NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) Dee Ford lost himself in the music late into the night, playing jazz and R&B tunes on a hotel piano.
Not for an audience, just for the pure, consuming pleasure of it.
Ford is No. 2 Auburn's best pass rusher, a quick, aggressive defensive end who just happens to love playing the piano, in church or all alone in the team hotel like Thursday night.
He played songs like current favorite Chick Corea's "Spain" and "Lately" by Tyrese until close to Auburn's midnight curfew while other players were out enjoying the night life.
"He's very unique," Auburn safety Robenson Therezie said. "He doesn't really match the player that you see on Saturdays. He's very quiet, nice. He likes to play the piano. When you see him go out, he looks like an R&B artist."
But he's not. Ford is actually the Tigers' top player on a defense that isn't high in star power or most of the national rankings.
The first-team All-Southeastern Conference lineman ranks second in the SEC in sacks per game, racking up 8.5 despite missing the first two games with a sprained left knee. He's come through with some of the Tigers' biggest defensive plays during their surprising run into Monday night's BCS championship game against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and No. 1 Florida State.
He had two sacks of Johnny Manziel on Texas A&M's final drive, including one on fourth down to preserve Auburn's 45-41 victory. Ford had a sack and six hurries against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, delivering a hit on the final play of a 43-38 win after the Bulldogs drove deep into Auburn territory.
"He's always making the big plays when they need it," said former Auburn and NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes. Spikes said Ford reminds him of Denver Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips.
Ford also stands out off the field.
He speaks in soft, dulcet tones and is a sharp dresser. Ford plays piano on Sundays at Auburn's New Generation Baptist Church and used to sing in his family's gospel band, the Ford Connection.
"He is very talented, not only on the field but also with those ivories," said Theresa Clark, wife of New Generation pastor Abraham. "He plays very well."
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ford started attending the church as a freshman, and Clark said people are still surprised by his musical abilities.
"When we tell them Dee Ford plays for us, they're like, 'Dee Ford? That big ole guy that knocks folks on the field, he plays?'" she said. "It's still hard to believe when people hear that. And he has a love for God, too."
Close friend and teammate Nosa Eguae said Ford's musical talent does have its limitations.
"He's a great piano player, marginal singer," Eguae said Friday.
"Don't listen to Nosa," Ford said when told of that analysis.
He said he played one night earlier in the week thinking he was alone, until someone posted a video on Instagram.
Ford sported tinted sunglasses dangling from his T-shirt during interviews Friday, often tapping on the table as if he's playing a song while answering reporters' questions.
"I always get lost while I'm playing, and I forget where I am," Ford said. "It's just like I'm floating in space or something."
Now, Ford is hoping for a similar euphoric feeling to finish a career that's been hampered by injuries and one miserable season for the Tigers.
He played in every game during Auburn's 2010 national championship run as a sophomore backup, then received a redshirt year after a back injury three games into the next season. Ford missed one game and most of another in 2012, when the Tigers fell to 3-9.
"Through all the adversity, he's still fought," Eguae said. "He battled some tough injuries, missed a year when he wanted to play but couldn't.
"And he just battled."
Ford is hoping for a fantastic finish. A workout fanatic who often wanders into the football building or a local gym in the evenings for extra sessions and lugs around milk jugs full of water, he's trying to savor the moments leading up to his Auburn finale.
"I just want to enjoy it and go out and do a lot of things," he said. "I don't want to leave any regrets so anything that I've been procrastinating on doing, whether it's embracing the fans more, helping out young guys more. I've just been focusing on that more lately."
And on his music.
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