By Steven A. Conn
College student-athletes pass through campuses like the change of seasons in New England. Some make an impact on the fields as undergraduates while others make significant contributions years later. Schools don't often get alumni who fit into both categories the way former football player Jack Ford '72 has for Yale.
Ford, who became a lawyer and then made a huge splash in the media world, has worn his blue and white clothing with pride while making big contributions to the Elm City institution. Whether he is serving as master of ceremonies for the Carm Cozza Retirement Dinner or the Cozza Football Hall of Fame Banquet, moderating the Kiphuth Fellowship Panel, hosting the tercentennial TV show, receiving an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award or attending numerous Yale Athletic contests, Ford enthusiastically waves the Yale banner. However, those are just a few examples of his giving to the university.
"Jack Ford has been tireless in his support of Yale and Yale Athletics. He is one of the kindest and finest 'superstars' anyone could ever meet," said Tom Beckett, the school's director of athletics.
Ford, who would have been in his second year as the host of ESPN's Sports Reporters II if not for an exciting new opportunity, is one of a rare breed of former Bulldog football players who has become a national media star. The other that comes to mind is Stone Phillips '77, a starting quarterback for Carm Cozza and the host of Dateline NBC, while others like John Spagnola '79 (ABC College Football) and Bob McKeown '71 (NBC News Reporter) have also worked their way into the national spotlight.
Ford, who was NBC's chief legal correspondent and hosted the network's Weekend Today Show after being discovered on NBC covering the O.J. Simpson Trial, later signed on with ABC to anchor 20/20 with Connie Chung and for Good Morning America (GMA). He was slated to replace Princeton graduate Charlie Gibson in GMA's lead role but the longtime host brushed off retirement and Ford, still under contract with ABC, was able to look for new endeavors.
One of those was moderating the informal weekly panel at ESPN Zone in Times Square with other sports media, the kind of TV show of which the former Bulldog defensive back dreamed. Ford, who had not worked extensively in the sports industry, articulates in the jock world as if he studied under famous sports wordsmiths Frank DeFord and John Feinstein. Unfortunately, the Sports Reporters II show will not include Ford this season because he is focusing on a new project called Living It Up with Ali (Wentworth) & Jack, which airs this fall, Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. E.S.T. on CBS.
Ford, who may be the most recognizable former Eli football player because of his media work and community service, might be equally famous for his legal work, having served as an assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County and a high-profile trial attorney who was involved with New Jersey's first death penalty case and the Wall Street insider trading scandal. In addition, he taught law at his graduate school alma mater, Fordham, and covered many big trials as a reporter.
The benefits to his fame go far beyond the finances, especially for someone who likes to hit the links. Ford, who played a round of golf with Tiger Woods in 2002, was paired with Vijah Singh this past summer at the Buick Classic celebrity pro-am in Westchester, N.Y.
Other perks of the trade are plain to see. Ford, who was filmed having laser eye surgery on GMA for one of his informational series, takes great pride in educating viewers. However, one particular show stands out the most.
Ford did a series on the connective tissue disorder Marfan's Syndrome on the Today Show and soon thereafter received a phone call from someone at the Marfan's Association saying they had received thousands of phone calls from people who had watched him. According to the association, six lives (people who had emergency surgery to correct a rare heart condition when hearing about the symptoms) may have been saved by that series. "It's nice to know that what we do has real value," said Ford.
Ford, whose father walked out on his family when he was five, knows value and values. He, his mother and three siblings, living in his grandparent's attic, were put to the test, both in survival and in trying to live productive lives. Everyone had to pitch in to help pay expenses, so even 10-year-old Jack found a job to contribute to the family money jar, and his mother went back to school to earn a teacher's degree.
"My mom [Peggy White, remarried at 81-years-old] was my hero. She was left standing on the street with four kids and never acted like life was difficult. She was also the perfect athlete's parent, going to every game but never caring if we won or lost. All that mattered was that I enjoyed it."
