By Justin Jarrett | LowcoSports@gmail.com
Just a few minutes before Hilton Head Island High School’s football team was scheduled to kickoff its 2017 season, BJ Payne glanced at his cell phone and saw a text message he wasn’t expecting.
It was from University of Texas football coach Tom Herman, and it brought the burly football coach and former professional wrestler to tears.
“Coach Payne. It’s Tom Herman at the University of Texas,” the message read. “Just wanted to let you know that Poona was voted captain this season and will represent his teammates. Thanks again for raising him right.”
“Poona” needs no introduction to Lowcountry sports fans. A star defensive lineman at HHIHS, Poona Ford was one of the most sought-after recruits in South Carolina in 2014. He initially committed to the University of Louisville but followed coach Charlie Strong to Texas instead. Now he is a team captain for one of the most storied programs in college football history, but Ford says it never would have happened without Payne.
“Going into my junior year, our coach from the previous year had gotten fired,” Ford said. “At that point I kind of lost hope of going on to the next level. I was about to enlist in the army but then they hired a new coach. Coach sat down and talked to me. He told me I was going to play in a 3-technique. He told me if I trusted him he would get me to where I wanted to be. So I trusted him. After that, the scholarships started rolling in and now I’m here today. I’m just thankful for everything he did for me.”
The feeling is mutual, and it goes well beyond Payne.
When Toledo was the first school to offer Ford a scholarship, Payne called his wife, who burst into tears and pleaded with him to wait until she got off work so she could be there when the coach broke the news to Ford and his family.
When Hurricane Matthew devastated Hilton Head Island last fall, Ford was the first to call his former coach. More than 30 Seahawks went on their own to Ford’s grandmother’s house to clear debris and check on her well-being, a sign of the respect he warranted with his former team.
“Football aside, he has impacted more people with his great humanity than he will ever know,” Payne said. “From being the kid who ate lunch with my own kids during two-a-days to the kid who always arrived to school with a smile. He worked and worked very hard for everything he has earned.”
Ford often toils outside the spotlight. His is not a glorious role, the hole-clogging run stopper on the middle of the defensive line, but it’s a pivotal one to the Longhorns’ success. Moreover, he is quiet and unassuming, never one to try to bring attention upon himself. But he is a leader, nonetheless, as evidenced by his teammates’ decision to vote him a captain.
“I just always lead by example,” Ford said. “There are some people that may think that stuff goes unnoticed, but in the long run people see what you do every day and how hard you work. People notice it.”
The Seahawks certainly noticed it, and Ford’s massive presence remains almost four years after he played his final game for HHIHS. After the team’s 22-21 win at Whale Branch in the season-opener, a few hours after the text message that brought Payne to tears, the coach shared the news with his team.
“Our entire team stood and gave him a standing ovation from 1,012 miles away that he never got to hear or see,” Payne said. “That’s what you have in a Texas captain.”