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