Jack, who as a sixth grader made a school basketball team for older kids, had to share a pair of athletic shoes with his older sister, Lynn, until he got lucky one day after practice.
"I found sneakers someone had thrown away and pulled them out of the garbage. I put a lot of tape on the sneakers and used them for the rest of the season," said Ford, who was later recruited for his gridiron exploits by three Ivy schools, two from what is now called the Patriot League and Duke and Maryland. "That may explain why I now have between 80 and 90 pair of shoes."
Fast forward to the year 2000 and Ford, wearing a Joseph Abboud suit and Cole-Haan shoes, is at the White House interviewing President Bush. "I said to myself, how could this kid from Pt. Pleasant Beach be sitting here with the President and be on a first-name basis," said Ford, who began work in television 20 years ago in New York City on WCBS as its legal commentator and was named People Magazine's Sexiest News Anchor in 1999.
Now go back to the days when he had no money. Ford and his wife, Dorothy, were looking for ways to make some money to help pay the bills during his second year of law school at Fordham. He had a thirst for knowledge in history, entertainment and sports and was lucky and sharp enough to earn a spot on Jeopardy, which used to be filmed in the Big Apple and comes to Yale this fall, 30 years after Ford made his inaugural TV appearance. Fortunately for the Bulldog whiz kid, the show was doing a promotional campaign that included a bonus for participants who swept a category. Competing against a four-time winner, Ford, who practiced for the game show by having Dorothy ask questions while he worked a clicker, saw that sports was one of the categories and managed to run the category and pick up a quick $3,500.
"That helped take the pressure off, and I managed to win $6,000 over three days, which was a lot of money those days on game shows."
The athletic barrister who hit it big on Jeopardy made it big 22 years later with the most visible trial in the history of the American legal system. Ford's reporting from the O.J. trial aired nationally three times a day, seven days a week for nine months.
"In the TV journalism business, careers are enhanced by tragedy. It put a number of people in the national limelight. It gave me an enormous amount of exposure," said Ford, who lettered three years in the defensive backfield and still ranks fourth on Yale's all-time longest interception returns with a 77-yard TD scamper against Penn in 1969.
Ford, one of nine sophomores to start for the Elis during that championship season, helped Cozza's squad rise above the pre-season prognostications to earn a title. The Quakers provided a big challenge in the Bowl and were gaining momentum in the third quarter when the Yale defender put them and the game away with the long interception return.
"I read the quarterback's eyes and stepped in front of a pass. I got hit by someone and stumbled. Rumor has it that our captain, Andy Coe, helped me catch my balance before I got to the sideline and went the rest of the way. I held the ball in the air like it was a trophy, which I thought would get me in trouble with Carm [Cozza]," said Ford, who had four career interceptions and an 18-9 record with the Bulldog varsity.
Coe, a linebacker, has been asked by Ford numerous times since if he aided the defensive back on that play. Cozza never got upset about his ball-handling, but Ford was not immune from raising the legendary coach's ire.
"After dinner the Friday night before our 1971 game at Princeton, the Toads [nickname of the Yale offensive linemen] came out of the restaurant and walked over to the campus where Jack led them in a chorus of 'Bulldog," said Ford's head coach Carm Cozza, who was probably most irritated that the impromptu performance completely halted car traffic. "I was really upset and ran over to him to say he had better lead us to victory tomorrow, which he did."
Considering the result, Cozza told his monster back that he might want to try singing the following week before the Harvard game. Ford's Elis beat Princeton all three years, including 10-6 his senior year at Old Nassau, but were 1-2 against the Crimson.
The famous former Eli overcame great obstacles to get to Yale, and there were plenty of mountains to climb on the gridiron when he arrived in New Haven.
"There were 110 freshman out for the team when I arrived at Yale. In the first game I tore my hamstring and was out for the season. I had played quarterback in high school but I started as a wide receiver. I was playing behind a senior and a junior and knew I would not get a chance to play. After talking to coach Bill Narduzzi (defensive coordinator) during pre-season practice my second year, I switched to defense the next day."
