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Ward in touch on, off court

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2000


Charlie Ward won football's Heisman Trophy, got drafted by baseball's Milwaukee Brewers, but the sweet, ego-shy kid from rural Georgia would choose another kind of New York challenge, becoming a basketball pro with the Knicks.

He keeps fooling us.

Six and a half years ago, cheers echoed in a youthful mind already renowned for calm and stability. Ward quarterbacked Florida State University to a national football championship while earning the most prestigious individual award in American sports.

Still, there were many, including me, who wondered if Thomasville's pride could earn a stout living playing any game. NFL scouts wondered about the QB's size, even though the NBA lists Ward as a 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard. Despite baseball's intrigue, Charlie never played that game at FSU. Hadn't swung a bat or fielded a grounder since high school.

Hoops seemed anything but a lock. Football so dominated Charlie's time in Tallahassee, he played just one full basketball season for the Seminoles. In his scoring skills, we saw no point-guard hint of an Allen Iverson or John Stockton. But, within the Ward body and soul, we now know more than ever, there are elements unique, imposing and immeasurable.

Charlie's stock wobbled as the NFL draft approached. Heisman Trophy didn't matter. Driving the 'Noles to an Orange Bowl conquest of Nebraska, giving coach Bobby Bowden his first No. 1 ride, wasn't evidence enough for Bucs, Dolphins or anybody to see Ward as a potential Super Bowl quarterback.

Charlie took control. Quietly, which is his style. No complaining. No taunts. Ward decided the NBA was his future. It seemed a long shot. But there was a slow, steady build, performed before a New York audience not renowned for patience.

In his sixth season, even as 29-year-old Charlie quarterbacked the Knicks less than effectively in Sunday's latest chilling of the Heat, taking a seat as backup Chris Childs became the ultimate N.Y. hero, it is obvious the non-flamboyant multimillionaire from Thomasville chose the right job.

Columnists from the Daily News, Post, Newsday and that other Times are not prone to drop by Ward's locker after Knicks games. They know his rep. I could've told them. Charlie was so wonderful at football, for three seasons, game after game, I went to him post-conquest. Ward was as orally boring as he was athletically good. But, yes, I'll take him over a roomful of Charles Barkleys.

Ward is Charlie Hustle.

"For a coach, he is a perfect athlete, regarding attitude," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "Charlie hustles every night. Whatever you emphasize as a coach, he works to do. Charlie is dedicated to doing exactly what we need from a team perspective. That is all too rare."

No matter how steamy, physical and vulgar the NBA competition becomes, Ward keeps his head and his deeply religious morals. Ask any NBA person, anybody at FSU. They'll say Charlie has never uttered a curse word. I mean, unless you include that Bowden staple, the spirited "Dadgum!."

There was a departure, during the raucous Heat-Knicks series, from Ward's customary supporting actor role. When it mightily counted, with New York in a 2-1 hole against Miami, the old QB stepped from the Knicks background to take flashy command in the concluding minutes of Game 4.

Charlie scored the final nine points in a 91-83 win, finishing with an uncharacteristically gaudy box score line that included 20 points, three three-pointers, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. With a rare splash of humor, Ward said, "I suddenly thought I needed my own team." He even grinned. "For the first time, I felt like Allen Houston or Latrell Sprewell," Charlie said. "I have been in that position before, in football, where you're the man and everyone is looking to you to make big plays. I felt like that again."

But, no, the Ward temperament is not changing. Not getting caught up in New York celebrity, except in well-focused and positive ways. Tonja, his wife of 41/2 years, is Charlie's only girlfriend. A statement we can't make about enough NBA guys.

Always, the Ward heart has been charitable. Doing it for mankind, not for personal notice. Charlie worked endlessly with youth groups back in Tallahassee. He is church faithful. In February, the Wards are to have their first child. I like that kid's chances in the parenting league.

In 1998, New York media voted him the "Good Guy Award." Something dear to put on the shelf next to his Heisman. Ward's community focus is Operation Holiday Hope, a program that provides Christmas gifts for inner-city children.

At times, I wonder how Charlie would've made out in the NFL. Baseball, I don't know. I wonder if he would've gotten a real chance in either sport. But really, it doesn't matter. It's pro football's loss. Baseball's whatever.

Ward did what he thought best. Like always. Worked hard at it. Like always. Made it work beautifully and honorably. Like always.

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