HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Poona Ford rarely gives much away through casual conversation. The mammoth of a man is more often revealed through subtle, momentary changes in his expressions than through any interview with a reporter.
Hilton Head Island High football coach B.J. Payne saw such a moment last summer when the defensive tackle returned from a recruiting trip to Louisville, one he took apart from his teammates on Payne’s annual college road trip. He saw it again Monday afternoon, when a wide smile crept across the senior’s face as he spoke of the Cardinals coaching staff.
A day later, that same grin was back as Ford announced his commitment to Louisville and coach Charlie Strong in a ceremony at Hilton Head High. He peeled back a jacket to reveal a Cardinals T-shirt before donning a Louisville hat, effectively closing a recruiting process that saw him go from a relative unknown to one of the more sought-after prospects in the Southeast.
“I guess I just had a feeling,” Ford said Monday. “The feeling you get when you know you’re welcome.”
Their attempts to welcome him were established early on. It started that day in Louisville with Seahawks assistant coach Joey Maddox, when Ford spent all afternoon with players such as Teddy Bridgewater and Preston Brown, and continued for the next several months as the Cardinals made their pitch. Ford took home a comic book where he was the main character and a puzzle that showed the tackle donning a Louisville uniform.
“When he showed up at the hotel (on the recruiting trip) he was ear-to-ear, smiling,” Payne recalled. “‘Coach, I’ve got to talk to you.’ Louisville ... just kind of shot through the roof after that.”
The Cardinals — who will move to the ACC during Ford’s first year with the program — won out over such schools as South Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio State, Kansas State and Ole Miss.
“I went up there for a visit and they talked to me about coming in my freshman year and playing the very first game at home against Miami,” Ford said.
It was a surprising turn for a player whom few outside the Lowcountry knew much of following a sophomore season that saw him lining up at Mike linebacker. But Payne changed all that by moving Ford to the three-technique defensive tackle position after his first encounter with the soft-spoken player at a coach’s meet-and-greet in January 2012.
“I watched him lift and watched him run and said, ‘That’s our three tech,’ “ Payne said. “No bones about it, he’s our three technique. He’s a guy that’s so explosive, so powerful. Everybody talks about his height, but he’s a legit 660-pound squatter.”
Ford responded with an explosive junior year that saw him register 154 tackles, 44 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.
But off the field he was far from the frightening, imposing figure he was on the field, as the quiet kid often chose to eat lunch during August practices with Payne’s two children, Cage and Kaiya.
“When he steps on the field he’s a whole different anmial,” Payne said. “You get him off the field during two-a-days, he eats lunch with my kids. ... He’s like a gentle giant without being 7 feet.”
Ford said he likes being that type of role model, regardless of how few words he lets escape his mouth. It’s the same cool and quiet attitude he plans on bringing to the field for Louisville in 2014.
“I have a lot of people that look up to me,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep doing good, show class in class and just work hard on the field.”