Saskatchewan Roughriders

Al Ford - Receiver/Punter - Pacific - 1965-76


Ford recalls his years with the Riders - Rob Vanstone - Regina Leader-Post- July 8, 2006

Saskatchewan Roughriders legend Alan Ford also played for the Lions.

The Lions Band, that is.

Ford made his first appearance on Taylor Field as a self-described "terrible" trumpet player during a halftime show. He would later play an instrumental role in Saskatchewan's first Grey Cup victory -- a 29-14 CFL victory over the Ottawa Rough Riders on Nov. 26, 1966 in Vancouver.

"I was telling (veteran defensive lineman Ron Atchison) when I made the team, 'I was in the band when you were standing out there,' " says Ford, who has been heavily involved in organizing this week's 40th-anniversary reunion of the 1966 Roughriders.

"I remember thinking, 'God, those guys look big.' "

At one time, they looked too big.

Al Ford     Pacific  
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1965 Sask 2 31 15.5 24 0
1966 Sask 13 188 14.5 45 1
1967 Sask 27 399 14.8 44 1
1968 Sask 39 626 16.1 66 3
1969 Sask 23 355 15.4 50 1
1970 Sask 9 162 18.0 39 0
1971 Sask 32 525 16.4 43 5
1972 Sask 36 511 14.2 43 2
1973 Sask 23 391 17.0 45 0
1974 Sask 23 247 10.7 31 0
1975 Sask 26 335 12.9 55 1
1976 Sask 8 80 10.0 23 0
Total 12 261 3,850 14.8 66 14

"I was pretty small," Ford recalls of his teenaged years. "I just sort of never looked at football as being an option."

After being a multi-sport star at Central Collegiate, Ford accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. Former Central teacher Phil Dynan used his connections to the United States to help facilitate the scholarship.

As a freshman, Ford's collegiate football experience was limited to Pacific's intramural program.

Who could have imagined that he would become a unique individual in Roughriders history?

Ford is the only Roughrider whose name is twice engraved on the Grey Cup. Twenty-three years to the day after the landmark triumph in 1966, Saskatchewan won its second CFL title by defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 in Toronto. Ford was the general manager of that 1989 team.

"Al has been that stabilizing force and that unsung hero in both instances," says close friend Tom Shepherd, who was a Roughriders auditor in 1966 and the community-owned team's president in 1989. "He's a guy who is always doing his job. He's not the superstar, but the guy that you can't win without. That's what Al Ford's all about."

The intramural ranks are seldom a springboard to a long and successful football career, but Ford ended up taking that unconventional route.

"When I was playing intramural football, one of the guys that was playing basketball with me said, 'I've never seen a guy kick like that. I'm going to talk to the football guys about you because their punter is leaving after this year,' " Ford recalls.

"So the punter left and they asked me to change scholarships from basketball to football and come and do the punting. I thought, 'That would be pretty good. I'll fly all over the place. It's Division 1 football, and all I've got to do is punt.' "

Ford played in only one game as a sophomore before becoming a regular in his final two years at Pacific. The Roughriders took notice, exercising their territorial rights to Ford.

His second CFL season ended in triumphant fashion when Saskatchewan captured the 1966 Grey Cup.

In that game, Ford caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ron Lancaster. The pass was tipped by Ottawa defensive back Bob O'Billovich before settling into the sure hands of Ford.

These days, players routinely keep the football after scoring an important touchdown. Ford, by contrast, flipped the ball to the nearest official.

Even so, Ford is now the proud owner of a game ball from 1966.

"I think it was in 1967 -- I'm not 100-per-cent sure -- when I got a phone call in May and it was a guy coming through Regina from Vancouver," he recalls. "He said, 'Hey, I got the ball that you caught for your touchdown.' I said, 'No way.' He said, 'I got the ball that was kicked into the end zone on the convert. Would you like to buy it?' I said, 'Sure. I'd be real interested.' He said he'd bring it by.

"I had seen a Grey Cup ball, so I knew it had the stencil and what it looked like on the side. Sure enough, he had a Grey Cup ball. I got it autographed by all the guys on the team. A number of years later, I went down to find the ball in my rumpus room and it wasn't on the little trophy case.

"I happened to find out that my son (Rob) and a bunch of his buddies were over in the church parking lot playing football with it, so a few of the autographs got scraped off. There's about 10 of them that I can read. I'm sure I could read some other ones if I took a magnifying glass and blew it up a bit. It's a nice memento."

One for which Ford paid $50.

"I was rich then," he says with a chuckle. "(Roughriders GM Ken) Preston was paying me all that money.

"I had the Grey Cup money, too. I think the Grey Cup money was $2,400, to go all the way through and win the whole thing. That was about a third of my contract, you know."

