Star quarterback shows why it takes more than talent to succeed

It might seem strange to talk about Tre Ford’s talent, if only because the conclusion is so evident: of course Ford (BA ’22) has talent. He’s arguably the most talented player in the history of the Warriors football program.

The awards and accolades speak for themselves: Ford graduates this year with every school passing record and was twice named MVP of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference. Ford became the first Warrior — and first Black quarterback from any school — to claim the prestigious Hec Crighton Trophy as the most outstanding university football player in Canada. Most recently, Ford was named the top male university athlete in Canada by U Sports.

Ford’s talent is obvious because he had an opportunity to develop it as a quarterback at Waterloo – along with a tireless work ethic and desire to perfect his craft. But historically, those leadership opportunities are less likely to be afforded to Black athletes.

Now, Ford is working to prove himself as a quarterback in the NFL or CFL. Ford was recently selected by the Edmonton Elks in the first round of the CFL draft. Ford has also been invited to rookie mini-camps for the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants. Eventually, he’s hoping to become a football coach, where he can give other Black athletes those opportunities.

Quarterbacks often understand the game a little more, and they make good coaches. But if there are mostly white quarterbacks, that leads to mostly white coaches. We need more Black people in roles of power to give those chances. It’s all about everyone getting the same opportunity to show what they can do.

“It’s about, 'Who is in those roles of power?’ Quarterbacks often understand the game a little more, and they make good coaches. But if there are mostly white quarterbacks, that leads to mostly white coaches,” Ford says. “We need more Black people in roles of power to give those chances. It’s all about everyone getting the same opportunity to show what they can do.”

Systemic racism in sport and society

In that sense, football is a microcosm of life. The barriers placed in front of Black quarterbacks in football are like the ones Black, Indigenous and racialized people face in academia, industry and politics. Talent is supposed to be the currency of a true meritocracy, but there’s a problem with the equation: talent can be limited by the opportunity to exhibit it.  

Success happens at the confluence of talent, opportunity and preparation. But sometimes, the opportunity tributary is dammed up and rerouted to benefit the dam-builders. It’s a self-perpetuating system designed to advance those who have had the greatest opportunity to succeed – not necessarily those with the most talent.

Dr. TaylorDr. Christopher Stuart Taylor is a history professor and the University’s associate vice-president of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-racism who taught courses on Black history as part of the Arts First program at Waterloo. He earned a master’s degree and a PhD specializing in migration and ethnic relations. Taylor's research and teaching uses Critical Race Theory and Black Feminist Theory to uncover the “hidden histories” of race in Canada – including the history of race and racism in sport.

“In football, if you’re fast and you’re Black, you’re either a wideout, or a cornerback,” Taylor says. “For a very long time, Black people couldn't be quarterbacks. They may have had physical talent, but people didn’t think they had intellectual talent. This parallels how Black people were – and are – seen in society.”

Turning the Waterloo football program around

Tyrell FordBack in 2017, Tre and his twin brother Tyrell (BA in progress), who would become an all-star cornerback for the Warriors, were being heavily recruited out of A.N. Myer Secondary School in Niagara Falls, Ont. (During the 2022 CFL draft, Tyrell was drafted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.)

But Tre was looking for more than athletics and academics; he wanted a chance to play quarterback. While some higher-profile programs wanted to convert Tre to a different position, Waterloo head coach Chris Bertoia (BA ‘05) knew he was a quarterback. “I told him he would be a quarterback for us, and that he and Tyrell were going to turn our program around,” Bertoia says.

“It was a big part of my decision,” Ford adds. “I wanted to play quarterback, and ‘Bert’ was willing to give me that opportunity.” With the Ford brothers and other star recruits, Waterloo won more games in their five-year career than in the ten years prior to their arrival.

For Bertoia, who was hired in 2015, the Ford brothers were critical to helping rebuild a football program that hit its lowest point in 2010, when the University suspended team operations for a year following an investigation into performance-enhancing drug use. The Warriors’ return to glory was helmed by a Black quarterback, and Taylor says that fact should not be lost on a society that still unjustly relates drug use to race.

“Black athletes in Canada have always had a target on their backs as probable ‘cheaters’ of their sport,” Taylor says. “Having a Black quarterback and other Black athletes bring the program back to relevance after the transgressions of white athletes sends a signal to the institution of sport that Black people do maintain the integrity of the sport.”

White quarterbacks not expected to be the next Ford

Five years after he first stepped foot on Warrior Field, Ford graduates with a degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies as one of the most revered players in the history of Canadian university football. But while his career could – or should – serve as a blueprint for the next generation of young Black quarterbacks, Taylor says the systemic biases are often reinforced by outstanding achievers like Ford.

“Tre Ford comes along, and it fits into the Black excellence and Black achiever narrative. If you're Black, and you want to be a quarterback, the expectation is you will be as good or better than Tre. But if you’re a white quarterback, nobody is expecting you to be the next Tre.”

What Taylor describes is a multi-level gauntlet of systemic racism: Black quarterbacks rarely get the opportunity to play the position. Then, when a player of Ford’s calibre gets that chance, his talent and success are written off as a once-in-a-lifetime outlier to the norm. It’s the harsh historical reality that is unfortunately not limited to the football field.

Tre Ford running past defenders

“We continue to use these models of what success should be,” Taylor says. “We think a CEO should be tall, middle-aged and white. That is the model, and these are the people that get the opportunities to be successful as a CEO. But, passing through the multiple recessions that we've had in the 2000’s, these have been the same white, tall, middle-aged men who have literally run companies into the ground. So, why do we keep on giving them opportunities?

“The flip side is that you have Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados: a Black woman who has curtailed – significantly – the spread of COVID-19, and who took their country from being under the monarchy to a republic, all during a pandemic. If Barbados can give her the opportunity to succeed, what is wrong with our mindset, that we can't break away from our models of what a leader is?”

Decouple success from talent

To make changes in football, business, politics or virtually any other realm of life, Taylor suggests that talent and success be decoupled. This shift in mindset could lead to a more equitable distribution of opportunities, like the one Ford got to play quarterback at Waterloo.

“Do we actually have a list – not from hearsay, or tradition, or experience – of what makes a talented quarterback?” Taylor asks. “Because the problem is that, especially in team sports, we equate success with talent – and they’re two completely different things. We need to list what makes a talented quarterback, and not just look at the last 20 years of what makes a successful quarterback.”

If the mindsets around talent and success continue to evolve, Ford’s example may mean more opportunities for the next generation of talented Black quarterbacks. “I definitely think it could open up opportunities,” says Ford of his career so far. “Hopefully, it can lead to other Black quarterbacks being able to play the position.”