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Hanging out with Nick Ford is about as eclectic as he is.
One minute the topic of conversation surrounds how he taught himself to play Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” on piano. The next, he pivots to how his parents made sure he and his siblings experienced many different things so as not to pigeonhole themselves, which might be why playing football isn’t the main part of the University of Utah offensive lineman’s identity.
He talks about how he’ll declare for the NFL Draft after the 2021 season and, in almost the same breath, how he almost didn’t play college football at all because he was seriously interested in joining the Navy SEALs. He discusses his passion for cooking and his bout with depression and anxiety during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a motif runs through the meandering river of words: He prides himself in making people happy and protecting those closest to him. That part of Ford’s personality has shone through in the last year with the sudden deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe.
“I just more or less just want to make sure that if I have the opportunity to help somebody and give the shirt off my back, I’ll go ahead and do that,” Ford said. “It’s just the type of guy I am.”
And the way he does it is about as eclectic as he is.
Feeding the soul
Freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III always receives an invitation to Ford’s house when the offensive lineman is cooking.
Phillips has had the opportunity to taste some of Ford’s best plates, but the habanero and lemon pepper wings are his favorite. He recalled a time when he and the late Aaron Lowe devoured 50 of Ford’s wings between them.
Ford’s abilities in the kitchen harken back to the days when he and his siblings would go to their grandmother’s house and pretend to cook with her old spices on a kitchen playset. Ford’s mother, Maria, said he’s even mentioned a desire to one day open a restaurant.
The passion for cooking followed Ford to Utah, where he often cooks for his teammates. In August, he partnered with Cultivate Craft Kitchen and Utah Foster Care to feed families in need one Sunday a month.
Sunday dinner was a tradition in the Ford household, and Ford wanted to provide that for those less fortunate than he.
“Obviously, as a student athlete, I’m sure [he] has limited free time,” said Nikki MacKay, part-owner of Cultivate and Director of Foster Family Retention at Utah Foster Care. “And the fact that he’s choosing to use that to help other people speaks a lot about his character, in my opinion.”
Ford wants to be there for others because he knows what it’s like to suffer privately.
Last August, there were days Ford slept for 18 to 20 hours a day. He missed some football practices because he had been vomiting from stress and anxiety. He coped by lounging in his bathtub while chewing gum and listening to lo-fi music. He was later diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
But Ford suffered silently.
Now Ford has already earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Utah, which gives him a more detailed insight into his own mental health and that of others. His life experiences help with that, too.
“I think he kind of realizes that you cannot hold things like that in, that it will eat you from the inside out,” his mother, Maria Ford said.
Ford’s experience dealing with his late younger brother Michael’s illness for much of his life, Ford said, has also helped develop his protective nature. Now the offensive lineman not only makes sure he keeps Cam Riming and Utah’s running backs from harm, but he goes out of his way to keep tabs on his teammates’ well-being off the field.
“That’s kind of his thing,” junior linebacker Devin Lloyd said. “He’s always saying, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ and he’s one of those guys who genuinely means it. He wants you to call him if you are in trouble or call him if you need help with anything.”
That love and support extends beyond football and into the community. During a dinner event in October, which also featured wide receiver Solomon Enis, a pair of boys asked Ford and Enis if they would use lacrosse sticks to play catch with them. Despite Ford never having picked up a lacrosse stick, he learned to throw and catch and played with the boys for a while.
“You know how they have the people walk around at Disneyland in all their costumes saying hi to the kids?” Utah wide receiver Britain Covey said. “They should just have Nick Ford walk around and say hi to all the kids because that’s how he is.”
The event in December will feature more Utah football players, and even some from the BYU football team. Getting the Cougars involved was Ford’s “brilliant” idea, MacKay said, adding that the color used in marketing materials for Utah Foster Care is purple.
“Well, we have blue for BYU and red for Utah, and we bring that together and we have Utah Foster Care purple,” MacKay recalled Ford saying.
Trevor Kingery, head chef at Cultivate, has greatly enjoyed cooking with and getting to know Ford. He’s been pleasantly surprised at the depth of cooking knowledge Ford has for someone who didn’t attend culinary school.
But most of all, Kingery is impressed by the level of commitment Ford has for making a difference in the community with food.
“The crazy thing to me was after the first event we did, the amount of food we put out,” Kingery said, “if I wouldn’t have let him into this kitchen, he was going to do it out of his apartment, which is blowing my mind.”
Notes of healing
Ford started noodling on his mother’s keyboard when he was 6 years old. In seventh grade, he started to take the instrument more seriously and learn songs he liked by ear, pressing on the white and black keys until they sounded exactly like what he was hearing.
Eventually, Ford could play Beethoven songs like “Für Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. He especially enjoys learning songs from the video games he plays.
When it comes to listening, Ford considers himself a music connoisseur. A sampling of the artists he listed are Nirvana, Adele, Sam Smith, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Al Green and YG.
For Ford — who also plays ukulele, started learning guitar soon after the pandemic hit and wants to learn saxophone — practicing his instruments is mostly an offseason activity. However, he will find a way to play a hotel piano if one is available.
During the most recent fall camp in August, Ford brought his keyboard and guitar with him to the hotel where the team stayed. There he jammed with tight ends Ali’i Niumatalolo and Cole Fotheringham, who both play guitar.
Niumatalolo, who is also a trained cellist and plays piano, said players have been able to bond over their shared musical talents. And even if a player doesn’t necessarily play an instrument, music has been a way for them to get a respite from the rigors of the football schedule.
When it comes to Ford, though, his demeanor when he’s playing music or cooking makes all the difference. Fotheringham said when Ford is engaged in either of those, he is “a big, happy guy.”
“He gets really excited about all those types of things because he knows so much about cooking and so much about music,” Niumatalolo said. “I think a lot of guys can see the passion that he has for it just because he’s able to kind of almost provide a service for people.”
Senior offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni said when teammates are hanging out with Ford and he’s cooking or playing music, there’s a real sense of a “home atmosphere.” That’s exactly the type of vibe Ford wants to create among those closest to him.
“Cooking and playing music with people, just having a good time, is really good for people’s mental health and just relationships and everything,” Ford said. “So I think that making good food for people and being around music and just hanging out and laughing and stuff, it just lets them know that they’re in a safe, comfortable environment and they could be themselves.”
Lloyd said if a player is sick, hurt or struggling in any way, shape or form, Ford will be there for them. Phillips said Ford is one of the players who always offers his home from someone if they need a place to crash for the night.
When Lowe died, Ford reminded his teammates that his home is always open to them. He gave them a place to sleep if they needed it, reminded them to eat, continued to provide a listening ear.
Phillips said Ford’s selflessness makes the team closer.
“If I love you or you’re in my family,” Ford said, “I’m going to protect you no matter what.”