The shy — not his word — and humble kid from down the road is transformed on the football field. Athletic pass breakups in training camp have been followed by an emphatic incomplete signal. After his first big hit in his preseason debut Thursday night, he stood over the Giants receiver and drew a flag for taunting.
Browns cornerback Denzel Ward runs like the wind. “Flash Ward” finished the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.32 seconds.
He jumps like a basketball player. He skied 39 inches at the combine.
But the attribute that gives the No. 4 pick in the draft in April the chance to be truly special can’t be clocked or measured.
“I was just raised to never give up, always finish and compete,” Ward told The Chronicle-Telegram last week. “Finishing and just not wanting no one to catch a ball. I’m very passionate about that. I just put myself to a higher standard trying to lock my guy down.”
Nicole Ward raised a kid in Macedonia who hated when she made him late for a game but ran for a touchdown on the first play when he finally reached the field. The same kid wrote a letter when he was 9 or 10 saying he was going to play in the NFL or NBA.
“So it was in his heart at that young age,” Nicole said. “And just how competitive that I know he is and just so dedicated to the sport, so for it to actually become reality, it was just amazing.”
Ward, 21, wasn’t in Berea long before his competitive nature revealed itself. In minicamp he forced incompletions in the end zone against receivers Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry through sheer determination, battling until he had pried the ball loose.
Ward (5-11, 183 pounds) said it eats at him when he gives up a completion and then must relive it on film.
“He’s very confident,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “If you put him against anybody, his mind is going to believe that I can lock this guy down.”
“I’m very comfortable in who I am as a player,” Ward said. “We all put our shoes on the same way, pants on and just come out here and work.”
Nordonia High School coach Jeff Fox said Ward was coached in high school and at Ohio State to compete “like crazy” and takes pride in Ward’s attitude and success. But he couldn’t take credit.
“Honestly most of it is innate in him and his upbringing,” said Fox, who attended the draft with the Wards. “Everything you’ve seen and heard about him is totally genuine. He’s just a great kid from a great family.
“He’s a really quiet, almost shy, humble kid. But he comes to life when he’s on a football field because he’s such a great competitor.”
Ward quickly interrupted when it was suggested he was shy.
“I would say I’m just real,” he said. “I’m a very competitive person. It’s not that I just turn it on and off, I’m always competitive in what I do.
“Just because I may not speak to everyone that doesn’t make me shy. That’s just how I carry myself. I don’t have to talk to everybody.”
BEYOND HIS YEARS
Ward has already locked down the No. 1 cornerback spot with the Browns. His quick promotion into the starting lineup came with the recommendation and blessing of the veterans on defense.
“I love him,” cornerback TJ Carrie said. “He’s a young player that has an old-man mentality in the sense that he comes into this game and he knows that everybody straps up and competes the same way.”
Ward’s maturity and tendency to stay quiet served him well as he tried to fit in with the established players. He kept his head down and went about his business.
“Just working hard and trying to prove to those guys as well as myself that I’m supposed to be here,” he said.
Ward was forced to grow up faster than he wanted when his father, Paul, died of cardiac arrest in a spin class May 2, 2016, at 46 years old. He was principal at Carylwood Intermediate School in Bedford and left Nicole and two sons.
Ward was finishing up his freshman year when he got the jolt of a lifetime. He said he’s still dealing with the death of his hero and role model and flashes back to the moment often. He tries to use the tragedy as motivation and inspiration.
“Just keep going every day and just try to make a brighter day for my family,” he said.
He doesn’t stop with his loved ones. He raised money at the scouting combine — through pledges his 39-inch vertical jump brought in more than $6,000 to the Paul G. Ward Jr. Scholarship Fund — and plans to continue with the scholarship.
Ward could’ve dropped out of Ohio State or quit football, or at least taken some time off after his dad’s death. He found a way to cope.
“I saw how hurt he was, I saw the pain that he went through,” Nicole said. “My husband was very, very involved with our sons and their lives and they were just very, very close. I think that they knew that that’s not something that their dad would want, is for them to quit, and we’ve always told them complete what you start.”
Fox kept in touch with the family during the awful time and kept tabs on Ward through the coaches at Ohio State.
“They said it was amazing how well he was able to still focus on being successful and managing his emotions the right way,” Fox said. “Because he obviously excelled like crazy in the classroom and on the field in his last two years at Ohio State after that happened.
“He’s just a great kid, and even though adverse things have happened, he’s thrived in all these situations.”
Ward wouldn’t have made it to Columbus if he wasn’t dedicated. Coach Urban Meyer told him he wouldn’t play Division I college football if he didn’t improve his average grades, so Ward applied himself, earned honors and the scholarship to Ohio State.
“I always had the goal to want to go to Ohio State and play for Ohio State and once he told me exactly what I needed to do there wasn’t anything else I had to hear, I just had to study, get tutors and work hard in school, get my grades up and keep competing and making plays on the field,” he said, adding there was no second choice for college. “And I felt that’s what was going to get me there.”
THE NEXT STEP
When Fox took over at Nordonia, he inherited a 135-pound sophomore who played receiver and some cornerback. It didn’t take long for Ward to blossom into a premier athlete and big-time recruit. He played offense, defense and was a demon blocking kicks coming off the edge.
“He sprung onto the scene,” Fox said of Ward’s junior season. “The 2013 game at Mayfield he had a few plays that were highlight, eye-opening plays where you went, OK, this kid is the real deal for sure.
“Then obviously all the God-given ability and how much his stopwatch times improved made it that it was no doubt he was one of the elite players in the state.”
Ward was a state track champ, winning the 200 in 21.65 seconds. Fox said he would’ve won the 100 if he hadn’t false started. The speed hurried his progression with the Buckeyes, even though he’s not the tallest or strongest corner.
“Straight-line speed, he’s as fast as anybody we’ve had,” former OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs told reporters.
That’s saying a lot, as the Buckeyes have become a cornerback factory. In 2017, Marshon Lattimore was drafted No. 11 by the Saints and Gareon Conley No. 24 by the Raiders. Eli Apple went No. 10 to the Giants in 2016 and Bradley Roby No. 31 to the Broncos in 2014.
Ward walked into that room in Columbus and didn’t back down. Coombs said Ward wouldn’t say it but believed he was as good as Lattimore and Conley. He was a consensus All-American selection as a junior in 2017 after recording two interceptions and 17 pass defensed.
“I knew I could do it. But obviously coming in from high school I wasn’t physically ready or had the technique to be ready to be able to play at a high level,” he said. “I had a lot of things to learn. Coming out of high school I was really just fast and once I got to college the coaches helped me with my technique.”
The Buckeyes played predominantly press-man coverage. The Browns play a combination of press-man and off-man, and the latter has been a significant transition.
Ward has performed well throughout camp, prompting his teammates to predict big things for his future. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell said he had the “It” factor, while free safety Damarious Randall’s praise was more tangible.
“He has the ability to be one of the elite corners in this league,” he said. “Fast, can run with anybody and the thing I’m most impressed with is his press technique. He is not scared to get up there and press anyone. That’s one thing you look for in younger guys.”
Pressure doesn’t seem to bother Ward, so he sees playing at home as all positive.
“Close to my mom and close to my family. I’m definitely glad I stayed in town and stayed home,” he said.
So are those closest to him. Fox said the Nordonia community got caught up in the draft and was thrilled when the Browns surprised many and took him at No. 4.
“For him to be able to stay in our hometown, there’s a lot of people around here who take great pride. I underestimated the impact he’d have on our kids.
“I noticed there was a change. He’s definitely a role model, has shown kids in his hometown that if you do things the right way great things can happen to you.”