Ford from the 1948 Michiganensian
No. 50, 53, 80, 83
|Date of birth:February 18, 1926|
|Place of birth: Washington, D.C.|
|Date of death: March 14, 1972(aged 46)|
|Place of death: Detroit, Michigan|
|High school: Armstrong Manual Training School|
|College: Morgan State, Michigan|
|Debuted in 1948 for the Los Angeles Dons|
|Last played in 1958 for the Green Bay Packers|
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
|Stats at pro-football-reference.com|
|Stats at DatabaseFootball.com|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame|
Leonard Guy Ford, Jr. (February 18, 1926 – March 14, 1972) was an American football defensive end who played for the University of Michigan and professionally for the Los Angeles Dons, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. One of the most dominant defensive players of his era, Ford had an unmatched combination of size and speed that helped him disrupt opposing offenses and force fumbles. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1976.
Ford was a standout athlete at his high school in Washington, D.C., and attended Morgan State University after graduating in 1944. After a brief stint in the military the following year, he transferred to Michigan, where he played on the football team as an offensive and defensive end. Led by quarterback Bob Chappuis, Michigan won the college football national championship in 1947, Ford's senior year.
Ford was passed over in the National Football League (NFL) draft, but was selected by the Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference (AAFC), where he played for two seasons. The AAFC dissolved in 1949, however, and he signed with the Browns, a former AAFC team that had joined the NFL. The Browns won NFL championships in 1950, 1954 and 1955, helped by a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL in six of Ford's eight seasons in Cleveland. Ford was traded to the Packers in 1958, but played there just one season before retiring. He studied law and worked at a Detroit recreation facility after leaving football. He suffered a heart attack and died in 1972, when he was 46 years old. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame four years later and into Michigan's Athletic Hall of Honor in 1996.
Early life and college
Ford grew up in Washington, D.C. and attended Armstrong Technical High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He was chosen by local sportswriters as an all-city athlete in all three sports, and served as captain of all three teams for one season each. After he graduated in 1944, Theodore McIntyre, Ford's high school football coach, suggested he attend Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. Ford played for the Morgan State Bears football team for one year under head coach Edward P. Hurt, while also starring as the center on the school's basketball team. The basketball squad won their league's championship in 1944.
Ford left Morgan State and joined the U.S. Navy in 1945, but stayed in the service only briefly as World War II came to an end. He then transferred to the University of Michigan to play football in a bigger program than Morgan State's. He wanted to "get a shot at playing in the Rose Bowl one day", he later said. He first played for Michigan as a sophomore during the 1945 season at left end, when the team had a 7–3 win–loss record, and became a starter the following season. Ford was one of Michigan's biggest players, standing at about six feet, five inches tall and weighing about 240 pounds. He quickly established himself as a tenacious tackler on defense and was also a receiving threat as an end on offense as Michigan finished the 1946 season with a 6–2–1 win–loss–tie record under head coach Fritz Crisler. He scored a touchdown in a late-season game against Wisconsin on an end-around, a play Michigan employed frequently with Ford.
Led by quarterback Bob Chappuis, halfback Bump Elliott and tackle Al Wistert, the team fared even better in 1947, Ford's senior year. Nicknamed the "Mad Magicians", the Michigan squad finished with a 10–0 record, capped by a 49–0 victory in the Rose Bowl over USC on New Year's Day. Ford caught a 35-yard touchdown pass in the first game of the season and had a long reception that set up another in the 55–0 win over Michigan State. He scored again in a game against Pitt. Michigan finished first in the AP Poll and won the college football national championship, sharing the honor with Notre Dame, which had been first in the polls before the Rose Bowl.
Ford was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press after the season. The agency also named him a second-team all-Big Nine Conference end. In the summer of 1948, he accepted an invitation to play for the college team in the College All-Star Game, a now-defunct annual matchup between the champion of the professional National Football League (NFL) and a selection of the country's best college players.
Los Angeles Dons (AAFC)
Despite his accomplishments in college, Ford was passed over in the NFL draft during an era when most professional teams did not employ African-Americans. He was selected, however, by the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in the third round of its 1948 draft. Playing as a right end opposite Joe Aguirre, Ford had 31 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns in 1948. As was the case at Michigan, Ford also worked on defense and was one of the AAFC's most successful pass-rushers. The Dons, meanwhile, finished the regular season 7–7 for third place in the AAFC West. Ford played basketball in the offseason for the New York Renaissance, an all-black team in the National Basketball League. He had been barred from playing basketball at Michigan, where the sport was restricted to whites.
