Video: T.J. Ward discusses National Signing Day
T.J. Ward remembers his 2004 National Signing Day vividly.
"Signing day…I remember I didn't sign anywhere," he said. "The thing I remember most was that I was in a cast from my foot to my thigh. And all my boys were signing that day."
He was happy for his friends, but overall it was bittersweet, heartbreaking and frustrating all at once for Ward.
A late bloomer anyway, Ward had finally come into his own at De La Salle (Concord, Calif.)
, one of the nation's top programs. Because of a very deep and talented secondary, the safety and cornerback didn't start a single game as a junior.
But with a lot of work, and a lot more bulk, Ward looked every bit as good as the four other Division I athletes on defense that season. Even better.
He had interceptions in each of the first three games of the season, only to go down in the fourth with a ruptured patella tendon, ending his season and any hopes for a college scholarship.
"I remember him going down, just hoping it was nothing more than a cramp or sprained ankle," said his father Terrell Ward, a former NFL player with the Eagles who was also a De La Salle assistant coach. "He was so disappointed. I was so disappointed. He'd worked so hard. Everything seemed to be going his way and then it went south."
Terrell consoled his oldest son and tried to relieve the pressure.
"Son, if you want to go to college strictly for an education and never mind football, that's fine with me," he told T.J.
The look on T.J.'s face told his dad all he needed to hear. He didn't require words.
"It was like, ‘Are you kidding?'" Terrell said.
T.J. had bigger plans. Much bigger. And, on Sunday, he'll fulfill them all the way at the top, starting at safety for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Making this unlikely tale all the more poetic is that T.J. is coming home to the Bay Area for the landmark super game.
His four close friends from the Class of 2004 are all out of football. One, Terrance Kelly is diseased. He, Cameron Colvin, Willie Glasper and Jackie Bates all earned full rides to Oregon.
Spartans defensive coordinator Terry Eidson, however, convinced then-Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti that he should give Ward a shot.
Eidson's reputation was gold so Aliotti gave Ward a preferred walk-on spot, "and the rest, as they say, is history," Terrell said.
His success didn't come quickly. His injured leg slowed him for a redshirt season, then when he earned a starting job in the spring of 2006, two more injuries set Ward back again.
Undeterred, he was relegated to primarily special teams as a sophomore, but a decorated one. As his legs stretched and body filled out, Ward emerged fully by his junior year, recording a team-best 101 tackles, which was fifth in the conference. He earned it
Another ankle injury set him back several games his senior year, but scouts weren't scared off and the Browns made him their second-round pick in 2010.
He made the All-Rookie Team that year, earned two Pro Bowl spots (2013 and 2014) , the latter after signing with the Broncos. Entering this season, he had 477 tackles, seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles.
From a 5-foot-8, 175-pound high school kid, Ward has grown to a current 5-10, 211-pound enforcer.
"The kid has earned it, I'll give him that," said Terrell, whose other son Terron is a backup running back for the Atlanta Falcons. "We have to pinch ourselves with the success of the boys. Just getting to an NFL camp is a big accomplishment. To have two boys in the league is pretty hard to believe."
Eidson didn't want to boast, but he predicted great things from Ward before he stepped foot at Oregon.
"I told (Aliotti) that T.J. was going to start a lot for him and make a big impact," Eidson said. "He was just starting to come into his own before the injury. He always had great speed and instincts. And he could always hit. I think we all knew he was an under-the-radar guy who had a lot of potential.
"I'm not going to say I predicted he'd make it to the NFL and be in the Super Bowl. But you could definitely see the promise and hunger he had."