Only a handful of Alabama attorneys played college football in their undergraduate years. Tuscaloosa attorney Steve Ford represents an even more rarified group – attorneys who played for the legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. Today, his successful law practice reflects philosophies learned from his gridiron years playing for the Crimson Tide.
“Coach Bryant’s philosophy, and what he instilled in all of us as players, is that you’re not one person on the field and another person off the field. If you’re going to excel on the field and be the kind of person you’re supposed to be, you don’t all of a sudden become a different person when you’re sitting in the classroom or doing something else. You should put forth the same effort on the field, in the classroom and in life generally,” says Ford, a partner in the esteemed law firm Lewis & Ford LLC and member of the 1973 University of Alabama national championship team.
“Many of my closest friends on the team are professional people,” says Ford. “Two are attorneys, one is a doctor, one is head coach for Nebraska and another is very successful in the insurance field.
“Coach Bryant and the coaching staff stressed academics,” he continues. “You had to go to class and they kept up with what you were doing in school. At Alabama, it was emphasized that you take care of business, not just on the field but off the field as well.”
Though it’s been more than 40 years since last donning the famed crimson and white jersey, Ford’s recollections of his undergraduate years at the University of Alabama are indelible and as easy to cite as his most recent verdict. Lettering in his junior and senior years, Ford was part of the powerhouse winning team from 1971 through the 1974 season. As a member on special teams, and as a backup on defense as a cornerback, he considers those years very special for many reasons, not the least of these having had Bryant as a coach and mentor.
Not surprisingly, this native son raised on football and the Roll Tide rallying cry, held a lifelong dream shared by most Tuscaloosa boys. That aspiration was to be big enough, strong enough and good enough to land a spot on the Crimson Tide football team.
“I was one of the smallest guys on the team,” he says. “And, tongue-in-cheek I used to tell everybody, that I tried to make up for my size by being slow.”
The smile lingers on Ford’s face as he leans back in his chair. It’s apparent that the plush office surroundings are gradually disappearing as he delves further into his memories. Of course, one should recall that it was the early ’70s, a time of social upheaval and racial unrest.
“Alabama wasn’t even an integrated team until 1970, and I came in ’71,” says Ford. “The thing about Coach Bryant, he didn’t see you as black or white, he saw you as one of his players – one of the guys on the team. The standard was set; he expected, demanded the same from everybody, and treated everyone the same. It didn’t matter if you were tall or short, skinny or fat, fast, slow, or black or white – it didn’t make a difference.”
Interestingly, though unfazed at the time, Ford explains how he inadvertently played a part in his alma mater’s gradual introduction and eventual acceptance of true integration.
“There was only one black athlete on the football team before my class of 1971 and he was a freshman who signed in 1970,” he says. Sylvester Croom and I were in the class of 1971 along with other black athletes. Sylvester and I were friends and played three years of football together at Tuscaloosa High School. When we came to the University of Alabama in 1971, we were one of the first black/white roommates on the team. The funny thing is it didn’t mean anything to us. We’d played football together and been friends for years. As far as we were concerned, we got to room with a friend.
“Years ago, when Sylvester became the head coach at Mississippi State, ESPN came to interview us about ‘those days’,” Ford continues. “I remember telling the girl, ‘During practice or in the game, when you’re in the huddle, whether offense or defense, getting the signals for the next play, nobody’s looking around thinking who’s black or white. Everyone is hot, tired, drained, hurting and trying to do his job the next play. Nobody was thinking about who was black or who was white.’ It made me realize, that in many ways athletics creates a level playing field that somewhat neutralizes prejudice.”
End Zone to Courtroom
Just as he was determined to play football for Alabama, growing up Ford also had another, long-range goal. “My dad was an attorney,” he says, “and I used to go down to his office and hang around. I probably knew from junior high school on that I wanted to be a lawyer. I remember my folks shaking their heads at me saying, ‘You gotta be a lawyer,’ just because, from time to time, I’d take the opposing view when we were discussing various subjects. Even at that age, I enjoyed trying to present a logical and convincing argument, regardless of which side of the discussion. And, because I knew at a relatively young age that was the career for me, I carefully considered what classes to take in high school. My electives were all geared toward preparing me for law school.”
“When I began my undergraduate studies, I chose my major, American studies, because I knew it would be an excellent precursor to law school. Then I was accepted to law school and finished early by going to the summer school sessions. I was ready to be done with school and move on to the next phase of my life.”
Graduating in 1978, he’s now in his 40th year of practice. “I’ve handled workers’ compensation cases from day one,” he says. “But for the past 15 or 20 years, that’s all I handle. I represent people who have been injured on the job and help them get through that process.”
Ford added that a substantial number of cases come to him on a referral basis from other attorneys who do not handle workers’ compensation cases.
This area of the law became Ford’s passion. So much so, that as an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama Law School, he taught the workman’s compensation course for about seven years. Then, he collaborated on a book on the subject that is used statewide.
“Fellow attorney and friend Bob Lee and I were contacted by a publishing company to write a book on workers’ compensation law in Alabama. We thought that to be a worthwhile endeavor, so we proceeded to do so. We set it up in a format that makes it useful for attorneys, judges and students. So, it’s not a textbook per se, but a handbook that covers the law and practical advice on how to handle cases. We intentionally designed it so that it could be used by all three groups. We were very pleased with how it turned out.”
Unfortunately, Ford’s friend and coauthor, Robert W. Lee has since passed away, but the book remains a valuable asset to the legal community.
Ford has lived a full and interesting life, and not that long ago was delighted to discover life still has surprises for him.
Back in college, in his senior year to be exact, Ford was invited to speak at his old high school. A few days prior to his presentation, he was on the high school campus trying to locate his former coach who had arranged the presentation. Having no luck, he came upon a lovely young girl, Laney Smallwood, and asked for help. She sweetly pointed him in the right direction, unwittingly also hitting a bulls-eye to his heart.
“She kind of stuck in my head,” he says with a grin. “So, I asked coach for her phone number. I got it, and we dated my entire senior year in college, which was her senior year in high school. Then we got engaged. I was 22 and she was 18, but we didn’t get married because, well I was 22 and she was 18!”
Going their separate ways, each marrying and starting their own families then going through the pain of divorce, Ford was delighted when unusual circumstances brought them back together again. Married for just over a year, according to Ford, “Laney and I are as much in love as we were back then. She’s a wonderful lady.”