Before there was Jameis Winston, there was another dual-threat quarterback at Florida State named Charlie Ward. It was 20 years ago when Ward won the Heisman Trophy and then led the Seminoles to its first national championship. Since Winston is likely destined for the NFL, that’s where the comparisons stop. Ward was surprisingly passed over in the 1994 NFL Draft.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the three-sport athlete. Later that summer, he was a first-round draft pick in the NBA Draft and spent a productive 11 years in the league with the New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Most recently, Ward spent the last six seasons as the head football coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston before resigning this past December.
In this Inspiring Athletes interview, Ward talks about why he went to Florida State, how he navigated the tricky nature of being a three-sport athlete, and how adversity prepared him for big time college sports and the NBA:
Chad Bonham: What weighed in to your decision to go to Florida State?
Charlie Ward: My decision on where to go to college was based on two things. First, I wanted to be close to home so I could be around my family and those who supported me in high school. Secondly, it was about Coach Bowden. I was attracted to his leadership, his integrity and his history of allowing guys to play two sports. I trusted his judgment and I trusted his heart because he had a heart for God. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Bonham: As a three-sport athlete, how did you approach your college and professional careers?
Ward: I graduated from college in December and had the option of playing Major League Baseball because the New York Yankees had drafted me. I also had the option of playing in the NFL and I had the option to play in the NBA. All of those were great options until April when one option was taken away. I didn’t get selected in the NFL draft. I had committed my time and efforts to my college basketball teammates. I decided to play basketball instead of concentrating on the NFL draft. God honored my commitment to my teammates by giving me an opportunity to play in the NBA. Looking back, when the NFL Draft passed and I didn’t get selected, I wasn’t down and disappointed like others in my house were. I knew that it wasn’t part of God’s plan for my life to go that direction. So I worked very hard for the NBA Draft and God blessed me the opportunity there.
Bonham: What helped you develop the drive and discipline to play three sports in high school and college?
Ward: I’ve always believed that when you have goals, you need to write them down and make them plain. Then, you’re able to see them and better understand what you need to do to accomplish those goals. More importantly, it takes prayer and fasting. Those things are important in finding what God has in store for your life. For me, a lot of that started back in high school. I wanted to make sure that every step of my life was pushing towards that dream. With every rep I did, I wasn’t saying, “I’m going to make it to the pros.” I was doing those things for right now. Everything I did in school had an effect on that moment. That “right now” attitude is what pushed me to get where I am now. I didn’t know 20 years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing now. But I was preparing myself then by going through those different experiences.
Bonham: You had some adversity as a teenager. How did you deal with it and how did it change your attitude about sports and school?
Ward: When I was in ninth grade, my dream was to play in the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. But then I suffered a knee injury. Because of that injury, my relationship with Christ got stronger. That was part of my journey. Secondly, I started to focus more on academics. When I had my physical capabilities taken away, I realized I needed to pay better attention to that part of my life. I had been told to be well-rounded and to have something to fall back on, but that didn’t click until my injury.
Bonham: What were some of the keys to your success at Florida State and then in the NBA?
Ward: One of the biggest keys is being around godly wisdom. For me, it came down to being able to trust the people that I was going to be around and who was going to be leading me. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know but I just had to prepare myself for the moment when God’s plan was finally revealed. I didn’t know we were going to win the national championship but I was fortunate to be in that position and I took advantage of it. I didn’t know I was going to win the Heisman Trophy. It was my goal. It was the goal of every kid, but I didn’t know it was going to happen. I just put myself in that position by working hard. A lot of times we don’t know what’s going to happen. We just need to have faith that God is going to give us the direction that we’re going to take. Sometimes you have to face adversity and fail in order for you get to where God is taking you. We might end up depending on ourselves too much and we need to learn to depend on Him.
Bonham: Your coaching journey has been pretty interesting—starting out in the NBA and most recently coaching football at a small private high school. What led to those career moves?
Ward: Stan Van Gundy gave me a chance to be on his staff with the Rockets. I’d never considered being a coach before that. I didn’t think that was part of God’s plan for my life. But I really started to enjoy it. Then I had the opportunity to coach JV basketball at Westbury Christian here in Houston before taking over as the head football coach there. As I reflect back on my life, it starts to make better sense to me. I had grown up around a coach. I was an athlete, so I was being coached all the time. And during my career, I was the quarterback and the point guard, which are extra coaches on the field or the court. I didn’t realize it, but God had been preparing me my whole life to be a coach. Coaching at a small school has been a blessing. It’s not about how much money you make. It’s about how you can have an effect on somebody’s life for Christ.