Last year, Ailym Ford had to go against everything he knew.
His whole life had been built on a philosophy of working harder than everyone else. It wasn't just a cliché for him, though - he had always backed it up with his actions, and that continued after he became part of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program.
In 2019, his freshman season and also the first with Rusty Wright as head coach of the Mocs, Ford made a hit on a kickoff return - running backs coach Ricky Spradling called it "the hit heard around the world" - that basically stopped practice.
"I remember everybody looked over," Spradling recalled, "and that's kind of when we had a good feeling that number 32 was going to be pretty good."
Speaking of clichés, one could say Ford is "built different," but Wright disputes that notion.
"That's just how he lives his life," Wright said. "Everybody has an opportunity to do that; they just choose not to be that way, and that's the difference with him. He chooses to be that way, which separates him from a lot of people."
But maybe there is something innately different about Ford. After all, he did commit to UTC just days before Tom Arth, after two seasons leading the Mocs, left to become head coach at Akron in December 2018. A few days later, Ford still signed his letter of intent despite the program not having a coach at the time, in part because he felt good about what had been presented to him by the previous staff. He was the Mocs' only early signee that year.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pound running back emerged as one of the top freshmen in the Football Championship Subdivision that season, despite playing in only nine games and starting just seven. Ford began the year as a backup to Tyrell Price before the veteran runner was injured, and then Ford tore an ACL in the first quarter of a game against Samford and missed the final two games. Still, he rushed for 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns, including five consecutive games with at least 116 yards and a 200-yard performance against East Tennessee State, and was named the Southern Conference freshman of the year and received Freshman All-America recognition from multiple publications.
With COVID-19 sending students home in the spring of 2020, Ford - just a few months removed from knee surgery - spent his free time in his hometown of Florence, South Carolina, running with tires, pushing vans and doing brick work to try to not only recover from his injury but stay in shape for the possibility of the 2020 season.
Where does that motivation come from?
Look no further than Ford's mom Teresa. He watched her go to work every day "sick or healthy," he said, to try to provide for him.
"I always grew up watching her and watching my surroundings," he said. "I kind of caught on real early, and I started asking myself, 'What am I complaining about? She's doing this on her own. Why can't I?' So I wanted to be a backbone for her someday, somehow."
But this past season forced Ford to do something he wasn't accustomed to doing: slow down. He played in UTC's one fall game of 2020 - a 13-10 loss at Western Kentucky, where he rushed for 92 yards and 24 carries against one of the better defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision - but missed the team's four games against SoCon foes this past spring with a hamstring injury. Despite that, he was running two miles after practice until coaches and trainers told him to cut back.
"It was kind of tough, but at that point in time, you've got to think about your team. You've got to take care of them," Ford said. "I learned a lot about self-control throughout the year."
Now, with the first game of another season less than three weeks away, there are no limitations.
It's given him the opportunity to ease himself back despite being in a position group packed with proven players and potential. Price (5-11, 211) is a sixth-year senior who has 956 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns in his career. Gino Appleberry (5-8, 200) had three rushing touchdowns at Western Kentucky as a freshman in 2019 and had 194 yards and two scores this past spring. Lance Jackson (6-0, 172), a member of the 2019 signing class, has appeared in just one game for the Mocs, but he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Mercer in that opportunity this past spring.
So of course Ford wants to compete, but he also understands he'll have to play his role as part of a talented group. With depth at the position that didn't exist in 2019, Ford won't be asked to carry the ball 30 or more times in a game - he'll just be asked to make the most of the carries he gets.
"We've got a lot of talent," Ford said. "Everybody in that room could play, today and tomorrow. Each and every one of us can start, so it's been good competition, good motivation. You wake up every morning and you know not to slack because your job is on the line. That's just what we do here."
And that's all Ford knows.