Oakland University athletic trainer Tom Ford is retiring after 30 years due to his ALS diagnosis. Those who know him best shared a few stories with the Free Press.
“The day he got here, we went on a bus to the Upper Peninsula to play Lake Superior and Northern Michigan. After the Lake Superior game … we got on the road and the heat went out in the bus. It was cold out, it was 4 below, we’ve got a 5-hour ride with no heat. Within an hour and an hour and a half the windows had frosted. … That was Tom Ford’s first trip with us. The kids believed (jokingly) that he was the curse and he caused this. So he had to live with that for a long time. … He’s sat next to me on the bench for 30 years. We’ve experienced every high, every low together. He keeps a special stat on the bench. Most athletic trainers don’t do that. The new coaches that came in realized how much I trusted Tom and how important he was to our program and to me, the psychology of him being there. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. … What’s being lost in this is he is a tremendous trainer. Forget the human interest and how everybody loved him. He did his job amazingly well. If a kid sprained an ankle, that kid would be back in a few days. Because of Tom’s ability, the psychology of working with an athlete, he was so good at that. Kids believed in him. Like if he touched the ankle, if felt better.” – OU men’s basketball coach Greg Kampe
“It was almost a running insider joke we had, but before every game on the road or at home, I don’t know if it was superstition, but I was the very first one to get my ankles taped. On the road we would tape our ankles before we went to the game. I’d always be bugging him, ‘T-Ford, what room are you in, because I need to get my ankles taped.’ It became like this joke where he would tell everyone on the team but me where we were getting our ankles taped. … He’d always try to not let me be first but I always was.” – Max Hooper, OU men’s player, 2014-16
“When T-Ford talked you listened. Man of few words but when he spoke you were a fool if you didn’t listen because he was always trying to HELP YOU! Loved his wit and we were always jealous as assistants because with all of our great ideas at halftime, Kamp always turned to him first and his charts that he kept on the sideline! One of the strongest, selfless and tireless people I’ve ever known” – Devon Smith, OU men’s basketball assistant, 2004-06
“I remember sitting at dinner with our staff. … It was my first year at OU … Kampe took us all to a steakhouse in Kansas City – The Golden Ox – one of our guys asked for A1 … Kampe told him if he put steak sauce on it, he wasn’t buying it for him … T-Ford leaned over to me an said “welcome to the staff … and I hope you don’t like A1!”… I almost fell out of my chair” – Jeff Smith, men’s assistant 2002-07
“I called T-Ford ‘grandpa’ because of how he looked at each & everyone one of us like we were his own. My last two years playing at Oakland were filled with trying to figure out different ways to treat my bad knees. Spent tons of car rides to doctor’s appointments, surgeries in hospitals and time in the athletic training room with T. My favorite thing to do with him would be when we would go into doctor’s appointments and we would go to the receptionist’s desk together. I would look at him and he would look at me and we would just smile because we knew what was about to happen. Being the person I am I would always beat him to speak to the receptionist saying, “Hi I’m Drew Valentine here for (a knee appointment for example). This is my grandpa, Tom Ford. We would both instantly start laughing and it was kind of our little inside joke.” – Drew Valentine, OU men’s player, 2009-13, assistant 2015-present
“My favorite T story as a player is probably when we scared the crap out of him – I got in the laundry bin and teammates covered me with clothes and rolled it into the training room with some BS excuse on why they came in – maybe just said something like do you think this laundry is clean or dirty? And he came over and looked in it and I popped up and nearly gave him a heart attack, at least a few grey hairs. He was always willing to deal with us (he wasn’t our main trainer) when we needed him. One doubleheader road trip he got stuck with me during our game as my back had locked up in warmups – we spent most of the game behind the stands while he tried to work it out. Working and traveling with him the past few years, I am probably reiterating what others have said – you could always count on him – reliable, consistent, always there for whatever was needed.” – Sarah Judd, women’s basketball player, 1998-2002, men’s basketball director of operations, 2006-present
Outgoing Oakland trainer Tom Ford talks about wanting to be a symbol despite being diagnosed with ALS. Video by Mark Snyder/DFP
“He had a pair of boots that were beat up and looked like they were about 100 years old. He would wear them when he had to go outside with us for workouts, or when he had to go outside in the snow with the baseball team. We would always tell him he should get some new ones, but he’d just say ‘They still work, I’m fine.’ Being there so long, he could send someone else out in the snow, but he would go himself every time because he was selfless. T-Ford helped set the culture at OU that was work hard and be nice to people. He always fought hard to help OU athletics any way he could, and I know he’ll continue to fight.” – Jordan Howenstine, OU men’s player, 2010-13
