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Inside the Bills: Memory of three friends taken by gun violence inspires Keith Ford

Every tattoo on Keith Ford’s body comes with a story.

The most tragic of those is three bullets on the inside of his right bicep. Each one is a constant reminder of friends gone too soon, the victims of gun violence.

“People usually get tattoos just to get tattoos, but after I go through trials and tribulations in my life, I want it to leave a mark,” the Buffalo Bills’ rookie running back said. “They were very close to me. I played football with them, grew up with them. I have to remember them some type of way. Those three bullets on my arm remind me that these were the guys who pushed me and guided me to get this far. They're up there and one day I'm going to see them again, but it's just a reminder, the people who stood by me, I'll always remember.”

The available real estate on Ford’s arms is just about filled up with ink.

“I’m not done, though. As we get older, memories are going to fade,” he said. “I have a pretty good memory now, but I don't know how good my memory is going to be 10 years from now.”

That’s why those three bullets are so important. Devonte Hardison, Deandre Liggins and Jarvis Shields were Ford's teammates at Cypress Ranch High School. They made Ford feel at home as a teenager new to Texas.

“They were more than teammates. They were best friends, like family,” Ford said. “Growing up, I really didn't have a lot of friends. I grew up overseas. My dad was a marine. People come and go. It was good to establish a group of friends that I never had.”

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Ford’s father, Keith Ford Sr., served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The family lived overseas from the time Ford was 6 to when he was 13.

“Seeing a different part of the world taught me the values of different cultures and respecting diversity, not seeing colors or races,” he said. “Growing up on a base, you really live around a whole bunch of different people. Then when you get off the base, it's just Japan. I got to see a different side of the world. With what's going on today, black, white, whatever, I never saw that.”

After his father retired from the military, the family settled in Cypress, Texas, just northwest of Houston. Football became the way for Ford to meet friends, even if Cypress Ranch coach Gene Johnson was skeptical at first. Cypress Ranch opened in 2008, so the team’s coaches invited eighth graders out to an orientation of sorts, to give them a better idea of what playing varsity football was all about. Johnson had heard about Ford before ever meeting him.

“So we’re getting started, and here comes Keith, riding up on a skateboard,” Johnson recalled. “I thought, ‘this is the kid everyone is telling me about?’ ”

It didn’t take long for Johnson to come around. By the time Ford was a sophomore, he was the second-leading rusher in Class 5A-District 17, played as the starting point guard in basketball and competed in the 100 meters, long jump, 400 and 800 relays in the spring with the track team.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have a few kids who have had a shot to play in the NFL,” Johnson said, “but Keith Ford’s the best player I’ve ever had. Obviously we’re biased as high school coaches, but he’s got everything you need to make it.”

As a senior, Ford rushed for 1,868 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was considered a five-star recruit by scout.com, and ESPN ranked him as the third-best running back in the Class of 2012.

"Cy Ranch was still a relatively new school, so Ford was the first major prospect for the program," said Brian Perroni, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com who is based in Houston. "He battled injuries a bit as a junior but started out his senior year with a couple huge 200-yard plus games. He was very consistent in grinding out yards and showed that he could carry the ball 25 or 30 times a game. ...

"I never saw quite the top end speed that even some other bigger backs had. But, he was a guy that was still expected to be a high-ceiling pickup."

Ford had offers from nearly all of college football’s elite programs, including Alabama, Florida State, Texas, Notre Dame and Michigan, among several others. In the end, though, Ford chose to start his college career at Oklahoma, explaining why in a 2013 interview with the Houston Chronicle.

“I went up there for a camp and just the way they were coaching – very energetic and it just made me want to work. I liked that,” he said. “I’ve been to all these other schools. They were, ‘Oh, we send these people to the draft’ and this and that. I felt that sometimes they weren’t telling me the truth. The OU coaches seemed very straightforward and said not what you wanted to hear, but told you the truth. So that played a big part.”

