Many Happy Returns

As the mother of an athlete being recruited by Turner Gill, Michelle Walker had waited a long time to meet the first-year head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.

Not, however, because she needed to be convinced of the virtues of what he is trying to build on Mount Oread by the architect himself.

"Everybody was saying 'Wait till she meets Coach Gill, he's really going to sell her on (the University of Kansas),'" Walker said. "But I was already sold on it."

At this point, it would be difficult to find two people outside of the Anderson Family Football Complex with a greater knowledge of what KU has to offer than Walker and her son, 2011 Roeland Park (KS) Bishop Miege offensive lineman Phil Ford.

With Ford long on the radar of the Kansas coaching staff, mother and son did their homework on the program. They visited campus multiple times, gathering all the information they could and always arriving in Lawrence armed with new questions to be answered.

Though he would eventually pick up an additional scholarship offer from the University of Minnesota and interest from several other Division One programs, for both Ford and Walker it always came back to Kansas. The coaches made clear they wanted him in Crimson and Blue, and when Ford told his mother he wanted to make his verbal pledge to the Jayhawks in early July, she happily gave her blessing.

Still, Walker wanted to get some face time with Gill – the man to whom she would eventually entrust her son for the duration of his college career.

"Every time I go down there I feel more and more comfortable," she said. "But I had never had the opportunity to meet Coach Gill, one-on-one. And I just wanted to meet with him and see what his philosophy is about, and what it's like."

Monday was Ford's 17th birthday, and while birthdays might not be a big deal to some, Phil Ford is not one of those people.

For him, the weekend was all about celebrating with his friends and family. Saturday was a day filled with games of NCAA 2011 on the Xbox 360 with members of the Bishop Miege coaching staff, dinner with some of his classmates at Chipotle, spending time talking with Shelby Short – a close friend in the Class of 2011 at Overland Park (KS) St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and a fellow future Jayhawk – and capping the night with a little well-earned rest and relaxation.

With all that excitement, Monday should have been just a formality, right?


"I was so excited for my birthday I could hardly sleep (Sunday night)," Ford said Monday evening. "I stayed up until about 2 a.m. last night. Then I had to get up at about 6:30 to go work out with my trainer from 7-10 a.m."

The reason for all that excitement? Ford and Walker had decided to take another trip to Lawrence as something of a birthday present.

While there, Ford had the opportunity to spend time with current KU freshman cornerback Dexter McDonald, a highly-touted local product in his own right from Kansas City (MO) Rockhurst High School.

Time spent with his friends already on the team – friends like McDonald – is time Ford relishes, as it affords him a glimpse of what the future has in store.

"Being up in Dexter's room, he was kind of laughing because I was asking him a lot of questions," Ford said. "We talked about a lot of stuff."

Additionally, the unofficial visit provided mother and son with the long-awaited opportunity to meet and speak with Gill. Sitting in his office, the three talked about everything from family to the plan for Ford's future – both academically and athletically.

However, one moment stood out, Walker said. While discussing the topic of children, she asked Gill if he had any sons.

"He said, 'Well, there's one right there,'" Walker recalled. "And he pointed at Phil. I thought 'That sure is nice.' He said all the boys on his team are his sons. I thought that was very neat."

With his birthday – and his college decision – now behind him, Ford is happy to be able to focus on his final year of high school with a free mind.

Last year's Kansas Class 4A State Champions, the Stags have their sights set on the 2010 Class 5A state title. In order to reach that lofty goal, the team will rely on talented seniors like Ford, defensive end Shane Ray and quarterback Max Shortell to guide them.

It's a responsibility Ford is taking very seriously indeed.

"I think there will be even more pressure than there was last season," he said. "We did win it and now we've got a lot of good players who are coming back."

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