At Michigan and beyond, Christian Ford carries on his grandfather’s legacy

Monday, March 30, 2020 - 5:35pm

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Courtesy of Christian Ford

President Gerald R. Ford has many titles to his name — 38th President of the United States, House of Representatives Minority Leader and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, to name a few.

But Christian Ford knew him by just one: Grandpa.

Instead of President Ford, he knew Grandpa — the jolly, happy-go-lucky patriarch who smothered him with affection. He knew Grandpa, the cheerleader who came to his first ever football game in second grade to support him. He knew Grandpa, the moral sage who scolded him after he jammed the pool cover motor and lied about it because “Fords always told the truth, even if it meant getting in trouble.”

For Christian, President Ford was like any other normal grandparent.

Just as he did with his other positions, President Ford fully embraced his role as a grandparent. And as the eldest of eight Ford grandchildren, Christian developed a particularly intimate grandfather-grandson bond with him.

While Christian was growing up, the Fords occasionally got together for family ski trips to Colorado and day trips to the beach in California. But more frequently, about once or twice a month, Christian’s family made the drive over from Rancho Santa Fe to Rancho Mirage, Calif., a city outside Palm Springs, where President Ford and his wife, Betty, resided in retirement. It only took two hours, so the commute became relatively routine. Christian looked forward to these trips in particular because they were an opportunity to spend close time with his grandfather.

“It was always such a fun time going to Grandpa and Grandma’s because I knew I got to see them,” Christian said. “It was just a special connection.”

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Courtesy of Christian Ford

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During his collegiate career at Michigan, President Ford was a standout football player. His freshman and sophomore seasons, he rotated between center, linebacker and long snapper, backing up All-American center Chuck Bernard during the Wolverines’ 1932 and 1933 National Championship runs. In 1934, President Ford’s senior season, he had finally earned the starting job at center. Despite an abysmal 1-7 season that year, President Ford’s premier level of play earned him the teams Most Valuable Player award and offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers to play in the NFL.

As history knows, President Ford chose a slightly different career path. But his love for football and Michigan sports never left him. And he made sure to pass it on to Christian.

At Grandpa and Grandma’s house, Christian could usually be found alongside his grandfather in the living room. More often than not, a Michigan sporting event was on TV. With President Ford reclined in his leather chair, Christian would crawl into a nearby newspaper holder, which sustained his small frame, so that he could be as close to his grandfather as possible. 

In this formation, they watched countless games together. It was how they bonded.

“I would look up and see when he cheered,” Christian said. “And if he cheered, I would cheer. I didn’t know why I was rooting for Michigan, except for that he was rooting for it, in the beginning. And then it just turned into this love affair with Michigan after that.”

And just like that, President Ford ushered in his grandson’s own immense love for Wolverines’ football. As a child, Christian was usually found wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Future Wolverine.’ In his free time, he often drafted up mock football plays and showed them to President Ford to get an expert opinion.

“I knew it was something he cared about, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do this because I know Grandpa likes that,’ ” Christian said.

President Ford passed away in 2006, when Christian was in third grade. Christian lost more than his grandfather. He lost his mentor. He lost his Michigan sports companion.

But at that moment, President Ford’s legacy — one as an athlete, man of high character and Michigan Wolverine — began to live on through Christian.

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Courtesy of Christian Ford

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When Christian was in second grade, his father, Jack, returned home from work one day with a lacrosse stick.

At the time, relatively few people in California knew about lacrosse. Even fewer actually played it. But San Diego County was starting up a small league of its own, and Jack was going to sign Christian up to play.

No one in the Ford family had ever played lacrosse before. Jack only knew about it from growing up in Virginia, an East Coast lacrosse hotbed.

When Christian’s mother, Juliann, questioned whether or not her son — who was already occupied with football — would like the sport, Jack gave a response that any athletically-inclined eight year-old boy would appreciate:

“It’s a stick, a ball, and pads, of course he is going to like it.”

Turns out, Jack was right.

As Christian began high school at the Bishop’s School, a private college-preparatory school in La Jolla, Calif., his lacrosse career was coming into its own. But it wasn’t until he started attending the Knights’ practices that he began to blossom.

As a part of a small program with only 16 players and no junior varsity team, Christian was thrown through the wringer as a freshman. At his first practice, Christian recalls upperclassman Eddy Glazener, a current professional in the Professional Lacrosse League and former Notre Dame defender, guarding him.

“He beat the crap out of me,” Christian said. “(But) that experience of having to go against the best players in the country (early on) everyday in practice really helped me to elevate my game.”

At the same time in his life, Christian was just beginning to explore Michigan on his own.

Throughout the majority of his childhood, Christian was often too busy with sports to go see a Michigan football game in person. But a year before Christian entered high school, the Ford family finally found the time to take a trip to Ann Arbor. Up in the athletic director’s box, Christian took in the spectacle of Michigan football in the Big House with his own eyes as the Wolverines trounced Western Michigan, 34-10.

During the game, one of Christian’s old babysitters — then a senior at Michigan — invited him down into the student section to watch the rest of the game.