Ford’s career in Norman did not flourish the way it did in high school. As a freshman, he rushed 23 times for 134 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.

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Ford won the starting job as a sophomore with the Sooners in 2014. A broken right leg in the third week of the season against Tennessee, however, cost him five weeks. He finished the year with 369 yards on 63 carries in eight games. In the spring of 2015, Oklahoma announced that Ford had been suspended indefinitely for academic and team rules violations.

He announced in May 2015 that he was transferring to Texas A&M, saying publicly that Sooners running backs coach Jay Boulware treated him like he was in high school.

“I went through some things at Oklahoma,” Ford said. “I broke my leg and everything. I just thought, ‘you know what, I want to start somewhere fresh.’ I wanted to get closer to home, closer to my parents.”

The same month Ford announced he was transferred, Hardison was killed. According to published reports, the 21-year-old went to a house in Katy after his mother told him the alarm was going off. It appears Hardison walked in on a burglary in progress.

Then in June 2015, Shields’ body was discovered behind a vacant house in his native Syracuse. He had also been shot, and investigators ruled the death a homicide.

In the summer of 2014, Liggins was shot in the parking lot of a CVS. According to police, a drug deal went bad, and there was a struggle over a gun.

“I was shell-shocked,” Ford said. “I still don’t know how to make any sense of it.”

Ford sat out the 2015 season after transferring. He rushed for 669 yards on 126 carries in 13 games during the 2016 season, with six touchdowns. He played in 10 games in 2017, rushing 104 times for 429 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns.

“We were able to get on the phone with him early after the draft and get him here as a free agent. It's worked out well,” Bills running backs coach Kelly Skipper said. “He's progressed well. He's learned a lot. You see him improving every day, so I'm excited to see him in pads once we get to training camp.”

Ford knows he faces long odds for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent, but has the one thing every player craves: A shot.

“Coach Skipper saw something in me that a lot of other people didn't,” he said. “It just takes one person to have faith in you. It's a blessing. Every day I come out here and work hard, and just remember how I got here. I'm thankful for the opportunity and going to try to make the most of it.”

Allen talks with SI

During last month’s NFLPA Rookie Premier in Los Angeles, Bills quarterback Josh Allen participated in a roundtable discussion among the five first-round quarterbacks, hosted by Sports Illustrated.

The complete episode, which is available on si.tv, runs for 24 minutes. The most interesting answer from Allen came when the quarterbacks talked about the rise in personal quarterback coaches and a growing camp circuit.

“I never did that growing up,” Allen told host Robert Klemko. “I came from a small town. I didn’t really go the camps. I was too busy playing different sports. … Watching kids grow up and play different sports, allowing them to develop different parts of their athleticism, to me was a big part of my success in college.

“The pro of playing multiple sports is you’re competitive. That competitive edge kicks in, and if you’re just doing the circuit and you’re going to camps, it’s not the same. You’re not getting the same amount of competitive nature that you would playing other sports.”

The quarterbacks also shared which players inspired them as kids.

“Growing up and watching Brett Favre, do the things he did on the field, just how many consecutive games, I mean, the dude never missed” a game, Allen said. “I mean, he was always on the field. He had so much fun playing the game. His teammates loved him, and that’s just always what I’ve tried to emulate, is playing like that man right there. And then obviously being able to watch Tom Brady in the prime of his career, reeling off the Super Bowl wins, continuing to improve every year, take care of his body. It’s something spectacular that we’ve been able to watch.”

Allen also shared the best piece of advice he received during the pre-draft process, saying former Giants great Michael Strahan explained how, at the start of his career, he paid close attention to what was being written and said about him.

“Being in the New York market, 90 percent of it was going to be negative, no matter how great he was going to be doing,” Allen said. “So he told me, ‘I stopped reading all that stuff. I just tuned it out completely, kept to me, my family and my teammates and I felt like a different man.’ ”

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