GIV­ING THANKS

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS -

Army or in the Mil­i­tary Bowl ver­sus Vir­ginia in 2017. Hig­gins came back to­ward the end of spring prac­tice, but promptly suf­fered the shoul­der in­jury.

Sit­ting out al­most the en­tire spring that year was tough be­cause Hig­gins was sup­posed to be learn­ing a new po­si­tion. It was Ni­u­mat­alolo who sug­gested switch­ing the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder from tackle to cen­ter.

“Coach Ni­u­mat said we need this guy to be our cen­ter, to be the quar­ter­back of the of­fen­sive line,” In­gram said. “You want your best leader at cen­ter. We moved Ford to cen­ter, not be­cause of his skill set but be­cause of the in­tan­gi­bles he brings: be­ing vo­cal, tak­ing charge and pro­vid­ing that spark.”

By no means was the start­ing spot handed to Hig­gins, who had to re­hab for a sec­ond time in a year and get back into play­ing shape af­ter gain­ing weight while re­cov­er­ing from an­kle surgery.

“Com­ing into Au­gust camp my ju­nior sea­son I felt like I had to prove my­self again,” said Hig­gins, whose pri­mary com­pe­ti­tion was 330-pound Bryan Bar­rett. “I knew that was a cru­cial mo­ment in my ca­reer. I needed to show that I was healthy, still had my speed, still had some pop.”

In­gram ad­mits he wasn’t sure if Hig­gins “could hold up” in­side at his size, which is prob­a­bly closer to 250 a few games into a gru­el­ing sea­son.

“There are times when Ford is block­ing guys who are 100 pounds heav­ier,” In­gram said. “What Ford has ac­com­plished at that po­si­tion at his size is re­mark­able . ... To have a 250-pound cen­ter that has played as well as Ford is be­yond im­pres­sive.” given a truth serum, he would ac­knowl­edge that Hig­gins has graded out ex­tremely high in both ar­eas the past two sea­sons while set­ting a high stan­dard for the rest of the unit.

Hig­gins an­chors the of­fen­sive line that has paved the way for Navy to lead the na­tion in rush­ing with 360.8 yards per game. Full­backs Ja­male Carothers and Nel­son Smith have found huge holes up the mid­dle due largely to Hig­gins con­trol­ling the nose guard or de­fen­sive tackle.

Ni­u­mat­alolo and In­gram felt Hig­gins was wor­thy of post­sea­son hon­ors and were dis­ap­pointed he was left off the All-Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence team.

“I felt bad for Ford be­cause I thought he was de­serv­ing of some recog­ni­tion. When I told him I was sorry, Ford’s re­sponse was ‘I don’t care about that stuff. I just want to beat Army.’ I think if you asked any player on our team, they would tell you they have a ton of re­spect for Ford as both a per­son and a player,” In­gram said.

Se­nior guard T.J. Salu is close with Hig­gins, hav­ing roomed with him on the road and shared the same spon­sor. Salu chuckles when re­call­ing the mo­ment he, Ken­del Wright and David For­ney re­al­ized their class­mate was an of­fen­sive line­man.

“Ford fol­lowed us into the of­fen­sive line room and me, Ken­del and For­ney looked at him like ‘What are you do­ing? Shouldn’t you be go­ing into the out­side line­backer room?’ Ford was by far the small­est guy in the room,” Salu said.

Four years later, Salu un­der­stands how Hig­gins has been able to get it done as an un­der­sized in­te­rior line­man.

“It all comes down to his mind­set, which is sec­ond to none,” Salu said. “Ford could go against a guy 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds and not care one bit. ‘I’ll still boom your stuff,’ he would say. Ford loves talk­ing about boom­ing peo­ple. ... He’s prob­a­bly the most men­tally tough per­son I know.”

Ac­cord­ing to Salu, the way Hig­gins plays in games is a re­flec­tive of his per­son­al­ity. The Nor­cross, Ge­or­gia na­tive is “al­ways amped up” to the point of some­times be­ing an­noy­ing, said Salu, who rou­tinely tells his friend “Dude, c’mon, just chill out.”

Ni­u­mat­alolo said Hig­gins gets so fired up dur­ing games he is al­most froth­ing at the mouth.

“I have to re­mind my­self not to look at Ford when­ever it’s fourth down be­cause he’s al­ways like, ‘Let’s go for it. I know we can get it.’ He just plays with so much en­ergy and ex­cite­ment,” the 12th-year head coach said.

Hig­gins has re­ceived Marine Corps Ground as a ser­vice se­lec­tion and is ready to take on that chal­lenge with the same in­ten­sity he does a 350-pound nose guard.

“When I came into the pro­gram the foot­ball team had such a strong in­flu­ence from Marines,” said Hig­gins not­ing sev­eral of the of­fi­cer rep­re­sen­ta­tives and sup­port per­son­nel were of­fi­cers in that branch of the ser­vice. “It was an easy de­ci­sion for me. The morals, val­ues and tra­di­tion of the Marine Corps are a lot like a foot­ball team cul­ture. That’s some­thing I wanted to con­tinue to be part of.”

PHIL HOFF­MANN

Navy cen­ter Ford Hig­gins is thank­ful to ev­ery­one who has helped him through­out his ca­reer with the Mid­ship­men.

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