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Johnathan 'Rudy' Ford motivated by family tragedy

PHILADELPHIA -- Around midnight on Oct. 25, 2013, Johnathan "Rudy" Ford surged awake in the team hotel.

Just hours before he and the Auburn Tigers were to take on Florida Atlantic during his freshman year, Ford felt an unsettling in his stomach. One fitful attempt at sleep after another passed before he finally decided to text his brother, aunt and father separately. Why did he feel like something wasn't right?

He received no response.

At breakfast the following morning, the team chaplain met him along with a few of Auburn's coaches and they led him into a smaller room where they could be alone. It was the best way they could think of to tell Rudy that his mother, Terrie, had sustained a massive heart attack the previous night. She survived, but the lack of oxygen to her brain would prevent her from seeing, moving, communicating or even remembering anything again. She would be confined to a bed and fed through a tube.

"I broke down immediately," Ford told me this week. "I broke down. She wanted to come to the game just to watch me."

Ford thinks the only reason she's still alive today is because she's such a strong woman. The 50-year-old was a formidable professional cook in her day. She was whip-smart and took care of the family's budget and finances. She made sure her two sons focused in school. To this moment, she is defying an initial prognosis of six months to live.

Now, Ford feels some of that strength has been transferred to him. As he awaits the results of the 2017 NFL Draft on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the safety prospect will do so knowing that he has more perspective, drive and emotional strength than most men who go through this process. Ford, whose scouting profile projects him as a Day 3 pick (in Round 6 or 7), says he is a first-round talent "all day" and at the head of the safety class. After injuring his ankle and foot in last November's Iron Bowl, an X-ray mishap forced him to nurse the wrong injury before he eventually underwent a procedure to remove a bone chip. Ford resumed training just two weeks after that procedure and blazed an unofficial 4.34 40-yard dash at Auburn's pro day in March.

Ford has no doubt he would have given Washington's speedy wideout John Ross some competition for the 40 title -- Ross just set the all-time record at 4.22 seconds -- if he was healthy enough to run in Indianapolis. Such bravado is often eye-roll worthy at this time of year, from players just trying to sound more determined for coaches and general managers. But Ford, who switched from running back in college to safety/nickel corner and devours film on everyone from Sean Taylor to Earl Thomas, is authentic. Unfazed by anything since his mother's catastrophic health event.

"It's all motivation. This caused me to mature faster, to grow up. To be a stronghold for my family," he said. "Because this is tough. It's real hard. Football is a way to uplift, pick everyone back up.

"It's all motivation going through this. I don't wish this upon anybody. It's still tough, even today. I haven't heard her voice in three years. That's my mother. You see your teammates get to hug their mommas after the game. I wish my mom was able to come to, but I'm thinking about her in bed. I don't wish that upon anybody."

When he met with teams like the Cardinals, Raiders and Rams during the top-30 visit portion of the offseason, he would share snippets of his life story. A window into the kind of person he was before Terrie's heart attack -- and the kind of man he's become since.

What most scouts do not know is that the background on his cellphone is a picture of her at the last game she saw him play. It's the first thing he looks at every single morning. He still calls home and talks to her regularly. Ford's father, Hernandez, insists that Terrie's hearing is improving and that she'll wake from sleep at the sound of her son's voice. Rudy's belief in her is relentless; a kind of faith one attains from having a pastor as a father.

"Words can't -- it's been a blessing to see him mature," Hernandez said. "It's been an experience a father can only wish for. He's matured into this man and people around him give these compliments. It gives me confidence that the morals I instilled in him can be a part of his everyday life. It's what a father dreams of."

Hernandez told me that, last Valentine's Day, he prayed. He wanted to tell Terrie everything he was thinking and feeling inside. He wanted them to share a moment together. At that moment, Hernandez said she squeezed his hand with her finger and thumb. It has not happened since, but there are still signs that she is fighting.

When Auburn games were on and Hernandez anticipated the announcers would say his son's name, he would blast the volume on the television. He thinks she hears that, too.

That's why they plan on doing the same thing this weekend when Ford gets the call from his future NFL team. It only feels right for them all to experience it together.

"Just the thought of that ..." Hernandez said.

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