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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Love for football keeps 49ers’ Dee Ford progressing towards return from back injury

Aug 6, 2021 at 2:22 PM--

Defensive end Dee Ford was an unknown quantity for the 49ers heading into 2021 due to back problems that caused him to miss most of the previous season, but there appears to be reason for cautious optimism at the moment when it comes to his chances of being a significant factor this year.

In large part, Ford can thank his love and dedication to football for getting to that point.

Back injuries have been a recurring issue for Ford throughout much of his college and pro careers. Ford had to rebound from back problems on three different occasions before 2020, then he found himself having to do it once again last year after his back unexpectedly started acting up early in the season. Ford wound up playing in just one game in 2020, and the uncertainty surrounding his condition led to some questions from the outside over what, if anything, he might be able to contribute in 2021.

Those questions haven't completely subsided, but there's at the very least a good amount of hope currently surrounding Ford that wasn't there several months earlier. After remaining sidelined through the spring, Ford has been on the field for the 49ers throughout training camp and has been making strides towards a return.

It's been a long road for Ford to get to where he is today, but it was one he was determined to travel because letting his injuries get the best of him was never an option.

"Hell no," Ford told reporters Friday when asked if he had at any point considered retirement. "No. No. I put in too much work. I haven't put my best ball on tape yet. This is my life. This is what I do."

The 49ers avoided giving specific updates over the early part of 2021 on when Ford might get back on the field, so it's come as a pleasant surprise to some outside observers that he's been getting in a good amount of work early on during training camp. But while his status long remained a mystery to the public, Ford seems to be right on schedule from an internal perspective.

"I wouldn't say (I'm) surprised," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. "I mean, this is where I hoped he would be. It's been some time. He's taken a year off, and he's been here since the season ended. I think he left in June and half of July, but before that, he had been here about five months really working to get to this point. I had an idea he would be like this, so I'm just hoping it continues."

So what exactly happened to Ford that kept him out for so long? He provided some details on that Friday, telling reporters his problems started small then ballooned into something much bigger.

"Initially when it happened, it came out of nowhere," Ford said. "I just woke up and just felt a little pulling in areas where it shouldn't have been, where it's not safe to try to push through. Initially, we thought it was just a bunch of inflammation, tightening around those areas, so we just wanted to calm it down. Initially, it was 4-5 weeks, but then that turned into ten weeks, then that turned into 15. As things progressed, we just kind of found out this thing was going to take a little longer than we expected. But we got it done."

Injury reports last year had Ford listed as having problems with his neck, upper back, and lower back, which added to the confusion for outside observers over exactly what was wrong. But it sounds like his injury caused all of those things to hurt at some point.

"We did think it was the upper spine, but it's all connected," Ford said.. Being that the issue started with the lower, it affected the upper. So it's kind of like a chain effect. Once one thing starts to be affected, it starts to compensate up top. It did start up top -- at least we thought it was initially. But like I said, we did a lot of testing. We just ran down the line, checked every box, found problems, got solutions."

Ford also clarified that his injury didn't affect his ability to perform but needed time to heal before it became safe to make contact.

"I never really lost my ability to do anything," Ford said. "It was just getting my back where it needs to be to hit people. We're just going to keep working. The breakthrough is going to be when I get sacks."

Based on what he's shown in camp, there's clearly light at the end of the tunnel for Ford at the moment. He still has some work ahead of him, but there's plenty to be encouraged about so far.

"We're stacking days. We're getting better," Ford said. "It's been a long process but we've got a great team of people. I'm feeling good but I'm not where I need to be. But I'm working every day."

Ford also seems satisfied with the risk factor involved, saying he's going through a meticulous process that won't jeopardize his health.

"Everything that we do is safe," Ford said. "Everything that we do is checkpoints. We're not just stepping out on the field taking a risk like 'Hey, see what you can do.' There's a long process. We've seen a bunch of doctors. We had a bunch of evaluations, MRIs. We have great people -- a lot of great people involved. We're not just throwing things at the wall hoping they stick."

And because that risk is minimized, Ford has had no problem staying focused on getting back to the gridiron.

"I love what I do," Ford said. "I've got a great support team. My family's great. I have no excuses. As long as I could keep doing it, as long as I wasn't risking anything, I was going to give it a shot. That's how I roll."

In an ideal world, Ford will rebound to where he was during his Pro Bowl season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018 and during his healthy games with the 49ers in 2019 when he displayed the pass-rushing spark the 49ers were looking for when they acquired him from the Chiefs in March of that year in exchange for a second-round draft pick. But Ford is remaining cautious with his expectations, as is Kyle Shanahan.

"My expectations are to be a little bit better than I was the day before," Ford said. "That's hard to do. Then once I get there, I'll start stacking on top of making my weaknesses my strengths. It's part of sports."

Shanahan, when speaking of Ford and oft-injured wide receiver Jalen Hurd, said, "I mean, these guys haven't played—Hurd in two years, and Dee Ford in about a year-and-a-half. So, when you look at that, and they've had some issues with that, you can't just flat out count on it. But we know they're two good players that would help us a lot, and really hoping that they'll get to Week 1, and hopefully be able to help us out throughout the whole year, not just Week 1."

The best case scenario for Ford and the 49ers is for he and Nick Bosa to reignite a fierce pass rush that was among the league's elite in 2019 before Ford's injury and a torn ACL for Bosa caused the defense to lose that spark up front in 2020. There's still a long way to go before the 49ers get to that point, but so far, things are moving in a positive direction.

"If we stay on the field, everything will take care of itself," Ford said.

David Bonilla contributed to this story.

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