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My brother, my keeper

Gainesville's Gerald Ford and his brother take refuge from the storm

POSTED: November 8, 2007 9:13 a.m.

After a rain-soaked practice last week, Gainesville High senior wide receiver Gerald Ford, who in this season has amassed 1,213 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns, made his way to his locker in the football fieldhouse, his cleats tracking mud on the linoleum floor.

Before he got through the cramped space, he locked eyes with a 6-foot-8, 240-pound man in jeans, a white T-shirt and a baseball cap holding up the wall in the hallway.

"Hey, Dad," Ford said with a nod.

The big man responded only with a smile, a chuckle and a nod back.

Ford’s greeting was meant as a joke. But there was more than just a little truth behind it.

The quiet giant, who can be seen regularly on the sidelines at Red Elephant practices, is not really Ford’s father. He is the Red Elephant senior’s older brother, 25-year-old Calvin Smith.

But since Hurricane Katrina forced Ford out of his New Orleans home and separated the 17-year-old from the rest of his family, Smith has played the roles of big brother, father and coach.

"He led me here," Ford said of his big brother. "He’s my guardian."

A brother’s sacrifice

Before the lives of millions living in the Gulf Coast due to Katrina’s rampage, Ford and Smith were typical of brothers so far apart in age.

Smith was a senior in college, playing basketball and football at Alabama State. Ford was a sophomore in high school, playing basketball and football at John Ehret High in Harvey, La.

"I wanted to be like him in some ways," Ford said, adding that he often wore the same jersey number as his brother. "But I also wanted to be myself and be better than him."

Despite living hours apart, Smith made sure he was a constant presence and influence in Ford’s life. He did not take the role of big brother lightly.

"I’ve been with him throughout all of our years," Smith said. "When we were young, my parents worked two or three jobs, so they were never home. I was always home with him."

One of the nation’s most destructive natural disasters forced Smith to go beyond the usual duties of a big brother.

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Louisiana in late summer 2005. It is considered the costliest hurricane in the nation’s history and one of the five deadliest hurricanes to hit the

The Ford family left their home when the storm hit and sought higher ground in a hotel away from the city.

When the Fords returned to their home after the storm, they were welcomed by rising water levels that eventually damaged much of the house and ruined Smith’s car. The only reason for Smith’s return was a dentist appointment.

"It was crazy," Ford said. "You could see bodies floating and stuff. The aftermath was devastating. All of the houses were on the ground. You didn’t know where to start. ... It was all messed up. There was nothing but rubble."

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, the rising water forced Ford and his family to evacuate to Houston. They stayed there until it looked like the rebuilding process could begin.

Back at school, Smith let stories of Louisiana’s struggling school systems and the growing crime rate build up in his mind. His education became secondary priority next to the concern for his family — his younger brother, most of all.

"It was kind of hard for me to stay focused (after returning to school)," Smith said. "It set me back a little bit."

Smith didn’t think his younger brother should return to the place he had called home. He was willing to sacrifice his present to ensure his brother’s future.

Smith first approached his parents with his plan in October 2005 to move to Gainesville and by Christmas, they had agreed, as difficult as it was going to be for them.

Ford’s cousin, Kendrick Lewis, left Louisiana after the hurricane and picked up his football career as a Red Elephant. Smith’s girlfriend also lived in an apartment in Gainesville, having been adopted by a foundation after the hurricane.

"I wasn’t finished raising Gerald," said mother Lisa Ford. "I had to stay here (in Louisiana). ... It was hard to take. It was hard on both of us (her and her husband, Gerald Ford Sr.)."

Smith dropped out of school, 26 credits short of graduating. His plan: Move with his brother to Gainesville, where he already had ties.

"The most important thing was to get him to a place where he could play football and into a good school system," Smith said.

His mother and father gave Ford their final approval.

"I told them (his parents), ‘Everything’s gone. We need to start a new life,’" Ford said. "‘I want to start it with sports.’"

The family that had survived together was about to be spread out over the South, like debris in the storm.

"All of my family was being taken away from me," said Lisa Ford, who is back in Harvey, La., with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren.

