Bigger, faster, stronger and more – Coon Rapids’ Antonio Ford

Posted: August 26, 2010 in 2010 Football Season
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by Troy Misko
Sportsweek staff writer

Antonio Ford wore number 25 last season as a running back for the Coon Rapids football team. This year he might as well forego a jersey number and wear a target on his red and white jersey.

Last year was something of a breakthrough season for Ford, now a junior.  It was last fall, in his second varsity season, that Ford earned some attention with his efforts running the ball for the Cardinals.

Rushing for more than 100 yards in a few games — much, much, much more than that in at least one game — will do that for a running back.
Ford, a virtual unknown outside of Coon Rapids prior to last season’s first game, opened his 2009 campaign with 191 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in a loss to Champlin Park. Word leaked quickly how dangerous he could be with his 5-9, 176 pound frame busting between the tackles.

He immediately became the must-stop guy on Coon Rapids roster.

It showed.

He ran for a combined 78 yards in his next two games as teams began to game-plan toward him. He began seeing eight or nine defenders keying on him out of the backfield.

He went over 100 yards again in his team’s fourth game, rushing 25 times for 112 yards and a touchdown against Andover .  It wasn’t his best game and it wasn’t his worst, either. And it certainly wasn’t much of a hint of what he would do the following week against Elk River.

Ford turned in a record-smashing effort as he ran all over and around the Elks on a rain-soaked field on Oct. 2. He knew he was having a big game. His teammates and coaches knew he was having a big game. Everyone, it seemed, knew he had a chance surpass 231 yards on the ground to break Coon Rapids’ single-game rushing mark.

But no one knew that he was going to bury the old record, not to mention the Elks, quite like he did.

Ford easily eclipsed the old school mark, carrying the ball 40 times for 368 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-12 Cardinals victory. His performance ranks as the 22nd-best for single-game yardage in Minnesota high school football history, according to the Minnesota Football Coaches Association.

“We didn’t know he had the ball that many times,” recalled Coon Rapids head coach Jon Young. “We knew he had a couple of long runs, but I guess we didn’t know he had that many yards.

“It was a sloppy field. It was raining, so we kept the ball on the ground a little more than we normally would. We were up too, so we just wanted to keep the clock rolling. We didn’t need to throw. And we had advantageous field position the whole night. It was sort of like a perfect storm, so to speak.

“I knew he clipped 200 [yards]. I was wondering if he got the school record of 231. Someone said he had 40 carries and I thought, probably about 240 yards. Then I heard 368 and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ford’s gauge on his output wasn’t any keener.

“I didn’t know I had done that much,” he says. “My coach just kept on telling me I was close to breaking the record. It was just a motor for me the whole game. I just kept trying to run as hard as I could. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know I had 40 carries.”

If Ford was a relative unknown in the Northwest Suburban Conference before that game, he no longer would be. His days of toiling in anonymity ended abruptly.

So, too, did his chances of immediately proving his breakout performance against Elk River was no fluke. He broke his hand during the game when he fell on it awkwardly after stiff-arming an Elks defender en route to the end zone. He missed the next three weeks.

Three weeks never seemed so long to Ford. He’s a staunch competitor and not being able to participate in games or practices for that time was more painful than the injury itself.

“I was miserable for those three weeks,” he says. “I really wanted to be in the game. When I was on the sideline watching, it just hurt me not to be out there with all my teammates.”

Ford returned in time for the Cardinals’ Section 7AAAAA playoff game with Centennial. Against the fierce attention he had grown accustomed to seeing — and more deservedly so than ever after his showing against Elk River — he carved out 86 yards on 23 carries in his team’s season-ending 34-15 loss to the eventual section champion.

While the loss stung, it marked the beginning of the next phase of Ford’s prep career.

His days of surprising opponents with his running abilities were already long gone. Opposing defensive schemes would forever be tilted toward him. He was a marked man.

