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Former star quarterback returns to SMU to earn degree

Mike Ford at SMU in 1980
Mike Ford at SMU in 1980

May 13, 2011

DALLAS (SMU) — There isn’t a lot Mike Ford didn’t accomplish during his time at SMU.

The first marquee player to sign with SMU of the Ron Meyer era and one of the most prolific quarterbacks in SMU history, Ford still has his name all over the SMU record book, ranking third in school history in passes attempted (885) and completed (475), second in passing yardage (6,239) and sixth in touchdown passes with 34.

But he didn’t graduate. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the 1981 NFL Draft, Ford left SMU without a degree.

That will change Saturday, when Ford receives his diploma, some 30 years after he took his final snap in 1980. Ford will earn his Bachelor of Arts in physical education and health.

Ford said the idea came about when he was leaving Gerald J. Ford Stadium after the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in December. As he exited the stadium, one of the first people he saw was SMU President R. Gerald Turner.

“I came out of the stadium and the first people I see and recognize were Dr. Turner and his wife,” Ford said. “I kept my distance and sort of made eye contact. When we started talking, he knew who I was. He said he recognized me from the ’30 for 30’ special on ESPN, and we didn’t grow up too far from each other. I’m from Clarksville, and he’s from New Boston.

“I asked him, ‘I have never thought of this, but what can a beat-up, out-of-shape quarterback with a year of eligibility left do to complete my degree?’ He looked at me in amazement, and he still had my hand in his hand. He said, ‘you’re serious, aren’t you, Mike?’”

Ford said he didn’t plan his conversation with Turner. But as soon as they started talking, the idea just spilled out.

“I’m the old quarterback with the gift of gab, I guess,” he said. “I didn’t know I’d run into President Turner, and I didn’t have any notes or anything.

“But he asked me if I was serious, and I told him, ‘it’s the only race I never finished.’ He told me to write what I just told him in a letter and send it to him, and he’d be in touch.”

Ford did just that, sending a letter and a copy of his transcript to Turner a few days later, and “didn’t think a whole lot more about it.”

A couple of weeks later, Ford got a call from John Hall, the executive director of enrollment services in SMU’s registrar’s office.

“He introduced himself, and said he started at SMU when I was playing there,” Ford said. “He said he had been in a meeting with Dr. Turner, who had told him about my situation, and said that if I was serious, they would welcome me back with open arms. He gave me a phone number for Dr. Peter Gifford, who is (chair of the Applied Physiology and Wellness department) in the Simmons School of Education and Human Development. I went to see him to talk about what I needed to do to earn my degree.

“I told him I live a long way from here, that I own my own business (Ford and his wife, Lori, now run Rio Rojo Rancho, a whitetail deer and fishing ranch in Red River County, near Paris, a little over two hours northeast of Dallas) and that nobody works for us — my wife and I do everything to run the ranch. He asked me if I have a video camera, and I told him I did. He asked me if I knew how to work it, and I told him I did. So what he had me do was go round up a few of my old teammates and interview them. We had a lot of guys who had a chance to play in the NFL, and some of them finished. Some of them didn’t.”

Ford rounded up three former teammates: defensive tackle Michael Carter, and running backs Reggie Dupard and Eric Dickerson. Carter graduated before he moved on to the NFL. Dupard returned to campus after his professional career was over and earned his degree. After retiring from the NFL, Dickerson didn’t return to school, although he did become a successful businessman.

“I talked to them about why they each did what they did,” Ford said. “They talked about why it was important to go to school, to get a degree when you have the chance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is important that I’m doing this. The ranch is doing well, but if things go bad on the ranch, I’m going to have a degree, so I can go coach.

“Michael finished in five years, and Reggie got drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, but he came back and finished. I’m working on No. 19 (Dickerson) to finish his degree — maybe taking some classes on-line, or at Pepperdine because he lives out there. I don’t know how it’s going to work, but I hope it does, because Eric is so educated, so intelligent. If he gets his degree, it will be a great thing for him, but it will be a great thing for SMU, too.

“Reggie said he was doing a public speaking appearance somewhere, talking about staying in school and finishing what you started, and a kid asked him, ‘what did you get your degree in, Mr. Dupard?’ Reggie said it hit him like a brick wall. He said it took him five minutes to swallow, before he told the kid, ‘I didn’t get my degree.’ That’s what it took — the next semester, he was back in school.”

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Ford said that finishing up his degree and the interviews he did with his former teammates really drove home the idea of how lucky he and some of his teammates were.

“Reggie went back, and I’m back 30 years after my class graduated,” he said. “But most people don’t have that chance. I understand the idea of chasing a dream, whether it’s the NFL or something else, and if you get that chance, chase it. But when you’re in school, go to school, do all you can while you’re there, because it’s hard to come back. It’s more important than I ever realized.”

Even Ford says he is a little surprised that he returned to SMU to finish his degree. After his stint with the Buccaneers, he moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals — who, ironically, released him before the 1982 playoffs when they activated his former SMU teammate, cornerback John Simmons. At the start of the 1983 season, he went to work out for the Oakland Raiders, but turned down a contract because he hoped to catch on instead with the New Orleans Saints. “I wanted to play for Bum Phillips,” Ford said. “But then they traded for Earl Campbell and signed Kenny Stabler, and I never got the offer.”

Ford spent a year with the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL, but tore up his shoulder in his first start. While he was out of the lineup, he became something of a mentor — even an unofficial coach — for San Antonio’s rookie quarterback, now-UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel.

“I enjoyed sort of being a coach for Rick,” Ford said. “I’d probably be coaching today if I didn’t like hunting and fishing so much.”

 Ford worked his way back, but got hurt again, this time tearing up his knee when someone fell across the inside of it.

“I hadn’t played in five years,” he said. “I had just watched, backed up other guys. To say my (mood) was down would be an understatement.

“They wanted to put me to sleep. I had an MRI, and they said I needed surgery. I said, ‘I may look like a turnip salesman, but I did not ride in on a turnip truck — I want second opinion.’ So I flew home, had another MRI, and the doctor said, ‘do you really want to play football? Will your life not be complete if you don’t play again?’ I told him my life wouldn’t be complete if I don’t get to hunt and fish again. He said if I wanted to play again, I would have to have surgery. So that was it.

Ford is back to doing the two things he loves more than football: hunting and fishing at his ranch. But Ford said some visitors to his ranch last May helped spark the interest in reconnecting with the university from which he will graduate this weekend.

“The guys came out to my ranch last year to interview me for that ESPN documentary (Pony Excess),” he said. “I started talking about SMU, about my old teammates, my friends — that really reminded me how many truly good friends I had on that campus. Some of the professors, some of the alumni — a lot of the players I played with — wondered what had happened to Mike Ford, and with good reason. I wasn’t around. I chose to hunt and fish.

“The last game I went to was the win over Connecticut (in 1989) — that was the last game before the bowl game this year. Since that ESPN interview, I had thought about SMU, and about getting my degree. All of that reminded me that I still had something on my plate that I hadn’t finished. And then to run into President Turner that day … I always finished everything I started, except graduating. Now I’m finishing that, too.”

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