I set up a Twitter account in 2011. I used it infrequently, mainly for advertising the plight of missing dogs. My handle? @dee_ford.
A couple of years after I’d started tweeting, I suddenly got some random tweets not meant for me. After some googling, I found they were meant for an American football player on the team at Auburn University, whose own handle was @dee_ford_. It belonged to the now famous NFL linebacker, Dee Ford.
He and I have quite different profile pictures, jobs and even live on different continents, and so I would tweet back that it wasn’t me, and give the correct handle for the player. It was a little annoying but nothing major. It was more the fact that my phone was on 24 hours a day because I was an out-of-hours contact for our local police force, assisting them in stolen dog cases. If my phone bleeped and vibrated in the night, I’d wake up, expecting a police officer in need of my advice. Because these tweets came through in the middle of the night here in the UK, the same thing happened, and I’d be instantly awake.
A couple of weeks later, unbeknownst to me, there was a football game known as the Senior Bowl. Dee Ford had been invited to play and (apparently) played well. So well, he was named the ‘most valuable player’. Of course, that meant more than the normal couple of tweets came my way, and as usual and redirected the messages to the right Dee Ford.
Then, someone else forgot that last underscore. It was a man called Jay Jacobs, who was the then athletics director for Auburn. He congratulated Dee on becoming MVP to his tens of thousands of followers – lots of whom replied to the tweet, and most of whom thought that the address he’d tweeted was the right one.
More people started tweeting me and, no matter how much I protested, it didn’t stop. All. Night. Long. It became easier to respond to the tweets with humour – after all, the messages being sent were in American English and football terminology and they simply didn’t translate to my English and instead sounded risqué at best, and downright rude at worst. It was easy to poke fun at those sending messages.
By morning, I was exhausted but my responses had been received well and appealed to the Auburn sense of humour. Locals had started to realise that I was being bombarded by mistake, Jay apologised (and sent me a whole load of Auburn gear in the post, to really say sorry). Dee Ford himself even apologised.
Auburn locals apologised and started asking me questions – did I know anything about football, had I been to Alabama – and soon, I began to speak with fans. I spoke to a journalist, then a TV news station, then radio stations, and soon I got interested in football. I bought a book to understand the rules and, by the time the 2014 season started, I watched a game on TV. I soon met with Jen, an Auburn fan in London and we became firm friends (and remain so to this day).
I was hooked.
Somehow a misdirected tweet had found me a new hobby and thousands of people in a small town in the plains of Alabama that I had something in common with.
The real Dee Ford joined the NFL in 2014 to play for the Kansas City Chiefs, and though he’d not done too well by that point (leading of course to tweets from Chiefs fans who didn’t really think a lot of him), I managed to buy tickets to their game at Wembley in 2015. My nephew and I went to the game and we were delighted to be tweeted by Dee’s mom, Debbie Ford, who invited us to find them and meet his family at the stadium. Dee himself called me while I was with them for a chat on the phone.
After I met Jay Jacobs and his daughter Meagan in London I began thinking of visiting Auburn. Jay and Meagan waxed lyrically about what an amazing place it was, and so, in November 2018, five years after the first wrong tweet, I decided that it was time to see Auburn for myself.
With Jen as my guide, I experienced the most amazing weekend of my life. Auburn University and its staff went out of their way to treat me to a VIP visit of all areas, and the Auburn family welcomed me with open arms. I did so many interviews it was crazy, even appearing on the enormous SEC TV network, in newspapers and on the radio all weekend. Better still, I got to see my first college football game. I flew home having met many of those who’d first tweeted me by mistake, and with a whole host of new friends.
By the start of 2019, the NFL season was in full swing, and Dee was having an amazing year. Tweets still came my way, except he was playing so well they were almost always good ones. In January, the Chiefs were one game away from the Super Bowl, facing the New England Patriots and winning... right up until Dee made a mistake that cost the Chiefs the game.
It was around 2.30am and I was asleep when my phone was bleeping and vibrating almost constantly. This time, the tweets weren’t nice, not nice at all. And now, there were also direct messages. Vile ones. Nasty ones. All directed at Dee (who by this time didn’t have a Twitter account at all, so I got the lot). As usual, I’d reply with humour, but even I was shocked by the vitriol that was levied at the poor man.
It was different this time. Despite my attempts at humour, some of these messages were really nasty to read. The press picked up on it, and again my life got turned upside down. For a solid week, I gave interviews on TV, for newspapers and on radio, all over America. The English press picked it up, and by the end of that week, I’d appeared in all but one English national newspaper. It was exhausting, and sometimes not very pleasant – there were one or two propositions of the romantic kind, even.
I was incredibly fortunate that I had one or two really good Auburn friends, some in the media, who guided me and held me up when unpleasant messages arrived, or the press attention got too overwhelming and, for that, I’m eternally grateful.
Now that both the college and NFL seasons are is in recess, my Twitter timeline is relatively back to “normal”. However, I’d been prepared for a potential move for Dee Ford to another team, and sure enough, as soon as his trade to the San Francisco 49ers was announced, my timeline lit up. Fortunately, so far, all the fans there have been polite in realising their mistake. I can only hope this continues, as long as Dee makes a success of his new opportunity!
So what has changed for me since 2013, when the first tweets arrived? That’s simple to answer. My favourite sport to watch and talk about is American football. I’ve met people online and in person, in Auburn and here in the UK when Auburn people travel, that I would never have met – a handful of whom are as important to me now as any of the friends I have in my life in England.
I’m getting used to being ‘famous’ and can laugh about how utterly insane it is, but most of all I’m grateful that it’s happened. None of the things I’ve experienced would have happened if it hadn’t, and my life would be far more ordinary and bland without those people in it who share my love for the game.
Dee Ford is a surveyor from Kent, not a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers