Faith, family and basketball: The story of Arkansas Razorbacks prized recruit Derrian Ford

By Nate Olson | Photos by Jimmy Jones

MAGNOLIA — The calendar has just flipped to August and even before noon it is already hot — the kind of heat you’d expect in South Arkansas in the throes of late summer. Hot and humid. The heat index will be well over 100 degrees. 

But there is Derrian Ford standing outside of Magnolia’s Southview Church of Christ, clad in Western-style blue jeans, cowboy boots and a tucked-in tie-dyed T-shirt displaying the word ‘FAITH,’ welcoming parishioners with a big smile, not even breaking a sweat. 

Once inside, the long, lean Ford, who looks to be chiseled from granite, leads the service and sings in front of a congregation that is around 100 strong but is spaced out in the church gym because of COVID-19 regulations. A group of two elderly women and a man sit to his right and hang on his every word.

His father, Darnell Ford, sits adjacent to the pulpit and shouts words of encouragement.

“That’s right!”  

“Amen to that!” 

“Yessir, yessir!

It’s easy to see that Derrian Ford doesn’t just go to church, he is a big part of it — even at 17. 

That’s how he’s known between these walls of the church — little Derrian Ford, who came up in the church and is already a respected leader. A kid who reads his Bible every day, prays multiple times a day and is home by sundown most nights, unless he’s at the gym. 

Because the gym is the only place he’s spent more time than the church house is why you know him. Well, the gym and the weight room. Ford is a basketball prodigy ranked No. 68 among senior recruits in the country by ESPN and a University of Arkansas signee. His Magnolia High School team won a Class 4A state championship his freshman year and was a co-champion his sophomore season, when the title game was canceled because of the pandemic. Last year, the Panthers’ streak of 54 wins came to an end when Morrilton beat Magnolia in the Class 4A semifinals.

Ford is a college coach’s dream, and perhaps seemingly too good to be true: a man of faith, a 4.0 student with a body (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) built to play strong safety with NBA skills. 

“A coach’s dream is one way to put it, and there are not enough boxes on the sheet to check for him,” said Ben Lindsey, who is in his third season as the Magnolia head coach. “Until you’ve coached him, you really don’t understand. People that see him around town or (the media), you only get to see a glimpse of him. I get to see it every day and what he’s like as a person and as a leader.”

It’s a blueprint Darnell Ford, a former small-college basketball player, has developed since Derrian could walk. 

Faith and family

Darnell Ford, 53, and Marc Ford, 48, grew up together in the small, rural town of Plain Dealing, La., in the Bossier City-Shreveport area in the northern part of the state. When Darnell was 13, his father, who was dealing with an illness, died on the operating table during a surgical procedure.

“We were walking home from school and a guy told us before we could hear it from our mom,” Darnell said.

That left Bettie Ruth Ford to raise her sons alone while working at a burger restaurant and making just $75 per week, according to Darnell.

“One day, right after my dad died, we were walking, and (Bettie Ruth) told us to hug and tried to pull us apart,” Marc Ford said. “She said, ‘Don’t ever let go, always stick together.’ We’ve been doing that ever since.”

At night, both boys would walk to the restaurant to help their mom take out the trash. The owner would reward them with burgers, and the two would take their time walking back home on a trail in the woods while eating. Bettie Ruth would arrive at the house later, sometimes riding with a local policeman since she didn’t own a car. 

“We didn’t have much, but we were always thankful for what we had and thankful for her,” Darnell said. “I remember one Christmas, we each got a jacket and a 10-speed (bike), and we were happy with that. But those times made us appreciate what we have now. There are 30 or 40 presents under the tree now. We will never forget those times or how hard she worked for us.”

The Ford boys grew to be great athletes. Darnell excelled as a point guard. Marc played point guard and defensive back. 

Darnell enrolled at Magnolia’s SAU Tech junior college and then became an honorable mention all-conference basketball player at Southern Arkansas University, also in Magnolia, an NAIA program at the time. SAU won a conference title his first season.

Marc joined his brother at SAU, but after one football practice, he left.

“He had football practice and I had basketball, and I came back and he wasn’t there,Darnell said. “Some of the guys said he was gone. I said, ‘Gone where?’ They said, ‘Gone home.

Marc went to work for Steel Forgings in Shreveport and has been there for 27 years. He is currently a press operator producing fittings for oil pipelines. 

Bettie Ruth died in 1999, leaving the brothers to lean on each other a little more. They talk every day around 6 a.m., when Marc is already at work and his older brother is waking up.

When Derrian was in middle school, his immediate family moved to Houston for a short time. Their time away was hard on Marc.

“That was like someone punched me in the gut,” Marc said. “(Darnell) called me and said they were coming home. I was so happy. I was so excited, I left work.”

