It was a Saturday afternoon in Fork Union, Va., and Jacoby Ford had bigger things on his mind than his own prep school football game. He was wanting to be 25 miles up the road, on his way with older brother Davy to watch Florida State face Virginia.
So John Shuman, the football coach at Fork Union Military Academy, made Ford a deal.
"If you take the first punt to the house, you can wave at me as you go to the locker room and get out of here," Shuman recalled. "Sure enough, midway through his first punt return, he was waving at me as he ran past, he jumped in the car with his brother."
Ford has put on more than 20 pounds since he was a 168-pound prep school playmaker, but he still has the extra gear that makes quick getaways a frequent reality. He hopes to put those tools to use when the Raiders open the season Monday night against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
It's easy to forget that Ford's rookie season didn't see him flying out of the starting blocks. Because of a quadriceps injury that cost him much of training camp, Ford's playing time was limited to start.
Although he didn't get his first touchdown until Week 9, Ford finished with seven touchdowns at an average distance of 60.4 yards per score. He and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson were the only players in the league to have a touchdown rushing, receiving and on a kick return.
The Raiders got all that for the No. 108 selection in the
"You never really know what to expect," Ford said. "I wasn't sure if I was just going to be on special teams or how much receiver I'd play. Whenever I did get my opportunity, I just seized it and ran with it from there."
Ford is now fully recovered from a broken left hand that slowed him in the early days of training camp. He will be used creatively by coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Al Saunders in order to utilize his sprinter's speed.
It remains to be seen how many kickoff returns Ford will get with the new rule allowing teams to kick off from the 35-yard line. But Jackson is talking about using Ford occasionally on punt returns and getting the ball into his hands often as possible.
"If he can score touchdowns, I'm going to give it to him," Jackson said. "He likes the ball in his hands, we like to put it in his hands. We need to turn this guy loose."
Ford's coming out party was a Week 9 win over Kansas City when he returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and caught six passes for 148 yards, setting up both the game-tying and game-winning field goals with spectacular catches.
"After the Kansas City game, when I saw Hue started moving me around in different places to get the ball in my hands, that's when I realized I definitely had their trust," said Ford, who followed in the footsteps of his mom and brother as a high school sprint champion in Florida.
Yet after a senior year at Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach in which Jacoby caught 22 passes for 550 yards, schools were scared off by low SAT scores. Davy Ford, who was a running back at Florida State and briefly with the Dallas Cowboys, was told about Fork Union by one of his Cowboys' teammates, linebacker Dexter Coakley.
Coakley, a Fork Union product, recommended Ford to Shuman. For a year, Ford rose at 6 a.m., dressed in uniform, said, "Yes sir," and "No sir," and played a schedule against other military schools as well as local junior colleges and college junior varsity teams.
When the year was up, Ford had 57 receptions for 1,254 yards and nine touchdowns, had returned seven kicks for touchdowns and rushed 12 times for 306 yards and three touchdowns.
He earned a scholarship to Clemson, where he was also an accomplished sprinter on the track team, and earned his degree in sociology.
The first time Shuman and his staff saw Ford run in person, he had the same reaction as Jackson.
"We said, 'We've got to find a way to get this guy the ball,' " Shuman said.
Jacoby Ford was one of only two players in the NFL, along with Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, to score touchdowns rushing, receiving and on kick returns:
Yards Avg. TDs
Receiving 470 18.8 2
Rushing 155 15.5 2
Returns 1,280 24.2 3