With Smith’s black 2005 Chevy Impala — a rental — packed, Ford said his tearful goodbyes, like a kid leaving for college, but two years earlier than his parents were ready for.

Not even the tough big brother could escape the emotion of the scene.

"Before you know it, as I’m walking to the car, I’m trying to wipe away tears," Smith said. "(My parents) were back there bawling."

Ford and Smith started the drive to Gainesville on Jan. 1, 2006. Before their home state was completely in the rear-view window, the pair started feeling better about the new start.

"It was a hard day," Smith said. "Once we got on the road, we crossed the state line and we were fine. We smiled the rest of the way."

Still adjusting

Ford didn’t realize what he was getting himself into.

"I thought, since it was my brother, it would be extremely easy," Ford said. "I can stay with my brother any day. But it’s been real different."

In addition to being Ford’s legal guardian, Smith took on the role of parent and ran with it. So much so, in fact, that Smith says he is even stricter than his parents.

Ford is still getting used to his older brother being a disciplinarian after almost two years.

"He doesn’t let me get away with anything," Ford said.

Smith’s reasoning behind his tough ways: "Our parents never let me get away with anything."

The new dynamic of their relationship caused the brothers to butt heads on several occasions. Ford admitted that one fight almost resulted in punches.

There was no mom or dad to mediate. Getting away from each other was not an option. So the pair started to learn to live with each other and the new arrangement.

The brothers have time built into the day where it is just the two of them. Ford relies on Smith to get to school and home from practice, giving them plenty of time to talk.

Some topics, however, are off limits until dinner.

"Right after practice, we ride home together, going through the day, leaving school out of it," Smith said. "We leave that until we get to the table."

The additional time together has helped, but neither is completely comfortable with Smith’s new role yet.

The good times are starting to out number the bad, however.

"It’s up. It’s down," Smith said. "It’s good. It’s bad. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s like having that real cool teacher, but he’s failing you."

Smith couldn’t help but laugh at his analogy.

"We have fun together," he said. "But when it’s time for me to crank down on him, I do. That part he’s not used to yet. It’s getting better."

Ford feels his appreciation for his brother’s responsibility growing, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely used to hearing a father’s voice from his brother’s mouth.

"He wants the same things out of me that my parents want," he said. "I’m still working through it."

Like his decision to bring his brother to Gainesville, Smith thinks his new role could not come without sacrifice.

"Emotionally, we have gotten a lot closer," Smith said. "But I think there is a part of our relationship we will never be able to rekindle because I’ve had to step out of the brother role."

Fitting in

Ford’s first impression with the Red Elephants wasn’t his best. It also isn’t close to the impression he’s leaving at Gainesville.

"He came in talking trash," fellow senior receiver Tyler Adetona said. "At first, we battled."

Not only did Ford find a rival receiver at Gainesville High, he found a coaching staff not accustomed to his personality.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior cracks as many jokes as he catches passes. Running an extra 70 yards to do an end zone dance at practice, bumping pads with teammates on the sideline, attempting field goals — fun is as much a part of Ford’s game as go-routes and run blocking.

"That’s just me being me," he said. "I like for it to be a real live practice."

Some of Gainesville’s coaches took Ford’s easygoing attitude as lackadaisical.

"Because of Gerald’s personality, a couple of our coaches didn’t think he was very dedicated," Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller said.

It wasn’t until Miller and his coaches saw Ford at a track and field meet that their saw the receiver’s competitive side. Just talking about that day forces Miller to drop his jaw.

"That’s just his personality," Miller said. "Once you get to know him, what a competitor."

The receiver on the other side of the field liked Ford once he got to know him.

"He’s goofy, man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him down," Adetona said, adding they put to rest any issues between them by the end of last year. "After awhile, we figured, ‘Why battle?’"

Ford has made himself at home in Miller’s new spread offense this season. He and Adetona have become, arguably, one of Georgia’s best receiving duos.

Ford and Adetona lead the Hall County in receiving. They have combined for more than 2,000 yards of offense and have accounted for more than 125 points.

After Week 9, Adetona had 1,059 yards and 11 touchdowns on 65 catches. Ford had 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns on 71 catches. Miller doesn’t believe there has ever been a pair of receivers to eclipse 1,000 yards each in the same season in Georgia.

