Poona Ford has been told he's too short all his life. Now the 5-foot-11 defensive tackle is looking to dispel doubters and crack the Seahawks' 53-man roster.
On Aug. 25, 2017, at 7:16 p.m., on a football field at Whale Branch High School in Beaufort, SC, B.J. Payne cried with pride.
Picture this man — a three-time Division III national champion defensive tackle at Mount Union, a retired professional wrestler, a muscle mountain with a bald head and a gradually graying goatee. He led his team onto the field for warmups prior to the first game of the season, glanced at his phone and found a text message from an unrecognized number.
The head football coach at Hilton Head (SC) High School read it, and then he lost it. Real tears, right there on the turf.
The text was from Tom Herman, the University of Texas’ first-year head coach. He had just named Poona Ford a team captain for his senior season.
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“I got choked up, because that kid deserved everything,” Payne told The Times with a rattling rasp on Monday. “He always does everything the right way.”
Don’t believe him? You will. He’ll tell you stories until you do.
Like this one: During August two-a-days, under the sizzling South Carolina sun, Ford — now a rookie defensive tackle with the Seahawks — would run 20 100-yard sprints between practices, then 20 more after the second practice ended. It was a self-imposed punishment for the near 300-pounder.
“Everybody else was trying to get their lunch and rest,” Payne said, “and he’s out there running hundreds.”
Of course, when Ford finally got around to lunch, he usually ate with Payne’s two kids. That explains why, when Poona earned his first scholarship offer from Toledo, it was Payne’s wife who actually cried.
Oh, and have you heard the Oregon story? Before Ford signed with Texas in 2014, the Ducks offered him a scholarship — provided that three non-football faculty members called their office to vouch for Poona.
At 8 a.m., Payne sent a faculty-wide email, fishing for volunteers.
“By 10 a.m.,” Payne said, “Oregon’s football office called me and said, ‘Please do not have anybody else call us. We have received 35 phone calls from the faculty of your high school.’ ”
How about one more example, just because? In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit, Payne sent his players into the community to help with the clean-up effort.
“One of the players said, ‘Well, I know Poona’s grandma’s house needs help, so I’m going there.’ Next thing I know we’ve got 30 kids going there,” Payne said with a laugh. “That’s just the respect he had … and from younger kids, because he was two or three years removed from high school when that hurricane hit.”
Younger kids, older kids, faculty, coaches, coaches’ wives, coaches’ kids — in Hilton Head, it hardly mattered.
“You can’t find anybody on this island, in this county, anywhere near here who has a bad thing to say about him,” Payne said. “He’s a genuine, genuine person.”
He’s also a powerful, powerful player.
“We would have to hold Poona out of 1-on-1s, because we would do 1-on-1s in practice and he literally in three consecutive plays hurt three of our running backs,” said Payne, who coached Ford during his final two seasons at Hilton Head. “It wasn’t anything cheap. It was just that nobody could block him, with his leverage and everything else that he brings with his strength.
“Three straight plays,” Payne repeated. “They were three different injuries — a shoulder, an elbow and a hip.”
To be fair, Poona hurt opposing players, too. The rolling bowling ball posted 289 tackles, 72 tackles for loss and 17 sacks in his final two seasons as a Hilton Head Seahawk. He also rushed for 155 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season.
Turns out, the (professional) Seahawks have three fullbacks on their roster.
It’s just that one plays defensive tackle.
“He was 290 (pounds) his senior year in high school and moved like Jerome Bettis. It was ridiculous,” Payne said with a laugh. “He would literally drag people. When you see those funny videos on YouTube of the way oversized kid playing with sixth graders and people jumping on his back, that’s what it looked like.”
Unsurprisingly, that combination of strength and explosiveness attracted more suitors than just Toledo. In four seasons at Texas, Ford started 30 games and produced 136 tackles with 20.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles. Following a senior season in which he posted 34 tackles and eight tackles for loss, the Longhorn captain was named Big 12 Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year.
In May, Herman said on ESPN Radio’s “Brock and Salk” that Ford “is going to be a 10-year starter in that league.”
But “that league” overlooked him. It didn’t draft him.
Kaylon Ford — his grandmother used to call him “Pooh,” before it eventually evolved into “Poona” — is five feet, 11 inches tall.
It’s the only justifiable reason.
It didn’t matter that the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year finished with four tackles and a sack at the East-West Shrine Game in January, or that he stacked up four more tackles, a fumble recovery and a sack of highly touted quarterback Josh Allen at the Senior Bowl.
It didn’t even matter that his wingspan improbably measures 80 ¼ inches, which is roughly the average for a person seven inches taller. As Payne said, “he didn’t have to bend over to get into his stance. It’s like his hands were to his knees.”
Ultimately, Ford was short in high school, he was short at Texas and he’ll be short in the NFL. All of the hundred-yard sprints in the world won’t change that.
It’s up to Poona to keep changing people’s minds.
“His story is just incredible, because he’s had so many different opportunities to slack off or just to stop,” Payne said. “In high school it was, ‘He’s good for a high school player, but he won’t play D1.’ Then he gets an offer and it’s, ‘He won’t get BCS offers.’
“Then he gets to Texas and it’s, ‘Oh, he’ll never play there.’ Then he starts there and it’s, ‘Oh, he’s not all-Big 12.’ Then he’s Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year and it’s, ‘Oh, they don’t play defense there.’ ”
On Monday, Ford was asked if he enjoys the seemingly endless cycle of incorrect assessments.
“Yeah. Yeah,” the soft-spoken rookie repeated with a growing grin. “It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
In that case, Ford must feel right at home in Seattle. The 5-11, 310-pound rookie signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent, and entered training camp with little chance to crack the 53-man roster. The team already features a more established interior foursome of Jarran Reed, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen and Nazair Jones.
And yet, Ford has impressed in the preseason, producing eight tackles and earning effusive praise in the Seahawks’ first three games. He enters Thursday’s finale against Oakland seemingly teetering on the edge of a roster spot.
“He’s been really good on the line of scrimmage,” head coach Pete Carroll said on Monday. “He’s got his own style. He’s short but he’s got really long arms, and his leverage is an asset for him. But beyond that, he’s very instinctive.”
But is he instinctive enough, powerful enough, quick enough, tall enough to remain a Seahawk following cut-down day on Saturday?
Only time will tell. But if Payne gets more good news this weekend, the pride will flow — and the tears might follow.
“In my 15 years as a coach and 12 years as a head coach, I’ve had guys that played in the league that I’ve coached,” Payne said. “But nothing has been more satisfying than to watch his journey and to watch all of this unfold.”