Ford carries memory of fallen friend into next season

Mike Ford didn’t look like Mike Ford at the start of USF’s spring football practices.

He wasn’t the Ford that fans saw the last time he took the field when the Bulls beat Memphis in the magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl victory in December.

In preparation for the 2009 season, USF’s junior running back discarded his signature dreadlocks and shed 20 pounds from his bulldozer-like frame this spring.

“This year I feel a lot lighter and stronger,” Ford said. “I’ve been catching a lot of balls in seven-on-seven drills and my teammates have been commenting on my speed.”

While the junior’s lean physique will allow for more cuts and breakaway runs, the
decision to lose weight was fueled by his motivation for next season after shouldering the sudden death of a lifelong friend.

On the 1900 block of North Orange Avenue in Sarasota, Ford’s childhood friend, Cornell Harris Jr., was shot to death March 7.

“We’ve always tried to be an inspiration to each other and tried to boost each other’s athletic careers,” Ford said. “(Harris) always showed me support, and I’m grateful for the times he was there to give me encouragement.”

Harris, 21, and his girlfriend Whitney Torres, 20, were shot while at Torres’ apartment, located in a Sarasota Housing Authority complex.

Harris, a nationally-ranked amateur boxer as a teenager, died at the scene. He is survived by his son, Cornell III. Torres was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg after being shot three times. She is recovering from surgery, but expected
to live.

Harris and Ford grew up in Sarasota playing basketball at the recreation center in town, exchanging playful jabs at the Sarasota Boxing Club and motivating each other to
succeed in life.

Though they attended different high schools, the two would talk about the daily grind of trying to make it out of the projects.

They talked over the phone the night before Harris was murdered.

“I am going to dedicate my season to him,” Ford said. “We talked the night before he was killed, and I was shocked when I heard about it.”

While Ford set records at Sarasota High School and earned “Mr. Football” honors, Harris racked up gold medals as an amateur boxer in the Junior Olympics. He ranked as high as fifth nationally as a junior boxer. A 2005 Booker High School graduate, Harris comes from a well-known boxing family in Sarasota.

“Pound for pound, (Harris) was the hardest hitter I’ve ever seen,” said Sarasota Boxing Club director and trainer Harold Wilen. “He was the best in terms of raw ability and had incredible speed of hand and foot.”

Harris’ unexpected death inspired the addition of a few more personal goals for next season, Ford said. He said he wants to rush for over 1,000 yards and help the Bulls reach a BCS national championship game while winning the Big East.

Even the USF coaching staff noticed a difference about the junior running back.

“(Ford) can endure more now and is going to be able to last longer. He is more efficient and focused,” said strength coach Ron McKeefery. “We talked about trying to make him an every-down back. We want him to be able to move in space and be able to break away from the second level.”

Along with Moise Plancher, Ford is one of two healthy backs returning from last season.

While running backs Jamar Taylor and Aston Samuels recover from injuries, Ford will be testing out his newer and lighter frame for next year.

“I wanted (Ford) in the weight room getting stronger,” said running backs coach Carl Franks. “I wanted him to sculpt that body … and now he looks like he is chiseled up top and has the six-pack working down to his stomach. He is getting bigger and stronger.”

Ford played in 11 games last season while battling a pair of ankle injuries. Though he only started one game, he led all running backs with 407 yards and five touchdowns
 on 102 carries.

Ford seemed to carry that success through the spring, grabbing more than 40 yards on his first two carries in USF’s spring game April 11.

“If you work in the weight room and stay strong, a lot of times you can be the hammer instead of getting nailed,” Franks said.

However, this season means more to Ford than just carrying yards. At 220 pounds, Ford said he’ll attempt to carry the memory of Harris next season as well.

“My prayers go out to his family and friends. Cornell was a great friend, a great person and a great father,” he said. “Let him rest in peace.”