Any question he might have had about this was quashed when word got back to him that opponents reportedly had been criticizing his game, suggesting that he was overrated, that his record-setting game against Elk River — a last-place team — was a fluke; that he ran too upright, wasn’t so hard to tackle and didn’t have breakaway speed.

“He heard through the grapevine that a couple teams thought he wasn’t that good and that he went down too easily,” Young said.

“I heard that, [too]. Last year I did run like that. This year is going to be a whole different story. I’ve been working on all of that throughout the off season. I’ve been running with more of a knee bend. I’ll be ready for those that were talking last year.”

They better be ready for him — the new and improved Antonio Ford, that is.

Ford didn’t work during the offseason just to change the angle at which he runs. He worked on his decision-making at the line of scrimmage.

Also, Ford worked on his route-running and pass-receiving techniques.

And, in typical Antonio Ford fashion, he worked tirelessly in the weight room, on the track, on the practice field and at the dinner table to transform not only his style, but his body itself.

Ford will reintroduce himself to opponents this fall as a bigger, faster version of the player his coach refers to as “an athletic wrecking ball.”

Ford added more than 15 pounds to his frame since last season. He now tips the scales between 190 and 195 pounds.

“He looks like a totally different kid this year,” Young said.

And Ford apparently didn’t sacrifice any of his running ability to pack on the pounds. He also improved his 40-yard dash time to 4.57 seconds.

The result, Ford expects, will be that he’ll be a better all-around running back.

“This year, it’s going to be a little bit different,” he said. “Last year in my running style I used my finesse and my quickness to evade tacklers. This year I’m going to try to give it back to them more.

“I’d say I’m more balanced. I can outrun a defender as much as I can pound them or shake them or whatever.”

“He’s a power, thumper back,” Young said. “He’s not a scat, breakaway guy. He’s so physical. He’s very punishing. He wants to hit you before you hit him. He’s going make you earn a tackle.

“In our camp this summer, he couldn’t get tackled. He might struggle in a game or two because that’s going to be everyone’s game plan, to stop him, but he will hurt some people that are trying to tackle him.

“He’ll be a little bit different in his running this year. Last year he was a little bit upright and he went down a little bit easy.  He’s ready to rectify that.”

So Ford could stand out even more this fall, even if opponents continue to try to stack eight or nine guys against him. It will be, for him, business as usual.

Truth is, Ford has always stood out  It didn’t take a 368-yard effort for eyes to gravitate toward him. At least not at Coon Rapids. He was an eighth-grader at Coon Rapids Middle School when he caught the attention of a Coon Rapids assistant coach.

“One of the coaches on the team taught math at the middle school and said, ‘Hey, you have to look at this kid,’ ” Young recalled. “He was really impressed by his demeanor and his physical status. [Ford] just looked so mature. We brought him into the weight room with all the other eighth-graders and it was unbelievable. He was one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had here in the eighth grade. Over and over and over, he just worked, worked, worked.”

The Coon Rapids varsity coaches took note and created a plan that would have Ford practicing with the varsity squad in the summer before his ninth-grade year. It wasn’t something they would normally do with someone Ford’s age, but all indications were that he was ready for the challenge.

“We thought he was pretty good,” Young said. “He was just head and shoulders above everybody else as a freshman.  Physically he’s really mature. And mentally he could handle the workload.  Emotionally and maturity-wise, he could handle it. I mean, he acted like he was 17 when he was only 14. So we had him with us the whole year.”

Ford started on the junior varsity squad and earned his way into varsity action in six games at running back and special teams as a freshman. He rushed 43 times for 259 yards and three touchdowns as a third-string running back on the varsity squad that season.

As impressed as the Coon Rapids coaches were by Ford’s on-field, in-game efforts as a freshman, they were even more impressed by his everyday training habits.

Ford quickly established himself as a coach’s dream — one of those rare athletes that comes along every decade or so, if the coach is fortunate, and possesses an elusive total package of advanced athletic prowess, competitiveness, coachability, desire and dedication.