Marc has five grown children and was divorced five years ago. He has enjoyed being a part of Darnell’s family and attends Sunday services and lunch often. He is a fixture at Derrian’s games and takes to social media to promote his nephew.

Darnell’s children from a previous marriage are adults. Dyrell, 29, played a season of basketball at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock and is working and living in Magnolia. Aliyah is 23 and works for the Magnolia School District. 

Darnell and Tiffani met 18 years ago and have been married 16 years. Like Aliyah, they both work for Magnolia schools. Darnell is a mentor, dealing with troubled students and others who need guidance in grades K-12. Tiffani is a licensed social worker. 

Together, they have Derrian (18), Dre’den (14), Avah (12) and Airyn (8). Keeping with family tradition, the younger siblings also are good athletes and are playing basketball. Dre’den also plays football, and Avah excels in volleyball.

The same family bond Bettie Ruth emphasized when her boys were young is evident in their family. On this summer Sunday after church, Darnell and Tiffani’s children gather with Tiffani’s mom, who lives in Houston, and Marc for a big dinner with all of the trimmings. Before everyone digs in, the entire family holds hands and prays. The Ford boys grew up in church with their mom, and the family is built on a strong Christian faith. 

As important as basketball is to Derrian, his faith is more important. When asked what makes his son such a good basketball player, Darnell gives an unexpected response.

“He puts God first,” Darnell said. “If you don’t do that, you can be successful, but you really aren’t truly successful until you do that. (Derrian) puts God first. 

“It’s like a marriage between a husband and a wife. The marriage is only as strong as the love you have for God. I love my wife dearly. My relationship with God is nowhere close to my wife. Same thing with Derrian and vice versa. I’m not even in the picture compared to God. As a father, I think that is important to instill that in them. I didn’t always have that. My dad wasn’t a churchgoer, but when I studied The Word, I saw it. I knew I wanted to make a difference. My advice to all fathers is to put God first over everything.”

The first thing the father and son do every day is share Bible verses — a devotional. Derrian said he prays “for sure” three times per day — morning, evening and night — and “sometimes just other times during the day.” He’s been taking center stage at church since he was 9. 

“My dad told me that if you can play in front of 10,000 people, you can sing in front of 50, 100 or 200 people and praise God,” Derrian said. “That’s my home church. I know everybody. It’s my community.

Growing up to be special on and off the court

When asked about Derrian’s love of basketball, Darnell leans back on the couch and smiles. 

“I loved the game of basketball. It taught me a lot about life,” Darnell said. “So, the first thing I bought him was a ball. And he always wanted that ball. He took it everywhere he went. I found a little goal for him at K-Mart.”

Darnell worked for a local furniture store making deliveries back then. He’d drive by the house in the furniture truck and see little Derrian out in the yard shooting. 

“When I came home, he’d dunk on that little hoop and I’d say, ‘Get up, Big D, get up!’” he said.

As he got older, Derrian began tagging along with his dad to pickup games and working out at the gym. At 8, he could do 50 pushups.

“And I’m talking about the right way, because I’d rather have you do five right than 50 wrong,” Darnell said.

“I took him everywhere I went — that is the type of father I am. I took him with me to play basketball, and I would be in the weight room bench pressing 350 pounds, and he would be spotting me. There was nothing he could do to help me, but he wanted to be there with me.”

Derrian said he remembers being 9 and running up and down a hill dribbling a basketball. Sometimes he’d be supervised by his dad, other times he’d do the drill on his own.

“I’m pretty sure I was the only one my age doing a drill like that,” Derrian said. “That’s really what made me better.”

Derrian said he played one game of organized basketball in third grade. In fourth grade, he started to show promise and played in a national tournament in Conway.

In the back yard of the piece of land the Fords own are two foundations of Derrian’s success — a hoop on a patch of worn grass and a shed with a weight bench and other weight equipment. On this summer day, the shed is about 190 degrees. It doesn’t matter how hot or cold it is, Derrian lifts with his dad in the shed and goes through repetitions of a circuit. 

Derrian bench presses 300 pounds, which is a mark of excellence for a high school football player. For a prep basketball player, it’s downright rare. The time in the weight room is evident when one sees Derrian on the court dragging defenders to the basket who are draped over him.

“I coached in Conference USA for a year and the Big 12 for five, and he is the hardest-working kid I’ve seen day in and day out,” said Lindsey, who was on Mike Anderson’s UAB and Missouri staffs as an assistant coach.

Darnell points to a patch of woods near the shed.

“A few of his teammates have come out here to work out with us, and this is where we send them when they are puking,” he said with a chuckle. 