Ford had 36 catches for 577 yards and one touchdown in 1949, when the Dons fell to 4–8. The AAFC struggled financially during Ford's time with the Dons. Its teams competed with NFL franchises for fans' attention and player talent – the Dons shared a city with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams. By late 1949 team owners came to an agreement under which the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts joined the NFL and the rest of the league's teams, including the Dons, folded.
After the AAFC disbanded, the Browns selected Ford in the second round of the 1950 AAFC dispersal draft, created to reallocate former Dons, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Hornets players. Cleveland head coach Paul Brown converted Ford into solely a defensive end as two-platoon systems gained popularity after 1950. Ford bulked up to 260 pounds and quickly became a fixture of Cleveland's defense alongside linebacker Bill Willis and defensive back Warren Lahr. He was one of five black players for Cleveland – the others were Willis, punter Horace Gillom and fullbacks Emerson Cole and Marion Motley – at a time when many other teams had never signed a black player. The Browns, in fact, had roughly a third of the black players in the NFL on their roster. Led by an offense that featured Motley, quarterback Otto Graham and ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli, Cleveland finished the regular season with a 10–2 record in 1950 and won the NFL championship over the Los Angeles Rams. In an October game against the Chicago Cardinals, an elbow by Pat Harder broke Ford's nose, both cheekbones and knocked out several of his teeth. Ford, who had been fighting with Harder throughout the game, punched him following the play, resulting in a penalty, his ejection from the game and a $50 fine. NFL commissioner Bert Bell withdrew the fine when the damage to Ford's face was revealed. Ford only started four games, although he returned to play as a substitute in the championship in December, wearing a face mask.
Ford continued to excel as a pass-rusher in 1951, when the Browns again advanced to the NFL championship game but lost to the Rams. He recovered four fumbles during the season and was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. He was also named to the Pro Bowl, the NFL's all-star game. Ford's dominating play allowed Brown to assign him to two offensive linemen, giving Cleveland the latitude to put four men on the line and use three linebackers in what is now known as the 4–3 defense. Ford "was so devastating on defense we knew this was his natural spot,” Cleveland assistant coach Blanton Collier later said. “Len was very aggressive and had that touch of meanness in him that you find in most defensive players.”
Cleveland had eight regular-season wins in 1952 and won the NFL's East division, but lost to the Detroit Lions in the championship game. Ford, meanwhile, extended his run of dominance against opposing offenses in an era before the quarterback sack was a recorded statistic. He was named an All-Pro and selected for the Pro Bowl after the 1952 season and repeated the feat the following year, when the Browns again advanced to the championship game and lost to the Lions.
Willis and Motley retired after the 1953 season, but Ford and Don Colo continued to anchor the defense alongside Lahr in the secondary. The Browns lost two of their first three games, but finished the season with a 9–3 record and returned to win the NFL championship over the Lions. Ford had two interceptions in the Browns' 56–10 win over the Lions and was again an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection. He also had five fumble recoveries, a career high. The Browns finished 9–2–1 in 1955 and won another NFL championship against the Rams, helped by a strong defensive effort and six interceptions of quarterback Norm Van Brocklin.
Graham and many of the players that had helped propel the Browns to a series of championship game appearances retired before the 1956 season. The team finished 5–7 that year, its first-ever losing record. Ford, by then in his thirties, stayed with the Browns the following year as the defensive leadership began to transition to a core of younger players including Galen Fiss, Walt Michaels and Vince Costello. Led by rookie running back Jim Brown, the Browns yet again reached the championship game but lost to the Lions. Cleveland's defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL in six of Ford's eight seasons with the team.
Green Bay Packers
The Browns traded Ford to the Green Bay Packers in 1958 in exchange for a draft choice. The Browns were restocking the team with younger players at the time, and Brown felt Paul Wiggin could replace Ford at right defensive end. Green Bay won just one game in Ford's lone season there. He held a NFL record with 20 career fumble recoveries at the time of his retirement. Ford was successful in part because of his combination of quickness and size. Few players of his era who were as tall and big as he was could move as fast; only Larry Brink of the Rams was close to him in proportions.
Later life and death
Ford studied law in Detroit after leaving football and worked as the assistant director of the Considine Recreation Center, an inner-city recreational facility. He died in 1972 a month after suffering a heart attack at just 46 years of age. Ford married Geraldine Bledsoe, who later became a judge in Detroit, in 1951. They had two children, Anita and Deborah, and divorced in 1959.
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