Sure, that sounds like a bit much, but Young, a Coon Rapids standout three-sport athlete in the early 1990s, is effusive in his praise for Ford.

“We’ve had some really special athletes come through Coon Rapids and he’s one of those kids that’s really special,” Young said.

“But he might be the most special. He might get that tag. We won’t know until he graduates what his legacy will be, but he’s setting a new bar of work means and what conditioning means and what taking care of your body means. His nutrition habits, his sleeping habits and how he takes care of his body are exquisite. He lives it, 24-7.

“His biggest attribute is that he works harder — he has some natural instincts, he has some natural gifts — but he works harder than anybody we’ve had. In my association with Coon Rapids football — there’s about a 12-year window that I’ve been a part of Coon Rapids High School — he’s the hardest-working kid we’ve ever had. Ever had. I’m going back to when I played and I can’t think of anybody. He’s just is unparalleled with his time commitment and dedication. His willingness to put in hours and the work he puts in are second to none.

“His other great trait is that he is so willing to be coached. He could easily pull the prima donna card or think that he’s the best athlete in his classes; he could try to get away with not working or listening that well or being inattentive. He doesn’t.  He absorbs coaching so well. He acts like he’s just an average kid. He trains like he’s an average, blue-collar kid. He always knows no matter how good he gets, he can always get better.

“We haven’t had to challenge him. I’m not kidding. It sort of sounds like I’m talking about a dream scenario and I am.  He’s a coach’s dream. We don’t have to motivate the kid.

“His standards are higher than ours.  His practices are legendary. He goes like it’s Friday night every single day. Every single day. So we don’t have to motivate him, which is a pleasure. We just coach up some technique and ball security things and how to improve his speed. It’s nice. There’s no motivation needed there.

“He just goes and goes and goes.”

Ford down plays his work ethic. To him, it’s nothing unusual.  It’s who he is, the way he was raised.

“My dad helped build my work ethic ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “I’ve always been trying to get better.

“My dad always told me if you want to be the best you have to perform and do what you have to do to be the best. I’ve always kept that thought in my mind. “Whenever I know that I’m just sitting around, I know that there’s some kid out there that’s doing more work, so I just try to get myself out and push myself to do more.”

Ford does it in his quest to be better. Much better.

He wants to rush for more than 1000 yards this season — missing three games with a broken hand last season limited him to 835 yards — and help his team to the top of the Northwest Suburban Conference standings. But he wants more than that, too. He eventually wants to earn a football scholarship to a Division I school.

So he continually pushes his body to its limits. Two, three or more workouts in a day aren’t unusual for Ford. In fact, one of Young’s biggest concerns is about how to rein in Ford so he doesn’t hurt himself.

“The thing that worries me is not that he’ll get burned out; it’s that his body might suffer an injury from chronic fatigue or something like that,” Young said.

“He might have a hamstring injury that he won’t let rest because he wants to come back too early. Or he might ding his shoulder or get a stinger and he might try to be too aggressive with his recovery or his rehab. That’s the kind of thing that worries me. He doesn’t know how to stop.”

Even in the week before fall camp opened, only days before the beginning of grueling two-a-day practices, Ford couldn’t stop. Even a succinct prescription from Coon Rapids coaches that all players rest up in preparation for two-a-days couldn’t keep Ford away.

“I still went to the weight room up at school to work out to try to get that edge above any player in the conference,” he said, somehow sounding equal parts embarrassed, proud and contrite.

Ford knows teams will be gunning for him. He knows about the invisible target he’ll be wearing this season. He knows the eyes of opponents, teammates and fans will be focused squarely on him. Still, he’s not worried about how it will affect him.

“I think I’ll be all right,” he said. “There won’t too much pressure on me.

My team will help me get to where I need to be. I don’t think I’ll have that much pressure on my shoulders.”


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