Ford made the switch the next fall and very quickly one defensive back moved positions and another got hurt, and he found himself starting on defense for the first of three straight seasons.
"Jack Ford loves football, and he is devoted to Yale football. He played hard, he practiced hard, and he enjoyed every minute," said Dick Jauron '73, who played in the NFL before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears. "Jack is a true 'teammate' and a perfect example of why sports -- football in particular -- get into your soul and never let go. It's the people, their character, their commitment, and their love for one another. I am proud to call him teammate and I am proud to call him friend."
Bob Milligan '72 had another perspective on his teammate rising above the odds.
"Jack and I were both from New Jersey and two of 16 quarterbacks recruited by Carm Cozza. I remember standing with him on the sidelines watching the incredible collection of talent and, in particular, one recruit who could roll out to either side and fire the ball with whichever arm was most convenient," said Milligan. "I remember Jack looking at me wide-eyed and saying, 'Did you see that? We're in trouble.' Despite the talent, we managed to produce what I believe was the worst record for a freshmen football team in Yale history (0-7). However, the next year (1969), with [Brian] Dowling and [Calvin] Hill graduated, there were 11 sophomore starters on the varsity, including Jack at monster back and me at flanker. Despite very low expectations, we shared the Ivy Championship. Jack's transition from quarterback, a relatively cushy offensive spot, to monster back, one of the toughest and most demanding defensive positions in football, was truly remarkable and a testament to his determination, talent and love for the game."
The games are gone and his lifestyle has changed drastically, but Ford's determination and talents surface in other ways. His legal and journalism work has earned numerous accolades, including two Emmy Awards, the George Foster Peabody Award for 1999, the National Headliner Award, the New Jersey Bar Association Outstanding Professional Achievement Award and the Asbury Park Press Shore Area Outstanding Legal Figure Award. In 1997, he was honored with the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, which is given to former NCAA athletes who have moved on to achievement in other fields.
Ford, distinguished with the 1998 Father of the Year Award by the National Father's Day Committee, got another thrill when his family began its legacy at Yale. Ashley '04, a member of the 2003 Ivy Champion women's lacrosse team who surprised her dad by wearing his No. 27, lures him to campus with home contests and he provides the Bulldogs with added road fan support. The '72 graduate, who saw the first women on the campus and was well aware of Richard Nixon signing the Title IX legislation at the same time, witnessed a historic transition that would impact his family. In addition, Jack and Ashley, who now plays on the Yale tennis team, may be the only father-daughter combination to sport Ivy League championship rings.
"There is a bit of serendipity to it. I am a big advocate of co-education, and not just because it improved the environment for us," said Ford, a commencement speaker at two different universities who has spoken at a dozen other schools. "I was astonished at how many old Blue and guys my age were opposed to it. It is so much fun to see Ashley as a varsity athlete at Yale," says the former Bulldog, whose son, Colin, a high school lacrosse player, could become an Eli as well.
A few years ago, Good Morning America did a series on back injuries and one episode featured Ford, one of the show hosts, getting hurt against Harvard in 1971. With his freshman year injury and his high-impact position, the doctors in New Haven knew him well. Now he is just what the doctor ordered for his alma mater. The guy wearing No. 27, who was taken to the sideline for the rest of the game, often returns to the sidelines at the Bowl to support the Elis.
"One of the great things about Jack is that he is so humble and genuine; from the moment you meet him he makes you feel like you have been best friends forever," said senior associate athletic director Barbara Chesler. "He is also one of Yale's greatest all-around sports fans."
The film "Love Story" may have been filmed at the rival school in Boston, but Yale has its own stories and legacies. Late in his senior year Jack and Dorothy walked the campus one day talking about marriage as a snowstorm blanketed the city. Twenty-eight years later the couple returned for Ashley's freshman orientation and took the same stroll. It was in the heat of the summer but the memories prevented them from knowing it was a hot day.
Steve Conn is Yale's Assistant Athletic Director and Sports Publicity Director