SALT LAKE CITY — There's never any love for an offensive lineman. Even its linemen counterparts on the opposite side of the ball get more love than the ones whose job it is to protect arguably the team's most valuable asset.
And yet, few remember the offensive lineman.
But junior lineman Nick Ford is hard to ignore. Not because he's 6-foot-5, weighs 315 pounds and is as agile as he is strong. You can't ignore Ford because he's inserted himself into a leadership role and as a voice for the Utah football program and all its athletes.
In August, as the Pac-12 considered a delayed start to the football season due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Ford signed his name to the #WeAreUnited movement that featured several Pac-12 athletes who said they were willing to sit out the season if certain demands were not met. And while some demands were never going to happen, it sparked a conversation that athletes should have a say in how football, and all sports, are played at the collegiate level.
"Would anyone of you like to be talked about as an entitled piece of entertainment when standing up for the safety and health of your teammates, coaches, family, community, and let alone humanity?" Ford wrote in a tweet shortly after the movement was broadcast across the country. "The amount of responses degrading the movement shows that a lot of people just think of us as entertainment on a Saturday for a couple of hours.
"With everything that is going on in today's society why must we produce hatred? Why not see the light at the end of the tunnel? I just want safety for me, my brothers on other teams (yes we don't all hate each other 24/7) and coaches alike. We are not just a football team and entertainment. In all respect."
Ford was willing to risk a starting job for a season in an effort to stand up for what he believed to be right. He even went on CNN to talk about what he saw as a path to healthy play in collegiate sports.
So when Ford talks, many listen.
"I'm just helping out any way that's possible, whether it be on or off the field — all the way from bringing just the leadership within the offensive line room or offering myself to anybody who's on a team, as well as just my brothers around the Pac-12 to make sure that they come out healthy from the season and we play with the least risk," Ford said Wednesday morning.
Any NCAA student athlete, from any sport, from any school, from any conference, whoever you are, if you would like to get involved with #WeAreUnited and stand for what’s right. Dm me!! #ProtectAllSports— Nick Ford 🇵🇹 (@FearThat55) August 3, 2020
Ford believes Utah has handled the testing and safety elements of returning to play well and said the team is in safe hands. "They have a really good system to prevent people getting sick."
It's not just about being a leader during a global pandemic, though. Ford sees his role as one to help anybody at any time, and in whatever situation they need. He sees his platform as an athlete as one where he can be an influence on the younger generation and help them bypass some of the struggles the country faces today, like standing against racism.
Ford volunteers at a local school — a place where he's not necessarily viewed through the microscope as just a football player; he's trying to bring about change in the community he lives in and making sure everyone around him is better.
"Now these kids are seeing me on a different platform," Ford said. "It's not only for football, it's for something greater than that. It may inspire them to grow up, and you never know, and even though I'm doing something small right now, it might inspire the next MLK.
"I think it's very important, especially — not only for us, because we have a good platform where we can inspire and you know create — that's really what football can be used for is inspire and create change."
There's still his leadership on the football field, too. It's the part of him most people will see on Saturdays when the Pac-12 resumes play. And Ford has got that down, too. When Utah, like campuses across the country, shut down due to coronavirus in March, Ford was one of the first to make sure he checked on his teammates and their family.
"From being a teammate and leader perspective, I made sure that all my guys were safe in the bad times and the pandemic that's happening around the world — calling people, making sure they're all right, are families all right, if they need anything — you know, just make myself available to them."
All that comes natural to Ford. It just so happens he's also successful at football — he'll be among one of five starters to cement Utah's offensive line this season — and has a larger-than-normal platform to bring about change and help others.