By Robert Weintraub
AUBURN, Ala. -- In this day and age of sports specialization, being a well-rounded athlete means playing some basketball when not traveling with a baseball team for ten months out of the year. That's why Auburn senior defensive end Dee Ford is so refreshing -- he is practically a Renaissance Man.
"I consider myself an artist at heart," he said recently before taking the practice field to ready himself for the upcoming BCS Championship game against Florida State. Despite all the plaudits he has earned on the gridiron (including 2013 1st team All-SEC honors), Ford has his post-football sights set on the recording studio, not the NFL.
"I have always held aspirations of becoming a professional musician," Ford said. "It's my true passion." The lineman happens to be an excellent piano player, as he proved to us skeptical media one fine Alabama summer afternoon, livening up SEC Media Days with some ivory tinkling of the first order.
"Football and music balance my life," said Ford. "I can't picture one without the other. I can never imagine not playing the piano, and I can't imagine ever not playing football."
Ford may be the most accomplished defensive lineman/piano man since Mike Reid, who was a consistent All-Pro for the Cincinnati Bengals in the early 1970s before pursuing a music career. Ford, who grew up in a musical family, began by playing drums before switching to keyboards in the eighth grade.
Since then, Ford has used the piano not merely as an outlet for his inner artiste but as a way to control his emotions, which tend to get over-amped when he dons the navy blue and burnt orange of Auburn.
"The key to playing ball at this level is calming down before you play, not getting too hyped up. In high school it was okay to get crazy, but in the SEC you can't play that way -- there is too much to pay attention to, too many mistakes that can be made… It's a fine line, and music teaches you to focus on the moment."
Ford finds music soothes him so effectively that he often plays before games, including commandeering the keyboard in the Atlanta hotel lobby the night before the SEC championship game. "I was just messing around, taking requests," he said. "I play mostly by ear, so I can switch styles and periods fairly easily. I'm slowly developing my ability to read sheet music. It's like football -- I need to further develop my abilities in order to turn professional."
Indeed, the 6'2", 240-pound Ford is on the NFL radar, considered a mid-round pick at this juncture. Ford had 8 ½ sacks and 12 ½ tackles-for-a-loss this season, seemingly all of them at crucial times. His two most noteworthy plays came in the endgame of a pair of crucial victories. And they reflected his musical style, which he describes as up-tempo with plenty of room for improvisation.
In mid-October, Ford helped secure a wild 45-41 win against Texas A&M at College Station. With 18 seconds to go in the game on fourth down and the Aggies deep in Auburn territory, Ford roared off the edge around right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to snag Johnny Manziel, who had frustrated Ford all afternoon by swerving out of danger at the last moment. Even on that last play, Manziel appeared like he would pull off one of his patented escape acts, but Ford, at last in tune with Manziel's riff, dropped him to rewrite the miracle ending.
Almost a month later, Auburn nearly tossed away its shot at the national championship when Georgia overcame a huge deficit to take a late lead on an Aaron Murray touchdown scramble. Then came the "Prayer at Jordan-Hare," when Ricardo Louis hauled in the tipped Hail Mary bomb on fourth-and-halfway-to-Mobile for the go-ahead touchdown. Ford was so overcome by the moment he says he "passed out for a few seconds on the sidelines."
But he needed to come to, post-haste, for unlike the still-to-come Alabama miracle, there was time remaining for the Bulldogs to counterpunch. Murray drove UGA back toward the Auburn goal. With three seconds to play, and the Tigers ahead by five points, Murray dropped back for one last shot. "I knew I had to make something shake," Ford recalled.
He had been so disruptive up front that the Dawgs repeatedly pulled linemen from the game, hoping to find someone to slow his pass rush. In the second half, Georgia took to a whole new gameplan, one that embraced short passes, to defuse Ford. It worked, but Ford still accrued six hurries, including a sack, and forced a fumble in the game. On the final play, Ford found another gear, even though he was near exhaustion, racing past a pair of Bulldog blockers to slam Murray as he threw the ball, causing the pigskin to land harmlessly at the ten-yard line.
Despite Ford's excellence, Auburn's defense has relied on those big, timely plays more than down-to-down competence all season (Exhibit A--the memorable Iron Bowl win over Alabama). The unit has given up over 423 yards per game, and is 95th in the nation in yards per play allowed (5.96). But the Tigers only surrendered 24 points per outing, a testimony to its ability to stiffen when needed.
Ford and his defensive mates will need to be at their best to stymie Florida State's multiple, balanced attack, led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, which put up 53 points per game and nearly eight yards per play. The Noles' offensive line is among the nation's most athletic, and the coaching staff is surely working up protection schemes centered around keeping Ford well away from Winston. But Ford believes that his team is up for the challenge.
"They haven't faced the kind of pressure we put on teams," he says. "Winston's still a freshman -- a great freshman, but a freshman. We want to make him average, and constant pressure will make any quarterback average."
Ford admitted there is work to be done before traveling to Pasadena. "We haven't played anywhere near our best game as a defense. We've had plenty of missed assignments, missed tackles, guys out of position, you name it. I don't know if (FSU) is sleeping on us or not, but they could be… We want to put it together, and when we do it will shock them."
The long stretch between the SEC championship game and the BCS version has allowed Auburn to get back to basics in practice. "It's the perfect scenario for us," Ford says. "We have a chance to break down the film, to assess why we misread plays, and to correct our mistakes."
In other words, practice, practice, practice. It may never get Ford to Carnegie Hall, but the last crystal football ever to be awarded is within his reach.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.