“We would always joke about his NCAA watch he wears that he got after my junior year, I’d always joke with when he wore it and tell him ‘Mr. Ford, I got you one of the nicest watches in the world.’ We would also joke about his cat that was named Reggie. … I know Mr. Ford will be OK, he’s always been strong! I know he’s up right now getting his daily exercise walking around the mall!” – Reggie Hamilton, OU men’s player, 2010-12
“The year the men and the women won the national championship, in 1994 … it was down in Canton, Ohio, and we had a huge group of alums and afterward everybody was jumping in the pool. He jumped in the pool with the women first. I remember I had to pause to think if he even knew how to swim. He was paddling around with the best of them. He’s always taking care of us. I had to pause and think, do we have to take care of him?” – Pete Hovland, OU men’s swimming coach since 1979, women’s also since 2001
“When I started here in 2010, my first trip through the airports, I had the radio stuff, my backpack, and T, I always called him my brother in baggage, because he’s got 10 bags. That was one of the things I had to identify with him, was when we landed and we were waiting around for luggage, it was mine or it was T’s. And that was something stupid like that that brings you together. That was the start of our friendship together. … I love the guy. T-Ford, he is Oakland.” – Neal Ruhl, OU men’s basketball broadcaster
“When I worked with Kampe’s staff, he and I were roommates on the road on quite a few trips. The thing that always impressed me with him was, it didn’t matter what time of night, he would be up to take care of those student-athletes. Two or 3 in the morning, if someone had an ankle issue and they needed to get more treatment, he’d be walking down to the room, making sure they’re taken care of. I don’t think the guy ever slept. If someone got hurt, it was unbelievable to watch him work.” – Jeff Tungate, OU women’s coach since 2013, OU men’s assistant from 2004-05 and 2007-13
“He was in charge of all the sports. He treated us like we were the only one that mattered. He had hundreds of athletes that he had to deal with at that time. He just genuinely cared. … Thirty years later, I’m still friends with him and his family… One time I broke my fingers and he would come in at 7 a.m. and rebound for me. He didn’t have to, but he would rebound for me, ask how my fingers were doing. I’m not the only one he did that. He was in charge of all these athletes but never once complained.” – Jenn Dempster, OU women’s player, 1988-92
“Andy (Glantzman) was our SID, so those two would room together. I would always feel bad for T because we were up at Marquette, the Holiday Inn. Ty McGregor, Tom Eller and a few of those guys, set to mess with Andy, and Tom ends up being a part of it, they set their alarm clock for 3 in the morning and they get those guys out of the room. Then they call the front desk and have a 4 a.m. wake up call. You get the alarm turned off then you get the phone call. … Tom played softball with us and he looked like the catch for the Tigers in the 1990s, Matt Nokes, so we used to tease him and call him Matt Nokes.” – Eric Stephan, OU men’s basketball assistant 1988-2004, women’s assistant 2006-present
“We were playing at Purdue (Nov. 21, 2010) and it was taking a long time to get to the arena from the hotel. It was pretty obvious that the bus driver was not sure where to go, and sensing Coach Kampe’s frustration, T-Ford pulled up his Google Maps app on his cell phone and basically guided the driver to the arena. T was always ready to jump in where he was needed, despite his job title, and make sure that the job would get done. I believe that is why he was so beloved by all — his selflessness is evident in every student-athlete and staffer he ever worked with.” – OU associate athletic director for communications, Scott MacDonald
The training room door from Oakland’s former athletic department building, the Lepley Sports Center, to the current O’rena is now in Ford’s possession. Because it’s one of a kind, an irreplaceable piece of memorabilia.
“No one really knew about it. … Kathy and I, when we first had the training room it was a really bad color so we painted it. At the same time, the Pistons were in there every day and had a camp there with Isiah (Thomas) and Magic (Johnson) and we talked, how cool would it be to have the NBA All-Stars sign the door?” – Ford
“Then when we built this place and Lepley was going away, we had a new athletic director and he didn’t think Tom should be able to have that door. That was one battle that I fought.” – Kampe
Many moments stood out for Ford in his 30-year career but one of the most impactful was one that came off the court in 2000. Nik Dragicevic, a 7-feet-3 center from LaSalle, Ontario, was diagnosed with a heart condition when he joined the Golden Grizzlies and never played a game. Ford was with him every step and every doctor’s appointment. Though Dragicevic died of cancer at age 30, those steps with Ford were critical to extending his life. As many want to do for him now, he did for Dragicevic all those years ago.
“That was pretty emotional with Nik. … When I had to tell Nik’s parents that he was no longer going to be able to play again, that was one of the worst days. Seven-foot, three and 3/4-inches tall, coming from Canada, thinking he was going to be an NBA player and we went through all of that. He was able to prolong his life. If he had gone out on the court, he could have blown out his heart and been done at that time.” – Ford
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