"It’s a receiver’s dream," Ford said of Miller’s offense.

The player throwing the passes is reaping the benefits, also.

"He can go get the ball," Gainesville quarterback Justin Fordham said of Ford. "He’s a big, physical guy. He’s hard to bring down."

Ford doesn’t receive all the praise. Gainesville’s coach was equally impressed with the older brother.

"What a guy to take on an awesome responsibility at raising a teenager," Miller said. "He’s barely removed from his teen years and he’s raising a brother to give him a better life."

Smith found his niche on the sideline, somewhere between parent and teammate.

When he’s not talking with a group of parents on the track surrounding the practice field, he’s joking around with the likes of tight end Robbie Hefflinger and linebacker Keith Wells on the sidelines during water breaks.

"Everybody loves Calvin," Lisa Ford said. "He makes friends wherever he goes. He’s that type of child."

Smith was eager to take an active role as one of the team’s parents.

After the Red Elephants’ lost three consecutive games this season, he and other parents called a senior meeting at his house, where he cooked and talked to the players about how to resurrect the season.

"I needed to know how the team was doing," Smith said.

In the next game, Gainesville scored a school-record 77 points in a win over Pickens.

Like his younger brother, Smith considers the Gainesville parents and players his new, extended family.

"I’d say I spend about 70 percent of my time with these guys," he said. "I’ve had my troubles, but the thing that got me through has been the parents. They gave me a place to vent. ... Most of the parents here have welcomed us with open arms."

A steady stream of jobs has given Smith something to do while Ford is at school, not to mention help in paying the rent.

He recently accepted a job in environmental services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Smith also volunteers as Ford’s personal coach. He can be heard yelling criticism and compliments — but mostly criticism — at his younger brother during games and practice.

He hasn’t determined how much has sunk in.

"He won’t listen to me that much," Smith said. "He’s progressed mentally. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything come this fast. Mentally, he catches on faster."

While it might not always look like it, Ford takes his performance on the field as seriously as Smith takes his 9-to-5.

"This is my job, right here," Ford said, motioning to the practice field.

The future

Lisa Ford lives roughly 530 miles away from her sons, but her motherly influence has no problem crossing state lines.

"Everyday, all day," she said when asked how often she calls them.

Her biggest concern for her sons is their education, and she hopes that will be the end to the painful means of the last two years.

Ford and Smith aren’t ones to go against their mother’s wishes.

"I’ll take an offer from anywhere," Ford said.

Ford is banking that his football abilities will land him a scholarship at a Division I-A college. Already on his list are Troy, Tulane and LSU. He has also received interest from Ball State, Marshall, Middle Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham.

Smith expects that once Ford gets his scores from the ACT, his younger brother will have a better idea of where he’ll go.

"I really don’t care where he goes," Smith said. "Just go to school."

Ford’s parents share Smith’s sentiment, but mother and father have differing preferences of what that school is. Lisa Ford wants to see her son in an LSU uniform. Ford Sr. would prefer he join the Green Wave.

Smith does not have any plans for when his younger brother is a college man, but the prospects brought out a smile.

"I don’t know what is going to be next," he said. "I’ll probably just wing it from here, enjoy some freedom for once."

The former wide receiver is tossing around the idea of getting back into football. He trains six days a week at Fitness Forum in Gainesville and is rehabilitating a knee injury.

He hasn’t ruled out attending some professional football tryouts next summer.

His mother, on the other hand, has a much more concrete idea for her son’s future.

"He owes us some more," Lisa Ford said. "I would like to have him finish his education. I want him to complete himself and put himself in a position where he can take care of himself."

Smith is still planning on completing his degree in business administration and hopes to transfer to the University of Georgia when his brotherly duties decrease.

Putting his education and athletic career on hold was not easy, Smith says, but regret has never entered his mind.

Rather, he takes pride in the sacrifices he’s made, knowing that he has made an impact in his little brother’s life that will be long-lasting.

"Once he moves on to college," Smith said, "he might be able to look back and say ‘My brother was like my dad’ instead of ‘My brother was never there.’"



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