Much like the 300-plus 2018 NFL Scouting Combine participants, Denzel Ward is spending the early months of the new year preparing for the most important workout of his life.
However, Ward’s workout has additional meaning for those who won’t touch a weight, shuffle between cones or run a single sprint in Indianapolis. The consensus No. 1 CB prospect is pledging every inch of his vertical leap to a fundraising effort to support the Paul G. Ward Jr. Scholarship Fund, established in memory of his late father to help at-risk students offset the cost of attending college.
Ward, a projected top-10 pick, will be checking in with NFL.com throughout the spring as part of his Path to the Draft diary. While the standout Ohio State cornerback expressed the usual excitement many NFL hopefuls harbor in the weeks leading up to the draft, he also carried an air of appreciation not typically seen in soon-to-be millionaires. Ward isn’t on this journey for himself alone.
“He was always in my life. He raised me,” Ward said of his father, who was a beloved principal and coach at Carylwood Intermediate School in Bedford, an eastern suburb of Cleveland. “He taught me a lot throughout the years I was with him on this earth, and I’m very appreciative for that. It was just tough to see him go.”
Ward’s last moments with his dad came in the gym. They worked out together while Denzel was home from Ohio State during spring break 2016. His father, described in local news reports as a compassionate, world-class educator, passed away suddenly on May 2, 2016 from cardiac arrest during a spin class. He was 46 years old.
As the lockdown leader of a defensive backfield that waved goodbye to three first-round picks in last year’s draft (Indianapolis’ Malik Hooker, New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore and Oakland’s Gareon Conley), Ward lived up to the established pedigree at Ohio State, recording 37 tackles and 15 passes defensed to go along with two interceptions. The Buckeyes finished 12-2, including a convincing win in the Big Ten championship game over previously undefeated Wisconsin, and a thrashing of USC in the Cotton Bowl — a game Ward chose to watch from the sidelines to protect his professional future.
Ward said he received plenty of criticism from fans for his decision not to play in the bowl game, but received an equal amount of support from family, friends and Ohio State’s coaching staff, which included assistant defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.
“He played a big role in me coming there and I’ve really got a lot of love and respect for coach Coombs,” Ward said. “When I first got to Ohio State, coach Coombs always made it clear. His objective, being at Ohio State, was to coach first-rounders and win championships and I feel like he’s done that. … I feel like I’m on my way to carrying on the tradition that was left behind of being a first-rounder and going on to the next level.”
The response has been strong. Ward’s effort, named Inches for Education, has already exceeded the initial goal of $3,000 and is nearing $5,000 with a little over a week remaining before the combine.
“I want them to see what type of man that my dad was,” Ward said, “and see how much positivity and how he impacted his community that he worked in and everybody he came in contact with in a positive way. I want to raise that money in honor of him, but also help students who may not have the opportunity or have the money financially to go to college.”
— Nick Shook