As soon as the white hands snatched the brown ball out of the black night, the feet touched down on the green grass, the body absorbed the desperation hit, and the yellow flag for a pick play stayed in the ref’s pocket, I knew that NMB co-founder Brandt would be thrillated (thrilled and elated) with the first Clemson football national championship that he could remember. Coach William C. Swinney, the first person to ever own a castle in Pickens County, had taken the Tigers to the mountain top, and would be forever held in high esteem by the sons of dear old Clemson. And I knew I had to do something to help Brandt celebrate.
This year’s win was huge, no doubt. But for Clemson people the gap between 1981 and 2016 was filled with references to 1981 and the first national championship won by Coach Danny Ford. As a result Coach Ford is also greatly revered by most every Tiger. Second to winning it all is winning the State, and in the first ten meetings Coach Ford was much more of a dominant coach against the Gamecocks than Coach Swinney (despite the huge recent pendulum swing seemingly overnight, Dabo still to this day owns a losing record against USC owing to his five straight losses from 2009-2013). Coach Ford used a bruising, grind it out run game and occasional passes to the flanker to go 7-3-1 against USC, never losing more than one consecutive game. He was also the architect of the 45-0 beatdown in Columbia a few weeks before he was forced out, a game I was present for that I still maintain was the most one-sided in favor of Clemson in the history of the rivalry. That was followed by a dominant bowl win against a highly regarded West Virginia team. This is also the second NMB post in which I will direct you to open and watch the video on YouTube called “Ford’s Last Stand,” which I just watched again because it is so great. Pause it at 1:31 and give me your two cents about how Major Harris is still alive. Basically, Coach Ford brought SEC football to the ACC.
While the two coaches brought the same prize to Clemson, and they both played their own college ball at Bama, they are of different generations. I don’t think Danny did much dancing in the locker rooms or making up rhymes in post game interviews, and Dabo does not throw a chaw in during the game or use the word “youngster.” They are the walking personifications of old school football and new school football.
But I digress.
As I thought about something to give Brandt for the big 4-0 this year, I decided to get something that would touch his reverence for both coaches that brought national championships to Where The Blue Ridge Yawns Its Greatness, and particularly, something that involved both the level of effort and swallowing of pride that was appropriately meaningful to the value I place on our friendship. No bones about it, I am a Gamecock and he is a Tiger as described in my post The Rivalry, but our friendship is very important to me.
So let me tell you the story of how Brandt’s 40th birthday present from me came to be.
I knew I wanted something that would touch on both national championships so I started with a wide net. I work ten yards down the hall from my law partner David Wilkins, South Carolina statesman extraordinaire and member of the Clemson Board of Trustees who could probably get a cool present lined up with a couple of phone calls. But why make it easy on myself?
I knew I had a solid connection with Coach Swinney due to a childhood friend and Mauldin Mafia member that will remain nameless as a thank you for her efforts. And she delivered fantastically.
However, the information I had was that something from Coach Ford might not be as easy to secure. So I did what probably no other person reading this would even consider doing, much less actually would do (my mom though . . . this was the type of challenge that was in her wheelhouse). What did I do? I “Facebook stalked” his daughter (whom I have never met, much less would know who I am). We were not Facebook friends so I could not be sure it was her, but I went to Messenger and took a swing.
June 8, 2017: “Hi, I know this is out of the blue . . .”, I began the ask. Reading it today makes me cringe.
I waited. Would she respond right away to tell me to jump in a lake? No telltale text bubbles.
I waited some more. Still no telltale text bubbles.
I started to get my hopes dashed. In hindsight I do not know why I thought she would even consider responding to me, so I should not have had any hope at all.
Days went by, and then a week, and my hopes were totally gone. I was sure I was not only at a dead end with Coach Ford but had also made an ass of myself to a total stranger.
Then one day, the red “1” notification appeared on the Messenger app on my phone.
June 18, 2017: “Hey I just got this . . .”
She was kind in her response, which ended with her giving me - NO WAY!!! - her dad’s cell phone number. I looked at her response for what seemed like a full minute. Could it be? Did I actually possess the cell phone number for Coach Danny Ford, a man who won the college football national championship at the astoundingly young age of 33? But there it was.
I plugged the number she gave me into iMessage for a test - AND IT TURNED BLUE! It was a real number!
I deleted the draft while I thought about what to do. Obviously, I had to let a little time go by to plan out exactly how I was going to make my approach to give me a maximum chance for success.
. . .
I composed the words that I would say to Coach Ford, knowing that I needed to be brief and to the point, but also make my request seem like something that sounded normal (if that is possible) and that there would be very little effort on his part. And then I revised it. And then I revised it again.
Friday, June 30, 2017: 2:56 p.m. It was time. A phone call that will live in infamy between Brandt and me so long as either of us draws a breath on God’s green Earth.
Phone picked up. Home button touched. Home screen appeared. Phone app opened. Nervous fingers touched 8, then 6, then 4, the numbers slowly appearing on my screen until I was staring at ten digits. I stared for a couple of moments more, than I pushed the green button.
