CHAMPAIGN — Nothing a reporter likes better than an athlete who says interesting stuff.
Meet Luke Ford. Actually, meet Ford again.
You all know the story. One of the top tight ends in the nation as a senior at Carterville High School, Ford had his pick of schools. Ultimately, he chose SEC power Georgia.
That’s where he played in 2018 before deciding to make a change. And come back home to Illinois.
The NCAA did him wrong in 2019, not allowing Ford to be immediately eligible while giving former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields the green light at Ohio State.
Unfair treatment for Ford. It happens.
But, there is a potential happy ending to the story. The NCAA provided Ford with “tackling fuel,” the phrase used by Bobby Boucher in the classic football movie “The Waterboy.”
Ford is a fan of the Adam Sandler flick. He patterns his style after Boucher.
“I was a little, scrawny dude, probably 160 (pounds) soaking wet freshman year in high school,” Ford said. “I watched ‘The Waterboy’ and I was like, ‘I’m going to go head first as a fast as I can at this guy and see what happens.’ I started gaining weight and getting stronger and it made it a little bit easier.”
That was one of the many gems Ford delivered during Thursday afternoon’s 25-minute Zoom call. He had the media laughing and smiling — starting with his clothes.
Ford wore a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses during the session.
“I guess I was kind of going for a ‘Tony Stark” vibe because I watched ‘Iron Man 1’ (Thursday),” Ford said. “I love the Hawaiian shirts. I always wear Hawaiian shirts.”
And he speaks his mind.
“I don’t know if I’m a free spirit,” Ford said. “I’m a low-stress guy. I just like to relax. When it’s go time, it’s go time. I’m locked in. I’m zoned in. I’m ready to play.”
Ford doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously off the field. Asked if he added up any new skills during quarantine, Ford said: “I was going to try to learn Spanish. I did that for a day or two. I was confused because it was in a different language and it was kind of hard to learn. So then afterward, I just went back to playing video games.”
There were other hobbies on his to-do list.
“I was going to learn to fly, but I didn’t have the money to afford the flight lessons,” he said. “I was going to dirt bike, but then Coach (Lovie Smith) thought that was a risk, so I couldn’t do that one.”
Ford hasn’t played in a game for almost two years. The wait figures to end Oct. 24 in Madison, Wis., against 16th-ranked Wisconsin.
“Having not played in 22 months, it’s a little nerve-racking at first,” Ford said. “I feel like I’ll be ready.”
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith promises to use his new weapon. Ford joins a tight end group that includes talented holdover Daniel Barker and Southern Cal transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
Ford used his transfer season to learn Smith’s offense. He did extra work.
Of course, Ford has been asked constantly about not playing for so long.
“I’m not afraid to talk about it,” he said. “Part of me does want to put in the past.”
His brother, Noah, has been ribbing Ford about his time away from the game.
In a brotherly way.
“He’s always joking around,” Ford said. “He’ll be like, ‘Hey, how’s it going bench warmer? You still keeping the seat for them there?’
“He’s always talking trash. I think he’s put on a freshman 50, so I make fun of him for his weight, he makes fun of me for sitting on the bench last year.”
The time off will end soon.
What play does Ford want for his first at Illinois? Anything that will get him in the end zone.
And if he scores, expect a celebration. Not in the end zone. Lovie Smith frowns upon 15-yard penalties.
“I might do the classic ‘Hingle McCringleberry,’” Ford said.
That’s the celebration used by comedian Keegan Michael-Key’s fictitious football player.
Looking aheadOn the roster, Ford is listed as a junior. And that’s where he is academically. But technically, he’s got three seasons of college eligibility left.
“I do have NFL aspirations,” Ford said.
It has been a while since an Illinois tight end was selected in the NFL draft. Back in 2010, Michael Hoomanawanui went in the fifth round to the then-St. Louis Rams. Before that, you have to go back to 1995, when Ken Dilger went in the second round to the Indianapolis Colts.
The good news for the reporters covering Illinois is that if Ford has an NFL-worthy junior season, he will be a constant invitee to the postgame press conferences.
Smiles all around. And don’t forget the Hawaiian shirt.