few inches better. And he said it's never fair to say a game came down to one play.

The words were comforting.

And then, like that, the penalty was in Ford's past. He refused to serve a lifetime sentence for one unfortunate moment.

"Look," he says, "I couldn't even walk last year."

He quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Though he says not a single person said anything negative directly to him, and he received no threats, he became a target on social media.

The Twitter handle @dee_ford was lit up.

"It's a shame you are so stupid."

"How the (bleep) do you sleep at night?"

And worse.

The Twitter handle belongs to a 47-year-old woman named Dee Ford, who lives in England.

Dee @dee_ford

You had beer and lost it would seem. https://t.co/CuWyMzNFJk

The football-playing Ford is not active on social media. He didn't see the onslaught. But friends and family relayed some of the things that were said.

"People are so mean," he says. "Even if you win the Super Bowl, you have a parade, you get rings, you talk about it for a year, and then it's over. Is that worth telling somebody they should die? No. Get out of here."

Ford and Hicks stayed home and watched the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl that could have been his. "It was hard to watch at first," he says. "We're getting tired of being close. When you get that close, being pissed off is what you need to be."

And so he is. Last season, as Ford sees it, set the bar for the rest of his career.

"He's something special, and he'll be special for a long time," Smith says. "Nobody has seen the best of Dee Ford yet, and it's coming."

Says Ford: "I've been in so many situations where I had to re-create the narrative. Now I have a full-scale offseason. I can get something going. It's very encouraging to me."

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 30: Outside linebacker Dee Ford #55 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks across the line during the first half against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/G
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Perspective comes easily to Ford these days. He knows that eventually, all the yesterdays fade. He understands the best heroes are those who have been broken.

"A lot of people really aren't failures; they just don't persevere," Ford says. "They don't take the lessons they learned from their failures. They don't make themselves better from it."

Dee Ford is lined up precisely where he should be.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@danpompei.