“My goal for him was to always be a little better than what you are. I was telling my ex-teammate (Dyun Long, former Magnolia varsity coach and current athletic director) about him, and he kind of knew about him but never saw him because we always worked out privately. We still do to this day. He doesn’t mind working out with you, but he likes to work privately because he gets the reps done, and there is no talking.”

By middle school, Derrian was way ahead of the curve. During the stint the family lived in the suburbs of Houston, high schools were already clamoring for him to play for them as a seventh-grader. 

When the Fords moved back to Magnolia for Derrian’s eighth-grade year, he was so good he played on the ninth-grade team. 

But unlike some famous parent coaches, Darnell didn’t push his son to the brink.

“They have a great relationship,” Tiffani said. “(Derrian) knows he can sit in (Darnell’s) lap and confide in him. He knows we are both there for him.”

Darnell also didn’t have a one-track mind. He and Tiffani wanted to make sure all of their children knew the Lord and were good students.

That meant attending church and activities faithfully as well as studying — sometimes after late nights in the gym. 

Many of the kids the Fords counsel at Magnolia High School do not have a mother and a father. Derrian knows he’s fortunate to come from a loving home. 

“It just makes our bond even stronger because I have had him and my mom my whole life, and I’m blessed to say I have two parents in my life,” he said. “I know other kids wish they had both of their parents in their life. Sometimes it makes them stronger, but sometimes you need a father figure or a mother figure in your life, and I am just happy to have both of them.”

Often, it’s Tiffani who has to break up the workouts in the shed to get Derrian in the house to finish his homework.

“I try to expose him to all aspects of life, such as learning a second language and learn things that he will deal with in real life outside of Magnolia,” she said. 

Their nurturing has made a difference. Derrian is polite and kind, taking a liking to the kids who look up to him in the small town of 12,000 people. He always has time for a picture or an autograph.

“He gives kids shoes and other clothes,” Darnell said. “I can’t tell you to who, because he doesn’t tell me — he doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but he watches out for other kids. He’s got a good heart.”

Darnell also likes to tell the story of when Derrian showed up at an AAU tournament wearing cowboy boots with shorts. Darnell explains that cowboy boots are a staple and part of growing up in small-town Arkansas. Well, the opponent mocked the younger Ford, and then fouled him very hard during the game, injuring his nose. 

The elder Ford ran to his son’s aid and took exception to the opponent. After the game, Derrian made his father apologize to both coaches and the player in question.

“He didn’t just make me shake their hands, he made me hug them,” Darnell said. “He was just doing what I taught him to do, but I kind of got wrapped up in being a protective father.”

While Derrian leads an exemplary life, it’s one many teenagers wouldn’t understand. He doesn’t ‘hang out’ or go to parties. He’s normally home by 9, unless he’s with his dad working out. They have a key to the Magnolia arena and can be found there many nights. When asked about friends or a close friend, Derrian doesn’t list any names. He does have a girlfriend of three years, who is from Magnolia and a year older.

“The people I talk to, they know about my basketball and what I have to do,” Derrian said. “Yes, I make sacrifices and miss some things, but the reward is going to be so worth it.”

Making his mark at Magnolia High School

Derrian didn’t wait until he was an upperclassman to lead the Panthers program. That happened at the tender age of 14, when he led Magnolia to a Class 4A state championship as a freshman. That season he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds per contest. 

Derrian said none of the upperclassmen on the team resented him “because they wanted to win,” and it didn’t take long for the team to jell.  

“We played in a tournament in Camden, and it really came together in January,” he said. 

The lead role on a title team didn’t come as a shock to the youngster. 

“To me, it was just the hard work paying off,” Derrian said. 

Magnolia won the championship that season by beating Mills by two points in overtime. 

“My dad instilled in me not to fear anything on the court, to just go out and play, so even on that big stage, it wasn’t overwhelming,” Derrian said. 

Magnolia’s 2019-20 undefeated season ended with a co-championship with Mills since the title game was called off at the last minute because of the pandemic. Ford averaged 19 points per game.

Last season, fellow Arkansas signee Joseph Pinion and his Morrilton Devil Dogs defeated Magnolia 70-64 at Devil Dog Arena in the Class 4A semifinals. The loss snapped a 54-game win streak.

“We hadn’t lost for so long, we didn’t really know how to react,” said Derrian, who earned Gatorade Arkansas Player of the Year honors in 2021 after averaging 23 points per game.  

The loss did serve as motivation for Derrian and Co. Even with the transfer of senior guard Colby Garland, who was a key contributor last season, the Panthers are undefeated and No. 3 In the first SBLive Arkansas Top 25 rankings. They proved how good they are last week at the King Cotton Classic in Pine Bluff as they won the Creed Bracket title, holding off Class 5A Little Rock Parkview for the championship.  

