ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Mike Ford, dressed in his full football uniform, approached the house in Alton, Illinois, like every other trick-or-treater that Halloween.
Ford got out of the car, walked up and rang the bell of one house in the neighborhood. His mother and stepfather told him what to say — even though now, at age 9, it seems so bold to do. The woman who owned the home answered and said “Trick or Treat.” The woman gave Ford his candy, complimenting how cute he looked in his football uniform. Then he said something that changed both their lives.
“Excuse me. Is this the Ford residence?”
The woman said yes. Ford introduced himself: “Well, I’m Michael Kelly Ford Jr.”
Janet Ford dropped the bucket of candy and ran back in the house. For nine years she didn’t have a relationship with the boy standing in front of her — the one looking just like her son, down to the football uniform she just complimented. And now, here he was.
“I was, ‘Oh my God,'” Janet Ford says now. “I was speechless. I had to get to know him and I told him that, ‘I got to get to know you. You look so much like your dad.'”
Janet called Ford’s mother, Tameca Bergman, the next morning and told her the same. That weekend, Mike spent time at his grandparents’ house. At first, Janet and her husband considered blood tests just to be sure — but decided it was unnecessary.
Mike Ford looked too much like his father for him to be anyone else.
“I didn’t know my dad,” said Mike, now a Detroit Lions cornerback. “I want to meet these people. Just showed up and was like, ‘If this is my family, I’m going to let them know who I am.’ I didn’t look at it as blunt. I didn’t look at it as anything.
“I just looked at it as, ‘Hey, this is me. You’re my family. I want to know about my dad.'”
Mike has been on a quest to learn everything he could about his father, Michael Kelly Ford Sr., since he could formulate rational thought. He knew the basics. His father graduated from Alton High School in 1994, where he was a safety and outside linebacker, and joined the Army after Bergman, who he was dating in high school, had gotten pregnant five months into their relationship.
Michael Ford saw the Army — stationed six hours from home at Fort Riley, Kansas — as a way to take care of his soon-to-be-young family, including his son, Mike, born Aug. 4, 1995. Then came the call no parent ever wants to receive, no girlfriend ever wants to have to take.
On Jan. 13, 1996, Michael Ford was killed in a car accident in Kansas. He was 19. Mike was less than six months old.
All Mike would have of his dad would be the memories he learned about from others and images he created from the stories compiled from those who knew dad best. As he grew, he watched on field trips as his peers would have one or two parents in attendance. Same with parent-teacher conferences. Which is when the questions about his father started: He wanted to know what he was like in high school? The Army? Did he like sports?
He did. Loved football. While Michael Ford Sr. was a safety and outside linebacker at Alton High School, his favorite player was a NFL running back in his prime.
“That’s all his dad talked about, that’s all he knew was football,” Bergman said. “Barry Sanders was his favorite player. He was buried in a Barry Sanders jersey. So it’s like it was fate.”
Football gave Mike a connection with the father. By the time he was done with middle school, he was good enough to earn a scholarship to Marquette Catholic, the private high school in town. He played in the secondary, just like his dad.
Mike kept learning more about Michael and tried to be just like him. Michael Ford was a good student, rarely missing school. And Michael Ford could play — just didn’t have the size to go past high school.
“He was a big hitter. He played most of the special teams,” said Ron Gilchrese, Mike’s godfather and one of Michael’s childhood friends. “When I say heart, you know, when it’s time for laps, he was always first. It was me and him trying to lead the pack. He was always first, he took all the exercises and stuff serious. He didn’t lollygag or half-ass anything.”
While Mike had other people in his life who could tell him about his father, he never strayed too far from the one parent raising him: Bergman. They became inseparable.
Questions about his dad? Bergman answered the best she could. Lessons about life? Bergman played the role of mom and dad, doing everything possible to give her oldest son everything she could. When they argued, it rarely lasted long because they always agreed to talk it out — even when Mike was two-plus hours away at Southeast Missouri State.
“That’s where I get my toughness from,” Mike said. “I mean, she doesn’t handle those situations alone. Me and her, we talk about everything. I’m having pain, she’s having pain and we deal with it together. If you were to bring my mom in here and say, ‘What is our phrase for our family?’ She would tell you, ‘We all we got.’
“That’s how it’s been forever. We all we got.’
When Mike entered his senior year of high school, Gilchreses helped him pursue a scholarship. Along the way, he told Mike stories. Each one brought him a little bit closer to the man he always wanted to emulate. Whenever Gilchrese would look at Mike — he would see his old friend. Other than a difference in skin tone, they looked almost identical. Their smiles, even their ears, are shaped similarly. Even their handwriting looks the same.
“It never made it difficult,” Gilchrese said. “Just gave us that much more drive to keep the spirit of his dad alive in him.”
The next time Gilchrese sees Mike, he has another present for him: A crystal shot glass Michael gave him the last time they saw each other. He kept it for more than two decades.
Janet Ford has a wall in her basement of all of her son’s belongings — toys, movies and even some He-Man action figures from Michael’s youth. More than two decades after Michael Ford’s death, she hasn’t been able to part with much. This helped her grandson. As he grew, he wanted to learn more about his dad.
After they reconnected, Janet explained to Mike why she hadn’t been involved in his life. The pain, she told him, was too fresh. She didn’t want to experience any other loss. She told him her time not in his life had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her. That washed away once they met and now have a strong relationship, ending every conversation with Janet saying “I love you” and Mike responding “Love you more.”
At his grandparents’ home, Mike saw his father’s first rattle and first bicycle. He looked through scrapbooks Janet made of Michael’s football exploits and read his dad’s letters from the Army. She has his high school football helmet and, in a box she keeps closed to keep it preserved, his father’s Army uniform.
“Mike always asks, ‘Grandma, am I going to get to have all that stuff,'” Janet said. “I said when you’re grown and you have your own place. But when you take it, you have to take it all.”
Mike has no problem with that. For him, it’s more than belongings. It’s another way to get to know the man he never could.
Mike spent five years at Southeast Missouri, first as a wide receiver and then a defensive back. He started three seasons at cornerback, intercepting seven passes and defending 34 others. Along the way, while playing well enough to catch the attention of NFL scouts, he got a tattoo on his right shoulder of his father’s high school number, 42, with his dad’s dog tags running through the number and the name “MICHAEL FORD” arched across the top.
Toward the end of the 2018 draft, teams reached out.
After Mike went undrafted, his agent fielded calls from interested teams. One team stood out. The Lions. General manager Bob Quinn offered a contract — one Mike knew he had to accept.
Mike was a longshot to make the roster. Throughout camp, he made an impression. While the Lions cut him after preseason, they re-signed him to their practice squad, and in November, promoted him to the 53-man roster.
That weekend, he dressed for a regular-season NFL game for the first time.
“I’m sitting in that locker,” Mike said. “And I look up at my name and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ Like, you know, it’s one of those moments where it’s an emotional moment at that point.
“I look up. I see Ford and am like, ‘Dang, it’s the Lions. It’s Ford. It’s me, but I know my dad’s with me, you know.’ It’s one of those things that, ‘Dang, I really did this for him.'”
He finished getting dressed and did what he’s done every game and every practice the past few years. He walked out to the tunnel and kissed up to the sky. Then he smacked his right arm twice — where the tattoo honoring his father is — and kissed up to the sky again before crossing himself. Then he says a little prayer.
To his father. To protect him. Because the two of them, every time they are on the field, they are in this together.