In a YouTube video dated March of 2008, running back Trabis Ward pleads his case to a reporter.
Taking a break from a 7-on-7 high school tournament at the University of South Florida, Ward, then a junior at Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., emphatically denounces his doubters.
“I’m the best in the nation!” Ward yells. “I got an offer from Miami, Florida State, Rutgers, UCF.”
More than four years later, the long dreadlocks and gold teeth are still visible but Ward isn’t suiting up for a big-name BCS school. Instead, he prepares for his fourth year at Tennessee State, which opens fall camp on Saturday.
A four-star prospect clocked at 4.57 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Ward received scholarship offers from South Carolina, Ohio State and Minnesota, according to several recruiting services.
In February of 2009, he told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press he was days away from signing with Minnesota. But the Golden Gophers were still waiting on his SAT scores. He eventually received a high enough qualifying score but the test results arrived weeks after national signing day.
Most schools, including Minnesota, already had handed out their available scholarships. This left Ward scrambling and he took an offer from then-TSU head coach James Webster. He also spends time with former NFL players as he works to be better both on and off the field with the idea that eventually he too will play as a professional.
“It was a whole lot of stuff that happened. I really have put that behind me and now I am here. I’m making the best of it,” Ward said last week during Ohio Valley Conference football media day. “I was always told that wherever the talent is they would come find it. So I never really worried about it. If I had a chance to do everything all over again, I would do it exactly like this.”
After a bumpy start to his TSU career, Ward, a junior, enters 2012 as one of the OVC’s top running backs.
He made just one start as a freshman and missed all of 2010 because he was academically ineligible. Last year, however, he broke away from the pack. The 5-foot-10 Ward rushed for 978 yards and 11 touchdowns. Only an ankle injury sidelined him for two games and kept him from becoming the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2008.
“He’s got deceptive speed,” coach Rod Reed said. “He looks like a big bull in a china shop sometimes, just running through people. If he can get a hole he can take it the distance so we’re excited about that.”
With the graduation of linebacker Rico Council, Ward believed he needed to fill the role of the team’s unquestioned leader.
“He was the spokesman of the team,” Ward said. “I knew when he left I was going to have to step up and take that role.”
In order to take that next step, he has turned to mentor and friend Channing Crowder, a former linebacker for the Miami Dolphins.
Crowder and Ward first met at a Big Brothers Big Sisters sponsored event when Ward was a sophomore at Dillard. The two immediately connected and developed a brother-like bond.
“I was in a situation where I could have went both ways,” said Ward, who added he has stopped going to Nashville nightclubs. “I could have went the street way or the way I am now. He really helped me stay on the straight and narrow. That’s why you don’t see me in the newspaper getting in trouble because he really keeps me grounded. He is a big influence on my life.”
Ward spent all summer with Crowder, with whom he lives in Miami when not in school. Crowder surprisingly retired last year just a week after being released by the Dolphins.
Ward says Crowder, only 28, left the NFL because he wanted to be around for his newborn son. Now, though, Ward says, Crowder wants to make a comeback and hopes to land in an NFL training camp soon.
The two pushed each other all summer and trained with former Virginia running back Terry Kirby, who resides in Miami and played in the NFL for 10 years. Ward says he started the summer at 210 pounds but shed the fat and trimmed to 195. He worked on adding muscle and enters camp at 215 pounds.
While his tone might be less aggressive, four years later Ward maintains that self-confidence.
“Every year in and year out I always continue to give everybody my best,” Ward said. “The fans that come and watch me play, I always give them their money’s worth. ... I’m in rare form right now.”