Ford ended up holding the same job as Preston, who served as the Riders' GM from 1958 to 1977. Ford occupied the GM's chair for 11 seasons, beginning with the Grey Cup year of 1989.

"Ken Preston comes up in discussions about being cheap," Ford says. "We laugh at it, but it's really a sign of respect for the individual. When the '89 team comes back after 40 years, they'll be talking about Ford and how cheap he was -- and I hope they are."

Shepherd is quick to mention Preston and Ford in the same breath.

"I see Al's legacy being every bit as great as Ken Preston's," says Shepherd, who promoted Ford from assistant GM in 1989 after Bill Baker left to become the CFL's president and chief operating officer.

"I knew Ken very well and I worked with Ken for a long time, too, and I see them as equal. They were Regina people and Saskatchewan people who just cared.

"Al made all kinds of sacrifices for this club -- financially, personally, and in all kinds of other things when the time was needed. He always looked after the money for the club like it was more than his own, the same as Ken Preston. He was very integral in keeping this club going throughout the years as a general manager."

Ford had only one job description during that 11-year tenure. That was a marked contrast to his resume as a player.

"Mr. Versatility," as he was known, played running back, tight end, wide receiver and defensive back as a Roughrider. He also punted and returned kicks.

"I think I looked at the whole game," says Ford, 63, who coached football, basketball, hockey, swimming and diving at various levels. "I always looked at it from the coaches' standpoint because that's what I wanted to do at that point. I was playing football, but I thought of myself as a teacher and coach. Coaching was a great outlet for me when football was over.

"I looked at more positions than the one I played. I felt like I could play any position on the field and not make a mistake. I might get beat, but mentally I could play every position."

Ford's last few months as the Roughriders' GM were mentally taxing.

Before the 1999 season, Ford declared that he would step down if Saskatchewan missed the playoffs. The Roughriders ended up winning three games that year. A tearful Ford announced his resignation shortly before the Riders' 1999 season concluded.

Shepherd wept at the media conference, which was also attended by Ford's wife (Sally) and daughters (Jill and Tracy).

"So much of my life is tied to the Saskatchewan Roughriders," Ford reflects. "It was very emotional for me at that press conference. I probably got through it OK until I saw my family. My two girls were there with Sally. It was tough for us because they had been with me for the whole thing.

"I knew in the back of my mind it was eventually going to happen. That's the nature of the business. It's the nature as a player and the nature as a coach and certainly the nature as a manager. It didn't matter whether I called it or not. It was going to happen. I knew we had to play really well for me to continue as GM. That was the bottom line. It wasn't like it was a surprise."

Upon announcing his resignation, Ford did not clean out his desk. He remained in the office until Dec. 31, 1999, helping to ease the transition to a new general manager. The appointment of the team's current GM, Roy Shivers, was announced Dec. 24, 1999.

"Al sat in that office every day, looking after everything, even though he was gone ... every day!" Shepherd marvels. "He was there until Dec. 31 at five o'clock looking after everything, and the club and the executive had complete faith in him.

"He was doing whatever it took with players and running the administration. He sat there until he cleaned out his office. You tell me another person in the world who would do that. He didn't want to leave the organization for two or three months before they hired a new general manager."

Ford has remained a faithful follower of the Riders. A season-ticket holder, he has not missed one of the team's home games since vacating the GM's chair.

Ford was not finished as a GM after leaving the Roughriders.

In 2003, he served as interim GM of the financially strapped Tiger-Cats, who were coached at the time by Lancaster.

Ford returned to Regina after that season. He is now a part-time sales representative for Intergold -- a ring manufacturer which includes championship sports teams among its clientele. He would welcome an opportunity to resume his active involvement with the CFL.

"If there was a specific area where my services would be required, I would enjoy it," he says. "I would have hoped I'd have been considered if they were looking for someone in a caretaker's fashion in Ottawa (where the Renegades folded in April).

"Would something in the league office in terms of salary management or something like that be a possibility? It would only be a possibility if I could do the job and maintain where I am now. I don't think I'd pick up my family and move someplace for an extended period of time. I'd certainly do it for something like the Hamilton situation. I still think I have something to offer."

Ford was quick to volunteer his services when the 1966 reunion became a reality. Many hours were spent on the phone, tracking down ex-teammates and working on the logistics.

Ford has the 40th-anniversary process down pat. Alan and Sally Ford celebrated that milestone April 2.

Looking back at it all, Ford marvels at his good fortune.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Ford reflects. "Phil Dynan helped me a great deal. A lot of things went my way. A lot of good things happened to me, and I met a lot of good people, with the Roughriders. I was able to be around here and be part of two Grey Cup victories, and a part of other victories as a player, (assistant) coach and GM.

"I grew up worshipping these guys and watching them play from the Rider Rookie section, never dreaming I'd eventually be a player.

"It was a great ride."