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Kenny Ford is a hometown Hall of Famer
Fear is a powerful force. For some, it can stop them dead in their tracks, unable to move forward. Others are driven so powerfully by fear of failure, it propels them to greatness.
Kenny Ford’s greatest fear, after becoming the head football coach at Owen in 1986, was disappointing his hometown.
“I just didn’t want to let anyone down,” said Ford, who will enter the Swannanoa, Black Mountain and Owen High School Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility at 5 p.m. Oct. 19, before the Warhorses host Avery. “I wanted to make the Swannanoa Valley proud."
The former all-county Owen football player, who would go on to coach the team for 29 seasons, will be inducted into the hall with his former teammate Bobby Ferguson and revered community contributor Yogi McElrath. The three will be recognized on the field at Warhorse Stadium during halftime.
Ferguson is an all-time great running back for the Warhorses. In his senior season he earned the award for the best running back in the Western North Carolina. He was named all-American and accepting a scholarship to Western Carolina University. He also played baseball for the Catamounts.
McElrath spent 20 years involved in youth sports in the Swannanoa Valley. He played a key role in preparing many of them to play football at the high school level. McElrath also coached Owen District Youth Baseball for 15 years. He graduated from Owen, where he played football, baseball and basketball, in 1967.
Ford called the class “perfect.”
“I always looked up to Yogi and I blocked for Bobby,” he said. “So this is a group I’m proud to be a part of.”
Of course nobody could’ve predicted the career Ford would have when he became the fifth head coach of the Warhorses since Jim LeVine, another legendary football coach and the first person enshrined in the school’s athletic hall of fame. Ford himself said he was "not ready" when he took over the program.
In spite of that, he would win 230 games as the head coach for Owen, a record number with a single school in Buncombe County. He delivered his hometown 14 conference championships and six undefeated seasons.
BIll Mott taught at Owen for over 35 years, and was a member of a Warhorse coaching staff for all but one. He coached Ford as a freshman and worked on his staff until retiring in 2004.
Mott, who will introduce his former player at the induction ceremony, witnessed Ford’s determination at an early age.
“Through sheer will he changed his body type,” Mott said. “He wasn’t an athletic-looking kid when he came in as a freshman. He just worked so hard.”
The source of his motivation was simple, Ford said.
“I looked up to Bill Mott and Coach LeVine and all of those coaches when I was a kid,” he said. “I wanted to please them.”
The easiest way to make the coaches happy was to turn himself into an all-county player by his senior season. He dedicated himself to becoming better at the sport he loved. By the end of his high school football career he earned a spot on the roster at Mars Hill College, now Mars Hill University.
After graduating from college in 1980, he accepted a position on the coaching staff at McDowell High School. There he coached the golf team and joined the Titans staff.
Whether he was ready or not, his dream job in his hometown opened up. The position did not attract much interest, and the school hired a 29-year-old Ford to coach the Warhorses.
Having grown up around his father’s barber shop on State Street, he felt a lot of pressure.
“My dad was a really respected man,” Ford said. “He got to know everyone in that barber shop.”
Ford shined shoes there as a young man, and had conversations with most of the people who stepped through the door. It was important for him to earn their respect as the new coach of the Warhorses.
With the help of a stellar season from senior quarterback Brad Johnson, Ford had Owen football back on the front page of the local newspaper. He guided a team that had struggled in recent years and gone 5-6 the previous season, to a 10-3 record. The Warhorses also advanced to the third round of the playoffs that year.
“That was a special season,” Mott said. “A lot of things came together that year for that team.”
One contributing factor was the aggressive style of defense that would become synonymous with Ford throughout his career. Another was the same determination that Mott had witnessed in the head coach as a freshman.
“He was obsessed,” Mott said. “I’ve never worked with a football coach who worked harder on the minute details like he did. He’s the kind of person who either does something all the way or he doesn’t do it at all.
"You couldn't go out to eat with the guy," he continued. "He'd draw plays on every napkin in the building."
Carl Bartlett was an official when Ford played the sport and watched the coach’s entire career unfold from the press box, where he still announces home games. Ford’s desire to win was undeniable, he said.
“Come Saturday morning he’s back looking at what went good and what went wrong,” Bartlett said. “He lived, ate and breathed it.”
But it was Ford’s ability to motivate players that stood out to Bartlett.
“He should be giving motivational speeches for a living now,” he said.
Ford coached fathers and sons in the Swannanoa Valley during his career and rallied them all around the very thing that drove him to work so hard, he said.
“Don’t let the Swannanoa Valley down,” Ford said. “I wanted us to go out there every Friday and look like we knew what we were doing.”
He did a lot more than that, according to Jager Gardner, himself a future Owen Hall of Famer.
Gardner finished his Warhorse career with 6,955 rushing yards. He rushed for 2,776 yards in his senior season, which was also Ford’s last on the sidelines, Gardner led Owen to a 12-1 record and a trip to the third round of the playoffs.
“Everyone looked up to Coach Ford when I was growing up," said Gardner, a redshirt junior for the Temple Owls. "He was like the heart of the Swannanoa Valley."
It was Ford, Gardner said, who taught him that if he wanted to play football at the next level he would have to work hard.
"He never stopped working hard," Gardner said. "He pushed himself, so it made the players want to push themselves that much harder for him."
Ford was more than a coach, according to Gardner.
"He was a mentor and a father figure for so many kids in the Valley, including me," he said. "In my mind he's always been a Hall of Famer."
That was the consensus of the hall's board too, according to Bartlett, the chair.
"There really wasn't a need to nominate him," he said. "Everybody just knew when he was eligible, he'd be in."
The occasion figures to be an emotional one for Ford, who hasn't returned to the school since retiring in 2015.
"I enjoyed my Friday nights," he said. "I was very lucky to have had my dream job."
Mott said he's "thrilled" to see Ford go into the hall of fame at Owen.
"I love the man, and this is the way it ought to be," he said. "If you're going to have a Hall of Fame at Owen High School, then Kenny Ford has to be in it."
Ford credits his longevity and success to the community.
"I would've never had the career I had if it hadn't been for the coaches I've worked with and learned from, the players who worked so hard for me and their community and the parents who let me coach their kids," he said. "The Swannanoa Valley is a special place."
So is the Hall of Fame, where Ford's name will now be found along those of Roy Williams, Brad Johnson, Brad Daugherty, Bill Rucker, LeVine, Mott and dozens of others he's proud to be associated with.
"We got a great Hall of Fame at Owen," Ford said smiling. "I've always wanted to be in one."