Student Advocate

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - As a West Virginia University running back, Garrett Ford had a reputation of holding on to the football and racking up record-breaking yards.

But that 1963 day back in the cafeteria of Washington's DeMatha Catholic High School was a completely different story. Then, it was all a kid who washed dishes in the kitchen for his lunch ticket could do to keep a grip on the plates and silverware.

Today, Ford is a respected counselor and associate athletic director at WVU who is being honored by the University this month for his academic work with student athletes. He'll receive the Neil S. Bucklew Award for Social Justice during Weekend of Honors observances at 7 p.m. Friday, April 21, in the Mountainlair Ballrooms.

He worked his way up. He was a bruising back for the Mountaineers who became the first-ever Mountaineer to top both 2,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 yards in a single season.

And after a brief career with the Denver Broncos in the National Football League, he came back to WVU to earn a graduate degree in counseling while also being hired on as the first black assistant coach in the history of the football program.

"This place is like family," he said. "It is family."

He first met the WVU family back at DeMatha, and today, more than 40 years later, he's still moved and amazed by the memory. He was a high school football star who wanted to be Jim Brown, and he backed that desire up with talent as DeMatha dominated in Washington city league play.

WVU's then-head football coach Gene Corum wanted Ford in his backfield. So he got behind the wheel of his Ford and motored to the nation's capital on West Virginia's pre-Interstate roads.

Which goes back to that day in DeMatha's kitchen.

"I'm washing dishes, and I look up," Ford recalled, "and it's Coach Corum. He's got his assistant coaches with him and they're all walking in behind him. He says, 'Mr. Ford, how would you like to play football for West Virginia University?' Back then, it was a 6 ½ -hour drive from D.C. to Morgantown. I still can't believe he did that."

A soapy handshake sealed the deal, and the DeMatha dishwasher was on his way to picking opposing defenses clean, including one memorable romp in the 1965 Backyard Brawl against Pitt. Ford would rumble 192 yards that day in the 63-48 victory.

"It was such an opportunity for a young black kid from the inner-city," Ford said. "And Coach Corum wasn't just talking about football. He was talking about classes, and earning a degree."

The relocation, though, wasn't that easy. While WVU and Morgantown were welcoming places, it was still just nine years after the landmark Brown v. the Board decision, and American society, overall, was "still in transition," as he puts it.

He saw enough players go through the cycle of homesickness and culture shock - not to mention the reality of no longer being the marquee player on the team - to decide he was going to become a college counselor after his own NFL career didn't work out as he hoped.

"I wanted to work with student athletes," he said, "because I knew exactly what they're going through. I mean, you're thinking, 'I'm homesick. I'm a thousand miles from home. I was a star, and now I'm the fourth guy on the team.' It's really easy to find yourself lost."

And as a college dropout, Ford said. Which where he and his mantra, "Once a student, always a student," come in.

"My job is to help these students adjust," he said. "I'm a counselor and advisor, and sometimes I'm a big brother and enforcer. You have to go at it just as hard in the classroom as you do on the playing field."

It's working. WVU's student athletes consistently graduate to become loyal alumni and successes after they trade in their sport uniforms for business suits. Which, of course, is the real name of the game, he said. His WVU colleagues agree.

"Garrett Ford truly is an inspiration for all our students," WVU Executive Officer for Social Justice Jennifer McIntosh said. "Please notice that I said, 'students,' and not 'student-athletes.' He's a role model for all. You can be white or black, or an athlete, or not. Just look at his example of hard work and discipline, and you'll succeed, too."

While Ford appreciates the praise, he's quick to hand off credit to his family at home and his WVU family. He and wife, Thelma, are the parents of Tracie and Garrett Jr., and they have four grandchildren with a fifth on the way in June.

"My kids earned degrees from WVU and my grandkids will too," he said. "I found a real home here and so many good people helped. I think of Coach Corum making that drive to D.C. and (football coach) Bobby Bowden taking a chance on me for his coaching staff. Our students inspire me every day. I am really blessed to be here."

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