Kaylon Ford Jr. couldn’t handle the fact his grandmother was cramping his style.
Cynthia Ford Williams, who rocked Ford to sleep in a bassinet when he was 2 months old, first nicknamed her grandson “Pooh Bear,” just like Winnie the Pooh. Then he got into grade school. Cynthia would pick up Kaylon from school and shout out that nickname.
Oh, bother. Even third graders need to maintain street cred.
“I switched it over to ‘Poona,’ to make it look a little more grown up,” said Williams, an energetic 60-year-old interior decorator who has lived in Hilton Head, S.C., her whole life. “He said, ‘Ma, don’t call me Poona in front of these girls.’
“You know what? I yell it out again,” she said, “I said, ‘Poona, get in the car!’ He just laid in the backseat real nice and quiet. He was shy in front of those girls.”
Kaylon has since become Poona Ford, defensive tackle at Texas. The quiet, unassuming 5-year-old standout with the Hilton Head Gators is now a quiet, unassuming college sophomore poised to have a breakout season with the Longhorns.
What’s funny about Ford’s story is that many coaches didn’t think he’d get this far. Measuring 5 feet, 11 inches tall on the roster — “I’m 6-feet,” he said — Ford was told repeatedly he was too short for major college football.
“It’s kind of ridiculous how many times I’ve heard that in my life,” Ford said. “But I just look beyond it. I let my play do the speaking.”
Funny how college coaches changed their mind after the 2014 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl.
“Yeah, they all started calling after he played in that game,” Williams said. “You know what? They just didn’t know what they missed?”
One person who didn’t was Charlie Strong, who saw something as far back as Ford’s high school junior year. Ford made an unofficial visit to Louisville, where Strong was coaching, in 2012. Hilton Head coach B.J. Payne said Strong spent the entire day with Ford.
Maybe Strong, who also was raised by strong female figures and, like Ford, also was told he was undersized, sees something of himself in Ford. Or perhaps he sees potential in those long arms and broad shoulders.
Williams remembers jumping on Ford’s back one day, forcing him to his knees. Her grandson shot up and ran all over the house, strong as a bull. After all, Ford did squat 700 pounds in high school.
“(Strong) Never left the kid’s side,” Payne said of that recruiting visit. “He gave the campus tour. He had lunch with the kid. A (graduate assistant) didn’t show him around. An assistant coach did not have lunch with him. Charlie Strong did.”
Ford’s mind was made up. He was going to Louisville and spurn South Carolina, the big in-state school. However, Strong left Louisville for Texas after the 2013 season. Ford reopened his recruitment, and Payne even tried to get Oklahoma to take a hard look.
Payne said he walked up to OU coach Bob Stoops at the national coaches convention. Payne wrote down Ford’s information on a piece of paper and walked up to the coach at night’s end. Stoops asked what schools were considering the defensive tackle. Payne told him Texas, Oregon and Missouri.
“Bob Stoops then taps me on the chest, pushes me out of the way, (and says) ‘I didn’t hear Oklahoma on that list. Have a good night,’” Payne said. “There’s a running joke among these four college coaches who saw it: Have you been Stoopsed lately? Have you been pushed out of the way?
“The day that Poona signed and committed to Texas, I gave him a present,” Payne added. “It was the piece of paper that I had to give to Bob Stoops.”
Ford wound up following Strong down to Austin. He was one of the highlight signees of the coach’s first recruiting class. Ford played nine games as a freshmen. Made only nine tackles, though. Is he indeed too small for Big 12 football?
“I think Poona was learning last year,” Strong said. “Last year, we didn’t get him in until fall camp. Now that he’s been into the program, he just has so much speed and quickness. He’s not very tall, but he plays with great technique.”
Being taken under Malcom Brown’s wing last season certainly helped Ford’s personal development. Ford got to see what it takes to play at a high level and, ultimately, become a first-round draft pick.
Back home, Williams hopes Ford can make it to the pros, but knows her grandson is here to get an education first and foremost.
“I know pros mean more money, and I love that. But college is far more important,” said Williams, who raved about Strong’s tough-love approach and core values.
“The only thing Charlie needs is a switch to pop ‘em,” Williams said. “Don’t let ‘em go astray, because I want my boy to be great. The most important thing to me is get an education. Just get that. Then you can do what you want to do.”