By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The cheers had died long, long ago for Garrett Ford, and maybe that’s what made that Saturday a week ago so surprising, so stunning as 700 people crammed their way into a banquet room at the Waterplace Hotel to say goodbye.
Many of them never saw him run the football as a pioneer Mountaineer, one of the first blacks to play at the school as the civil rights movement was heating up. Some of them didn’t even know he was the first 1,000-yard rusher at the school, and that made the moment even more special for Ford as he battled emotions at this tribute.
See, as good a player as he was, and he was good enough to go to the National Football League, he was a better person, a kid who came out of Washington, D.C., only to fall in love with the hills of West Virginia and the state university and the city in which it was situated.
If he fell in love with the school and the area, the people involved in both fell in love with him, for he was one of the few who came in and stayed, not living off his fame as a football player but creating a niche for himself that helped untold numbers of athletes straighten out their lives and get not only a degree but an education.
After his flirtation with the NFL that ended with a knee injury but more, he said, because of his “attitude.”
“No one had prepared me for that,” he said. “You go to pro ball, they don’t care who you are. If I was more mature, I probably could have stayed longer.”
A seed was placed in the back of his mind; he realized that he had gone through WVU without really being prepared for the world. He would somehow make a difference.
He returned to the school to coach, but had far more on his mind.
“I just saw a need for so much more than coaching football, to help them get situated in life and get in the right direction,” he said the other day, sitting in the office at the modern, spacious academic center in the Coliseum, a center his work and sweat had built, with no small amount of help from a monetary gift from Jerry West.
It has never grown old for him, and that is why he leaves reluctantly before another new group of kids come in.
“Every year I see Garrett Ford in that class. I see someone who reminds me of me,” he said.
And he knows how he needed guidance.
“I was immature. I was not a bad kid. I never did anything against the law. It’s just that kids don’t have the right guidance and have no direction. You have to put a little fear in them,” he said. “I look at kids like David Riley and Thor Merrow. There was 40 years between those kids, but the same love that David needed and Darryl Talley needed and Pat White needed and Major (Harris) needed is still there. It has not changed.
“Kids don’t realize the sacrifice the parents make to get them here. So, I tell them, it’s just being selfish when they don’t go to class. I tell them they don’t know how many people are pulling for you. Everyone wants to see them do well. And if you mess it up, you embarrass everyone,” he said.
Ford actually was lucky he was as prepared as he was when he came to WVU from D.C., having played football and basketball at DeMatha under the legendary coach Morgan Wooten.
“I remember one incident in early years. I was not in shape and Morgan told me if I wasn’t in shape in a week I was off the team. It scared me to death. I thought he was going to send me home. I remember running around the neighborhood after practice to make sure I got in shape,” he said. “I learned so much there. I saw other parts of the country. I never would have gotten out of the city. I got to meet people, see a diverse population.
“I met Red Auerbach. It was nothing for us to have Digger Phelps or Dean Smith come in. I grew up with John Thompson, who was in high school when I was. He played at John Carroll, where I almost went to school.”
And when it came time to leave he thought he was off to Syracuse, where Ben Schwartzwalder offered him the No. 44 jersey that his idol Jim Brown had worn.
That’s when he discovered West Virginia and its people.
He isn’t even sure why he took his trip here, but he was stunned when he got here.
“It sounds strange, but when I came here to visit I didn’t see any black people at all, but when I went into a store people said ‘Thank you, come back and see us.’ That struck me,” he said. They were genuine, friendly, unlike in the big city.
“I came here and I thought I’m not going to be here for long. Next thing I know it’s been 40, 50 years, both my kids got their master’s degrees from here, my wife got her master’s degree in social work. I got mine. My grandkids love it here. Heck, the grandkids are excited about coming to Bob Huggins Basketball Camp.”
If the area made an impression on him and changed his life, Garrett Ford has done the same for so many athletes over the years.
“I realize now how insignificant the athletic years were. It made me feel stronger that the key to life is education,” he said. “Athletics is the source to get them the education. I try to get them to keep it in the right perspective.
“There’s a million kids playing basketball, a million play football and all of them think they are going to be a pro player and there’s such a small portion of them that go that far. But everyone can graduate,” Ford continued.
“We at West Virginia have given every kid that comes here that chance. They don’t realize when they first get here how important that is.”
Here’s the thing about it as you look around the modern facility; when Ford first arrived and for the first decade-plus he did his academic counseling and advising all alone before a staff was hired and increased and facilities put in both at the Puskar Center and in the Coliseum.
Now, there’s a chance to get not a degree but an education, to ready themselves for later life and the real world, and they have Garrett Ford to thank for that.
Funny, Garrett Ford has been at WVU for 44 years … Jim Brown’s number.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.