A Subtle Gesture

By Paul Domowitch
Updated: August 10, 2009

Wayne Ford

Wayne Ford

PHILADELPHIA — They came to Lincoln Financial Field last Friday to remember the life of Jim Johnson. His family. His friends. Men who coached with and against him. Men who played for him.

Wayne Ford wasn’t there for the private memorial service, but he was thinking about big Jim and remembering once again the enormous impact he had on his life.

Ford met Johnson in another time and place. Before he made his mark with the Eagles as one of the NFL’s very best defensive coordinators. Before his 12 years as an assistant with the Cardinals and Colts.

Before his 2 years as a defensive coordinator in the United States Football League. Before college coaching stops at Notre Dame and Indiana.

This was 1972. Johnson was the defensive coordinator at Drake University. Ford was an African-American from the Washington ghetto playing football for a junior college in lily-white Rochester, Minn.

Johnson drove over to Rochester from Des Moines, Iowa, to recruit the young defensive lineman. Took him out to dinner, then offered him a scholarship to Drake.

“You’ve got to remember how the ’70s were,” Ford said. “Race relations were a little bit different than they are now. Jim was the first white man I ever met that intimidated me when I first saw him. His hulklike features and his sternness . . . he just had a strong personality. I was from the inner city of D.C. This was during the era of the Black Panthers and all that.

“He said he liked me and thought I could be a great asset to Drake University, which at the time had one of the top small-college programs in America.”

Ford accepted Johnson’s scholarship offer, but that isn’t the end of this story. It’s just the beginning. Fast-forward to the end of Ford’s first season at Drake.

The Bulldogs earned an invitation to the Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Texas, where they played a Tennessee State team led by future Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones.

Ford injured his knee earlier in the season and didn’t play in the game, which Drake lost, 29-7. After the game, the Drake players and coaches received plaques from the bowl people. Ford didn’t get one because he hadn’t played in the game.

“We were in the locker room and Jim came over to me and said, ‘Wayne, what’s going on? Where’s your plaque?’ I said, ‘I didn’t get one, Jim, because I didn’t play in the game.’

“Jim took his plaque and put it in my hands and said, ‘Here, you take mine. Because you helped prepare us. You helped us. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be where we are today.’ He said I had worked my behind off and got my leg hurt and took a major operation and was a part of this team and deserved this [plaque].

“That touched me much. I’ll never forget the guys around me saw it. I still remember the look of shock and awe in their eyes. Here was a man they all feared – everybody feared Jim – giving me his own plaque. That changed my life. Changed my perception of white people. Changed the way I treated people.”

Johnson left Drake after the ’72 season to become the linebackers coach at Indiana. Ford, who spent his D.C. youth selling drugs, robbing buses and breaking into apartments, went on to graduate from Drake with honors.

He stayed in Iowa, and in 1985 founded an inner-city social-services agency in Des Moines called Urban Dreams. Later got into politics and is currently in his 14th year as an Iowa state legislator.

He is the longest-serving black legislator in state history. In 2001, he was one of more than two dozen people profiled in Dan Rather’s best-selling book, “The American Dream: Stories From the Heart of Our Nation.”

“None of what I’ve done in my life would have happened if Jim didn’t give me that football scholarship to Drake University and influenced my life the way he did,” Ford said.

“I have become a changed agent. If Jim hadn’t recruited me, if he hadn’t given me that plaque, if he hadn’t had the impact on me that he did, I would not be in Iowa now. Jim helped me improve race relations in Iowa and make Iowa a better state. That’s the legacy he’s left here.”

Ford still has that Pioneer Bowl plaque that Johnson gave him 37 years ago.

“When close friends would come to our house over the years, one of the first things I would show them is that plaque,” he said.

Its importance to him goes far beyond a glory-days memory. Its importance is in the act of kindness by the man who gave it to him and how it changed his life and inspired him to be a better man, to be like Jim Johnson.

“I still get emotional thinking back on it,” Ford said. “Especially now that he’s gone.”

Ford never spoke to Johnson again after he left Drake, but he always was in his thoughts. “When they’d show him on TV during an Eagles game, I’d puff up my chest and tell my son, ‘I once was good enough to play for that man.’ “

Four years ago, Ford sent Johnson an invitation to the 20th anniversary of Urban Dreams. Got back a nice letter from the old man, who said he couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict.

Ford thought about calling Johnson the last couple of years and seeing if he could get him a couple of tickets to an Eagles game and maybe reminisce about old times. But he never got around to it. Then he heard about the cancer.

When they got together in the West Club last week to remember big Jim, Ford was several hundred miles away remembering him, too.

And he’ll almost certainly hold that plaque in his hands one more time.