AUBURN, Ala. — Dee Ford’s leadership in Auburn’s locker room is unquestioned.
What exactly that constitutes is much more difficult. Even for those who know him best, describing Ford is no easy task.
The senior defensive end is so many things, after all.
He’s funny — a jokester, always keeping the locker room light. Once he puts on his pads, he’s a fierce competitor. And off the field, he has numerous interests, from playing piano and singing to keeping up on the latest fashion trends.
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Perhaps the simplest way to put his brand of leadership into words is to listen to Ellis Johnson.
“He’s got a really unique way,” said Auburn’s defensive coordinator, who noted he’s coached “all kinds” of different players and personality types in his 38 years of coaching. “I think the players really respect him. I know these players have great confidence in him, and he’s a good influence not only on the practice field, but on the game field and off the field.”
Those times away from the game are what Nosa Eguae treasures most. The two arrived in Auburn as part of the same recruiting class in 2009 — and they’ve been inseparable ever since.
Eguae listed the aspects that forged that bond, from playing the same position to working out together. Heck, at times they’ve even gone shopping together. Indeed, whenever they can hang out, they take advantage of it.
Ford is one of the select few players that Eguae put in his inner circle.
“I’ve got brothers — guys that, way past football, when the football is over, those are the guys that are going to be in my wedding and be my kids’ godfathers,” he said. “Those guys — they mean a lot to me. That’s who I’m playing for. I’m playing for guys like Dee Ford.”
Of course, Ford is playing for them, too.
When told that Eguae mentioned him in the same breath as Nick Fairley — the dominant defensive tackle who won the Lombardi Award during the BCS title run in 2010 — Ford could only laugh.
“I wish I had a little bit of his size,” he said, “but I feel like we all are trying to live up to that.”
In a way, Ford said, it’s unfair to the other members of Auburn’s defensive line three years ago that Fairley’s name is credited for the majority of the success.
Great as he was, Fairley didn’t do it by himself.
Just take a look at Auburn’s win against Oregon in the national championship game for proof.
“What people don't know (is) that trio of him, Mike Blanc and Zach Clayton was deadly,” Ford said. “ Nick was probably just more the explosive play guy, but they all controlled that interior the whole game.”
Thanks in large part to Ford, the Tigers’ line has been a thorn in the side of opponent’s offenses all season. Johnson couldn’t laud Ford’s play enough — he has a team-high 8.5 sacks in 11 games, which ranks third in the SEC.
And in the two games Ford missed this year — coming against Washington State and Arkansas State in the season’s first two contests — it was noticeable even to the untrained eye.
“If you go back, when we missed him earlier in the season, especially against a team like Washington State who was throwing it so frequently, it was a big handicap,” Johnson said. “So we were obviously really happy to get him back in the lineup and I think it's been obvious what he's meant to us in some big ballgames like Georgia and also Texas A&M (and) the plays he's made at crucial times — he's made frequent plays, but he's also made critical plays at critical times.”
Not that Ford wanted to indulge in any of the praise. Instead, he took the opportunity to commend the offensive line.
He wouldn’t be as good in games if the people across from him in practice didn’t push him so hard.
“At times where you think you would lay off a little bit, we don’t,” Ford said. “We’re still going at it whether it’s run fits or pass rush. We go at it. “
Where does that inner drive come from, though?
“We know what we want to be. We know how it feels to not live up to your potential,” Ford said. “As hard as it gets sometimes, we just try to keep pushing every day.”
In the center of it all is Ford. While the team as a whole shares that intrinsic motivation, none has a more relentless motor than the Odenville, Ala., native. It permeates through the locker room, Eguae said. When you see someone like that, Eguae admitted it’s hard not to get inspired to play with the same verve.
“He takes his preparation seriously,” Eguae said. “A lot of guys used to make fun of him carrying the water bottle around. That’s infectious. He harps on it. His approach to the game is contagious.”
Once more, however, Ford deflected attention from himself.
The gaudy numbers, the chance at another national title, the potential NFL career awaiting him — Ford doesn’t care about any of that. His fellow Tigers take precedence. Take them out of the equation, and everything else is rendered meaningless.
What’s a leader without a group to lead?
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now, especially this year coming in off a knee injury, if it wasn’t for my teammates,” he said. “I’m really thankful for them.