Derrian needed some help in the first half of a win against Cardinal Ritter (St. Louis, Mo.) and during a win over Shreveport (La.) Huntington in the semifinals, a game in which he scored only 13 points. Against Parkview he was sensational, especially down the stretch. His three-point play in crunch time put the game on ice. He finished with 29 points on 10-of-24 shooting with 14 rebounds in the 67-58 victory over the Patriots.

“We came into this season with the mindset that we are going to win the state championship,” said Derrian, who is averaging 25 points per game. “That is the only goal. I don’t care how many games we lose as long as we win the state championship. I want that championship bad.

“We have done some bonding off the court, and I think that has made us better on the court. We have done some one-on-one drills and conditioning after practice. It is making us all better.”

There have been few Arkansas prep basketball players who have made as big of an impact as Derrian Ford, who is awaiting word on a McDonald’s All-American nomination. He has a chance at four all-state honors and three state championships and owns an 80-6 varsity record.

There is no player who has meant more to Magnolia’s program, and Lindsey doesn’t want to think about life without him.

“Just the leadership he brings and the example he is to these young guys,” said Lindsey, who starred at Magnolia and played at SAU. “He doesn’t just show up at the gym and lace up his shoes before practice. The type of person he is, (that’s) what we want to keep coming through these doors in Magnolia. Is everybody going to have his size and ability? No. But can everybody be the type of person he is and worker he is? Yes. All that is is ‘want to.’”

Calling the Hogs

After Derrian’s fantastic freshman season, Eric Musselman took over at Arkansas. He immediately had the young star’s attention.

“(Musselman) is so energetic, and it just feels like he is a father figure,” said Derrian, who had a long list of scholarship offers from many of the top programs in college basketball. “So, say I am away from my dad and I need to talk to someone, I can talk to him away from the court.

“All the coaching staff are father figures. I feel like it is a home away from home.”

Even before Derrian committed to Arkansas over the summer, he felt like Musselman had “given me the answers to the test,” explaining what he needed to do to be successful at Arkansas and in the NBA. 

“Before I had committed, they were just giving me ways that I could help my shooting consistency, my passes — passing earlier. It was just stuff that I felt could get me to the next level. Just great information I got from the coaching staff.”

The other appeal to Musselman is his NBA pedigree. Derrian makes no secret that playing in the NBA is his ultimate goal — the reason he spends countless hours in the gym and the shed. The proof that Musselman was his ticket to the NBA came when he sat in his living room and watched former Hogs standout Moses Moody get drafted by Golden State with the 14th pick of the 2021 NBA draft.

“Moses set a big example,” Derrian said. “He’s a big motivation. When I saw him walk across the stage, I felt like that could be me in the next two years.”

Last summer, while watching Derrian work out, Lindsey said his star player was ready to play for Arkansas this fall as a rising high school senior. 

“It was always strange when kids would come in,” Lindsey said. “Kim English, who is now the head coach at George Mason, when he came in as a freshman, I remember watching him in his first couple of weeks (at Missouri) thinking, ‘Man.’ Physically, it’s just an adjustment. The speed is so different. Kim had the skills, but then after a month or two, you saw it.

“Physically, (Derrian) is a grown man already. That’s not going to be an issue for him. Adjusting to the speed of the game, every time you move up a level takes a minute, but if he was at Arkansas right now, would he be ready to play …? Absolutely. He’s a man playing a boy’s sport right now.”

As the second semester of his senior year begins this week, Derrian’s parents know it won’t be long now, and he will be leaving home. He plans to enroll in summer classes at Arkansas and start working out with the team.

Darnell said he knows he’ll cry. Mom just worries about her son doing his laundry.

“I know he will take care of basketball and school, but I just hope he is taking care of his basic necessities,” she said. “That’s what I worry about. He needs to have balance in his life. You learn that when you live on your own.”

On that humid Sunday at Southview, the message from the guest preacher was about not listening to the “wrong music.” In other words, not straying from God and giving in to the temptations, or “music,” in life. It was a message Derrian took to heart. 

For his entire life, the only music he’s followed has been God, the words of guidance of two loving parents and other family, and the rhythmic sounds of the basketball meeting hardwood and the nylon of the net. 

He knows the best part of his life is coming if he continues to stay the course and follow the blueprint that has been planned for him since he was a toddler.

“Every time I hear a preacher speak, I try to apply it to my life,” he said. “It spoke to me in that if something happens in life, how am I going to react? Whenever the music plays I try to react, but I will always have God with me in every situation. Whatever music is playing is going to have God in it. God has always been first and always will be first with me in whatever I do.”

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