In the NFL, the next man up can sometimes be the last man down.
A week before training camp began, tight end Chase Ford had surgery on his foot to deal with a stress fracture that had been bothering him during the offseason workout program. His spot on the roster was anything but guaranteed. A practice squad player at the end of the 2012 season and for the first seven games of 2013, when injuries decimated the tight end position last year, Ford got the call. He responded late in the season, posting a couple of big receptions of 37 and 18 yards against the Eagles and five receptions in the season finale against Detroit.
Now, with Kyle Rudolph after surgery on Tuesday to repair a sports hernia, Ford has been called up from the practice squad and is ready to get back on the field for a meaningful game for the first time since the last Sunday of 2013.
He will be in competition for playing time with Rhett Ellison and MarQueis Gray, but Ford is looking to build on how he closed out last season by being an impact player in his newfound opportunity.
“I’m just ready to play a game,” Ford said. “It’s been a long time. If I get a chance to catch some passes, that would be great. I don’t know if I’ll be used to catch passes, because we have three tight ends who can catch the ball and make plays – me, Rhett and Q.”
Ford has been itching to get back on the field because he has yet to prove his value to the new coaching staff in game situations this year, something that has been deprived of him since the July foot injury. In the “next man up” world of the NFL, Ford is that man for the Vikings and he’s looking to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“Every time I have a chance to make a play, I’m going to make it,” Ford said. “I’m going to run my routes hard. If you throw the ball my way, I’m going to catch it and make plays.”
While Ford has been tucked away on the practice squad, he has been rehabbing his foot and, as with all recovery assignments, there are good days and bad days.
“I was running routes after about five weeks,” Ford said. “It wasn’t easy. I’ve got a screw in my foot now. It was kind of hard. It depends on the day. I might wake up and it will be sore. But, for the most part, it’s been OK.”
While there may be some lingering soreness that flares up every now and then, once he was given clearance to get back on the practice field, Ford has been pushing himself to the limit to prove to the coaches and his teammates that he is recovered and ready to make a contribution, even if the surgically implanted screw in his foot is a constant reminder of what he’s been through.
“I’ve been testing it,” Ford said. “I’ve been 100 percent full-go, been going as hard as I can. I know it’s still there, but it’s not keeping me from anything. ”
The biggest hurdle for Ford hasn’t been the physical rehab, it’s been the mental side of things. The challenge for him has been to trust his body, trust the training staff and put his faith in believing that his foot is 100 percent and as good as it was before he started feeling the pain. He’s been pushing himself physically and in denial of the potential of a relapse.
“You’ve got to block it out,” Ford said. “The way I like to practice, I like to, every chance I get a play, to go 100 percent. That way, when I get in a game, I’ll be ready. It ain’t going to be a surprise to me. If it hurts a little, it’s going to hurt a little bit, but it ain’t going to feel like it’s broken.”
The light at the end of the tunnel for Ford has been the opportunity to play in a Norv Turner offense. For three decades, he has been using tight ends to make plays and Ford feels a bit deprived that he hasn’t had the chance yet to be part of it in a real game. That could change Sunday and Ford is looking forward to the opportunity to be the next in a long line of tight ends that Turner has developed.
“Everywhere Norv has been he’s been notorious for having pass-catching tight ends,” Ford said. “When he got hired here, that’s the first thing I really realized – he gets the tight end the ball. If you go out there and work for him, he’ll work for you.”
The final challenge for Ford will be the excitement of playing his 2014 opener three games later than the rest of his teammates. Replacing Rudolph isn’t going to be an easy process, but, if Ford can keep his pre-game butterflies in check, it will hard to wipe the smile off his face.
“I’m too excited,” Ford said. “It’s been almost a year since I’ve stepped on a field. I can’t wait to play.”
Vikings tight end Ford ‘can’t wait to play’
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