'He'd be astounded': Stories about his father inspire Lions' Mike Ford
Allen Park — This week, Americans will honor their fathers.
School children will construct handmade cards and crafts, while weekends will be filled with barbecues, golf clubs, fishing poles, or maybe just a lazy afternoon on the couch.
Detroit Lions cornerback Mike Ford doesn't need a Sunday in June to put his father front and center. Dad is never far from his mind, and every time Ford steps on the football field, he taps his right arm, where he has an elaborate tattoo dedicated to the man who helped give him life.
The design is layered. In the background is an American flag, topped by his father's name, his high school uniform number and a set of dog tags, representing Michael Ford Sr.'s military service. On the dog tags are two years, 1976 and 1996. The first is the year he was born, the second, the year he died.
Mike Ford, the Lions cornerback, was just five months old when his father passed away.
In 1996, Ford Sr. was stationed at Fort Riley in northeast Kansas. On a January night, he and three friends went to a movie, but on the way back to base, Ford Sr., who was driving the car, lost control.
According to news reports, three of the vehicle's occupants were ejected in the single-car crash, but only Ford Sr. didn't survive.
It's a tragedy when a young person loses their life. That tragedy is compounded when they leave behind young children. Before Mike Ford had taken his first step or said his first word, he was robbed of his father.
The family persevered thanks to dedication of Ford's mother, Tameca Bergman. Ford said she taught him how to be a man while placing an emphasis on being a good person. And it was Bergman who steered Ford into football, signing him up shortly after she saw how much he enjoyed playing the game at a family reunion.
"My mom, she’s pretty much my everything," Ford said. "I had to look to my mom for pretty much everything. My mom was both my mom and my dad, at the same time."
Bergman was always in the stands to support her son each step of the way, but as Ford surveyed the scene on game days, there was still a dad-sized void she wasn't able to fill.
"I would say it was tough when you had a football game, some other event, and everyone has their dads out helping them, coaching them," Ford said. "My mom, she didn’t know too much about football, but she always cheered me on. Not having that guy next to you, being able to relate to you, that’s tough on a young man."
That extended to off the football field, as well. Dad is supposed to be the one to teach you how to shave and properly knot a tie. When Ford needed to learn those things, he'd turn to YouTube tutorials.
Bergman did her best to keep Ford's father's memory alive for her son, but it wasn't until a bridge was built between Ford and his father's family that he was able to better understand and identify with his dad.
Growing up, Ford didn't have a relationship with his dad's family. The way he explains it, they weren't initially certain he was Ford Sr.'s son. That changed on Halloween, 2004, when a 9-year-old Ford showed up at the door of his grandmother's home dressed as a football player.
First he confirmed he was at the right house before introducing himself.
Grandma was stunned. Ford said she let out a yell and dropped the bowl of candy. Any confirmation the family might have needed could be found in his appearance. Ford looked like his dad's doppelganger.
In the years since, Grandma has helped fill in the gaps for Ford. After all, who knows a child better than their mother. She shared school and football stories, as well as military letters. Ford was told of his dad's relentless work ethic and outstanding academic track record.
He also learned all about his dad's favorite football player, running back Barry Sanders. Grandma still has the cards and the jerseys her son collected. He was even buried in a Sanders jersey.
"She’s the one who gave me insight into who my dad was," Ford said. "She's kept his memory alive for me."
These stories and facts allowed Ford to build a bond with the father he never knew. And like dad, he immediately latched on to Sanders and the Lions.
In high school, Ford played on both offense and defense, starting as a running back for Marquette Catholic in Alton, Illinois. As a senior, he rushed for more than 1,600 yards and scored 24 touchdowns.
At Southeast Missouri State, he started out as a receiver, but made a permanent shift to cornerback as a sophomore, where he would start the next three seasons.
Ford would go undrafted after his senior year, but his combination of speed and explosiveness made him an intriguing prospect for several teams. He said he received between 10-15 roster offers following the draft, but there was only one team he wanted to play for — the Detroit Lions.
"It just felt like this is where I need to be, to finally put my name on the back of that jersey, play for my dad," Ford said.
Ford earned a spot on Detroit's practice squad to begin last season and was eventually promoted to the main roster before the team's Week 11 matchup against Carolina.
Remarkably, he was inserted directly into the starting lineup for that game. On Nov. 18, Ford stepped on to turf of the Lions' home stadium, tapped his right arm, letting dad know he made it.
"He’d be astounded," Ford said. "I think he’d be my number one supporter and he’d be out here as much as he could. This was his team and I know he’s here every day, watching out and looking over me every day. I know he’s here right now."