As Christian walked through the archway into the student section bleachers, he was amazed by the true power of the Michigan gameday experience — the roar of the crowd, the bright maize and blue figures that blanketed the bleachers. Christian began to truly understand why, after all those years, his grandfather was so transfixed by Michigan sports.

“I got down there and was a part of the crowd and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the most incredible experience of my life,’ ” Christian said. “That memory there was what really helped to set my sights on wanting to be a student here and then have the opportunity to be a student-athlete.”

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Becca Mahon/Daily

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Alongside four other freshmen, Christian started for the Bishop’s School from day one. Christian coined them the Fab Five, after the famous Michigan basketball team on which he had recently watched a documentary. They were young and relatively inexperienced, but due to the small stature of the program, a lot was expected of them early on. 

“I had to learn to do a bunch of things, whether that meant taking faceoffs, playing defensive midfielder, or playing offense,” Christian said. “(I had to) understand that coming out to take a break wasn’t an option. It was on-deck at all times.”

Christian and the rest of the Fab Five stepped into big roles and they excelled, taking the Knights to the CIF San Diego Championship tournament in three of their four years. Christian was a three-time All-Coast League selection, with the exception of his junior year when he missed the season due to a torn ACL.

It wasn’t long before that talent opened up his recruitment process. Michigan was on Christian’s list of schools. But hoping he’d stay objective and weigh all his options, Christian’s family took away all of his Michigan gear aside from one shirt and one sweatshirt.

In Christian’s heart, though, he knew.

“I’d always be catching myself watching Michigan football and basketball games, and it just made me realize that Michigan was the place for me,” Christian said.

Taking after his grandfather in another vein, Christian was also developing an interest in public policy. Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy was ranked amongst the top undergraduate public policy programs in the country.

It was an easy decision.

In the fall of that year, Christian stood beside his parents underneath a portrait of his grandfather in Weill Hall at the Ford School as he announced his commitment. When he told then-Michigan coach John Paul that he wanted to play lacrosse for the Wolverines, he had one simple request — to wear No. 48, his grandfather’s football number, in his honor.

“I wanted to be able to wear his number at Michigan and just try to make him proud,” Christian said. “It was a special thing for my family and I to have that opportunity. And then being on campus, knowing that when people see the No. 48, that hopefully they associate me and that number with good things.”

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When Christian arrived in Ann Arbor for his freshman year, it was hard to avoid his lineage.

His grandfather, President Ford, also attended Michigan and played a sport.

But Christian didn’t come to Michigan to be President Ford’s grandson. He came to Michigan to be Christian Ford. He and his parents wanted the whole situation to be lowkey, and the media and his peers respected that. 

“(I was a) student navigating everything that all other freshmen have to deal with,” Christian said. “People weren’t like ‘Oh, you’re Christian Ford.’ It was ‘Oh, it’s Christian. He’s on the lacrosse team and he’s a freshman — just like me.’ … I was just a normal student.”

While Christian excelled socially and academically at Michigan during his first two years, he struggled to stay healthy on the lacrosse field. His freshman year, Christian missed the entire season. After working tirelessly to get back in shape for his sophomore season, he tore a tendon in his knee, ending his hopes of a debut.

President Ford had knee issues of his own after suffering an injury his senior football season in high school. Through lessons about his grandfather’s own struggles, Christian learned how to persevere.

“I inherited both his name and his knee issues,” Christian said. “Back then, when you hurt your knee, you were basically done. Knowing that he was able to bounce back from that and go onto to have the football career that he did gave me hope.”

Christian’s time off gave him the opportunity to work on his craft and develop into a more versatile player. After primarily serving a goal-scorer role as an offensive midfielder in high school, he began to work on his off-ball play and defense. Christian knew that if he put the proper amount of effort in to improve other aspects of his game, it would help make the team better once he returned to the field.

“(My grandfather said to me), ‘Always doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem like it is going to pay off,’ ” Christian said. “Doing the right thing doesn’t always mean benefitting yourself.”

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Courtesy of Christian Ford

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In his junior year, Christian saw his hard work pay off. To aid a banged-up Michigan roster, he began to take shifts at defensive midfield. He played in 10 total games, scooping up three ground balls and causing one turnover along the way.

In 2020, his senior year, Christian served a more prominent role on the team and found his way back into the offensive rotation, notching five goals and one assist in seven games.

On Feb. 18, in the Wolverines’ game against Canisius, Christian finally got the first goal of his Michigan career. With five minutes remaining in the second quarter, Christian held the ball in his crosse following a Michigan faceoff win. As a teammate set up a pick for him, Christian dodged down the alley and fired a shot off-hip past the Golden Griffins’ goaltender.

When Christian saw that the ball landed in the back of the net, he took one hand off his crosse and pumped a fist in the sky.

“I was just so relieved,” Christian said. “It was like a ‘Thank God that finally happened’ kind of thing. A goal, finally.”

A few weeks later, Christian’s senior season was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But Christian is no stranger to adversity, and he hopes to return as a graduate student next year to exercise his extra season of playing eligibility.

And with life lessons and heartfelt memories from his grandfather draped around his No. 48 jersey, it is clear to Christian that whatever happens next, Grandpa will be with him, guiding him down his own path to Michigan glory.