Ring ring. [nervous, like calling a girl to ask her on a date when you are not sure what she will say. In a related note, I am a happily married father of two who is pretty excited about not ever again calling a girl for a first date.]
Ring ring. [really nervous, like the instant you convince yourself that said girl is not going to answer and certainly not going to say yes to your request no matter what it is, but it is too late my friend as the phone is already ringing . . .]
“Hello.” [and there it was. The unmistakable Alabama accent that I have heard so, so many times.]
“Coach Ford, my name is Reid. Your daughter was kind to give me your number.”
I paused. Would he confront me for bothering her and now him? No interruption, so I quickly continued on with my rehearsed lines so as not to give him a chance to change his mind. “I have a friend who is a big fan of yours and I was hoping I could come by to see you and you would sign a print for him.”
“That’d be fine.” [yessssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!]
“Is there a good time for me to come over?”
“Some time next week.”
“OK, any specific time?”
“No, just some time next week.”
“OK, thank you, I will call you next week.”
It was over. I’d done it. I managed to clearly state who I was, how I came to contact him, what I wanted, and get a positive reaction, all in exactly 49 seconds counting ring time. I had taken a warm lead and turned it into a tentative yes. I’d be selling ice to Eskimos in no time.
Still, there were details to figure out. I had the “who and what” (and the “why” as explained in this post), but I needed the equally critical “when and where.” So naturally I gave it less than 48 hours before reaching back out.
July 2, 2017: I decided to try my hand with an iMessage, reminding him of our call and what we discussed and asking if that day was good, or maybe another day. I carefully typed it out, and read it a dozen times before hitting the blue arrow to send it. 30 minutes later - “will be here rest of today.” BOOM. Two for two.
So on the Sunday before Independence Day at about 3:30 p.m. I found myself on South Carolina Highway 123 in Pickens County, driving towards Danny Ford’s Anderson County farm. I was listening to music, and feeling pretty proud of myself.
Then my phone started ringing. I looked down. Caller ID said DANNY FORD WAS CALLING ME. I cannot overstate how amazed I felt. I answered. He asked where I was, and after I answered he told me he would not be at his place when I arrived. My heart sunk - I knew this was too good to be true!!! - until he told me he would be “a few farms down.” He then proceeded to give me a sequence of rapid fire directions with local waypoints as to where “a few farms down” was - and then the call dropped. Noooo!!!
I was frozen. But a few seconds later, and my phone was ringing again, AND DANNY FORD WAS CALLING ME AGAIN. We got back into the directions that involved multiple stop signs, a gas station, and a dead end, and the field “a few farms down”, and then as the Lord is my witness, this line:
“I will be in the middle of that field, bush hogging.”
Now mind you, I had no idea where I was going in the first place. I had the coach’s residence address plugged into Google Maps on my phone, but I was totally reliant on that. You see, I just don’t get to Pendleton that often. And now my directions involved looking for a new destination, and the call was over so quick I immediately started to get the directions scrambled in my mind. I felt a little bit like Red in The Shawshank Redemption looking for that Buxton hayfield. On the other hand, I am from South Carolina, so I know exactly what “bush hogging” entails. Game on.
I knew I would not be able to follow the directions he had given me over the phone because there were too many turns on unfamiliar roads, so I decided to get to his house and then make a new plan. Eventually I found his mailbox, just a few miles from 123 as the crow flies but definitely out in the country. I then decided to do my best to drive a circle around his farm, turning right at crossroads and keeping my eyes open for distant movement. As I crept along, swinging my head back and forth, it appeared. A tractor chugging along, pulling a bush hog attachment.
I slowed down and rolled down the window and waved to the single occupant. I pulled over to the side of the road and waited. The man pulled the tractor over to the edge of the field and hopped out. The face was unmistakable. We walked towards each other, and then I shook hands with a national championship winning coach over a barbed wire fence separating pasture from road. He directed me to drive my truck into the field where he was, and I was happy to oblige. I entered through an open gate and he pulled the tractor over, shut off the engine, once more climbed down from the cab, and asked me for the ball. I reminded him it was a print, which I already had in my hands as I was determined not to be fumbly, and I handed it to him along with a crisp and unused black Sharpie. The print was rolled up so he asked me to hold it open so he could sign.
And so my quest ended in a field on the outskirts of Pendleton, when Coach Danny Lee Ford signed my birthday present to Brandt on the hood of my Ford pick up. He wrote “To Brandt, Happy Birthday, Best Wishes, Danny Ford” in a tidy cursive script. And he even left a smudge of dirt underneath his signature from where the side of his hand rested as he wrote, much in the same way that the king used a wax seal to leave no doubt about who was making the mark. It was if he was saying “dirt . . . old school football . . . don’t ever forget it.”
He politely took his leave, climbing back in the tractor and telling me he was way behind in his bush hogging because he had just gotten back from the beach. He kindly asked me to close the pasture gate as I left by saying “I’ve got some cows in here, and I don’t want them to get out.” With that, he was chugging away from me, bush hog spinning.
One more thing. Want to know what kind of tractor Danny was using to bush hog? Ford.
HAPPY 40TH BIRTHDAY TO A GREAT FRIEND!