By Tim Robinson
Special for Second Half
Midway through the 2016 season, Marcus Ford was frustrated.
He was on the Pinckney football team, but not playing much.
A big part of that was due to his size — 6-foot-5 and over 400 pounds — but then-defensive coordinator Rod Beaton sensed there was more.
“We feel that we coach very hard,” said Beaton, now Pinckney’s head coach. “We’re very aggressive (on the varsity), and sometimes it’s an adjustment for juniors to understand that when they come out here, there’s expectations.
“There were a couple times where Marcus was questioning … whether football was for him.”
“I didn’t want to be there,” Ford said. “I thought, ‘This is stupid. Why am I here so late?’”
And then came a change.
“It came to a point where he went home and took a day off to re-gather himself,” Beaton said. “Marcus came back and he said to me, ‘Coach, I really want to be a part of things here.’”
And Ford did more than that.
He grew from a young man who bristled when his coaches pointed out mistakes to one who doesn’t react as if it were a personal attack, from an overweight kid who admits he was on his way to weighing 600 pounds to a big kid who is a key part of Livingston County’s most successful football team as a senior.
He rarely comes out of games, his coach says, and the quiet giant who rarely interacted with his teammates has transformed into a happy, smiling kid who dishes out and takes teasing from them.
It’s a story of transformation that only football could have done for Marcus Ford, who couldn’t play youth football because of his size and whose options for high school athletics seemed limited to football for the same reason.
“I may sound a little clichéd and corny,” Beaton said, “but I think this is why every single coach in America coaches football, to watch the development of a young man, from freshman to sophomore to junior and to see what football has done for him.”
How did Ford do it?
He turned his mental approach 180 degrees and made drastic changes to his diet and work ethic.
One clue came in looking at Pinckney’s roster from 2016 compared to 2017. Last year, Ford was listed at 380, which was about 40 pounds less than his actual weight.
This year, he’s listed at 405, which is a dozen pounds more than what he weighs now.
Last year, he played mostly in mop-up roles.
This year, he is a starter on defense, regularly occupying two blockers at a time, which in turn frees linebackers Cauy Hendee and Levi Collins to make tackles.
“I can play a lot longer,” he said. “I was tired when we were out there, but we don’t believe in the word ‘tired.’ We prefer ‘winded.’ We just need to catch our breath. So I get ‘winded’ a lot less.”
The first thing Marcus decided to change was his diet, and he got his cues by looking in the mirror.
“I didn’t like the muffin cap that was hanging down,” he said. “I didn’t like my stomach hanging over. ... I thought, ‘I don’t what to have a heart attack at age 25.’ I was doing ‘diets,’ per se, but eventually I thought, ‘This is stupid. Cut out pop and eat better,’ And I did.
“The only thing I would eat that was green was green beans, and they had to be made a certain way,” he said. “Now, I’m more like ‘this is somewhat appetizing. Let me try that.’ I don’t eat candy bars anymore. I don’t eat ice cream when my family does. I drink a lot less milk than I used to, and I drink more water.”
Pinckney offensive coordinator Cody Patton noticed.
“His mom came to me about getting a weight plan, and he stuck with it,” Patton said. “They can only do so much in the weight room. When they leave, there’s not much you can control what they put into their bodies.”
But Ford also changed his mindset about football and being coached.
“His first real commitment was ninth-grade high school football, and it was a big adjustment for him,” Beaton said. “We knew there would be days where he might be a little confrontational, there may be some days where he goes through the motions.”
But after that midseason meeting last year, Ford redoubled his efforts in practice and in the offseason.
The first hint that he was a different player came in June, when Ford earned the team’s first bone helmet sticker of the season for effort in a drill.
“It was our first pursuit drill,” Beaton said. “We go four downs, and those kids have to sprint. There’s no exception. Marcus stepped to his gap, made his reads, flew to the football and didn’t say a word, every single time. He did it four times in a row. It really set the stage. I could tell he was wanting do to things right this year.
“When you see a 6-5, 400-pound kid moving with effort and tenacity, you sit there and go, ‘That young man can help us.’”
And so he has.
As a result, Marcus Ford is part of a Pinckney defense that has lifted the Pirates to an 8-1 regular-season record and shared Southeastern Conference White championship. He has transformed from a player who had little stamina to one who can go from opening kickoff to final horn.
“He can play a whole football game,” Beaton said. “He can go through a whole practice. One of the challenges we were talking about in the offseason is he has to put his body and mind in a position to not come off the field.”
That moment came on a warm night early in the season.
“We were in a huddle at Chelsea, and it was late,” Beaton recalled. “He’s drenched in sweat, and I said, ‘Marcus, you need a breather?’ And he said, ‘No, coach. I’m ready.’ That’s pretty cool.”
Asked his ideal weight, Ford said, “I would like to be at 250 if I could,” then laughs. His bone structure is such that at his height, he would be almost gaunt at 250. “I would settle for 340. That’s the dream within a dream goal.”
Next year, he plans to attend college.
“I want to go into bartending or being a head chef, or get a business degree,” he said. “One other choice is going to a police academy. As long as I can run a mile within 15 minutes, I should be good.”
There’s no reason, now, to think he couldn’t accomplish that.
He got his first sack against Dexter.
‘I grabbed him and rolled him over on top of me,” Marcus said. “I would have liked to have landed on him, but I got him down in the backfield. It’s good.”
And football now is fun.
“A lot more fun,” he said.
“Marcus made a concerted effort to our strength and agility program,” Beaton said. “It wasn’t two days at a time, then not be there five or six days. Marcus was there. He would stay after everyone had left and get some extra lifts in or do some extra work to make sure he was putting himself in a (good) position.
“He said, ‘Coach, I want to be your starting nose (tackle).’ The first day of June camp, he ran out to the nose tackle, and we haven’t looked back.”
PHOTO: (Top) A pair of Pinckney blockers try to contain nose tackle Marcus Ford during a practice this season. (Middle) Ford breaks free to get an arm on a ball carrier. (Photos by Tim Robinson.)
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)