To get inside Charlie ward's head, it helps to first get inside his apartment. Ward, the Florida State quarterback, is the best athlete to pass through Tallahassee since Deion Sanders. Where Deion is Neon, however, Ward is strictly earth tones. Sanders seems to be surgically attached to his cellular phone; Ward to his Good News Bible, which at the moment is sitting on a coffee table next to an enormous framed photograph of Ward and his girlfriend, GeJuan Prime. Hanging on one wall is a purple and black image of Jesus on the cross, printed on velour. One gets the sense that Ward doesn't host a lot of beer bashes here.
One senses correctly. "I don't drink alcohol," he says. We're not saying that Ward is a choirboy, but until he went off to college, he did sing in the choir at the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church in his hometown of Thomasville, Ga. When his high-pitched voice wasn't raised in song, Ward was so quiet, says his father, Charlie Sr., "we never knew if he was in the house."
"He is the other side of the coin," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, comparing Ward to other athletes who have gone through the Seminole program. Like former cornerback Terrell (the General) Buckley, for instance. In his first game as a Green Bay Packer, two weeks ago, Buckley returned a punt for a touchdown. En route to the end zone he held the ball out for the inspection of the opposing punter, all the while lecturing the fellow on the futility of giving chase. Wouldn't it have been wiser, Buckley was asked afterward, to postpone the celebration until after arriving in the end zone?
Said the General, "For me, the 10-yard line is the end zone."
Hearing this account Bowden laughs, then sighs. "Guess I'm going to have to have Charlie talk to him," he says.
Ward, a redshirt junior, is the first black quarterback to start a game for Florida State. In January he will become basketball coach Pat Kennedy's starting point guard. Ward will most likely be drafted by both the NFL and the NBA. There are not many college football players in the country capable of creating so much excitement—which is not necessarily a compliment. Four games into his career as a starter, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes but also nine interceptions. When Ward drops back to pass, someone is going to gain 20 yards.
"He's going to be the best in the country," says Bowden, "as soon as he learns to distinguish jersey colors." Ward's buddy Sam Cassell, a guard on Florida State's basketball team, noting the errant throws, has asked Ward to consider the possibility "that you may be lefthanded and not realize it."
Ward answers the jibes with his customary economy of words: "What's our record?" Touchè. After last Saturday night's 35-7 cakewalk past Wake Forest at Doak Campbell Stadium, it is 4-0. And just in time for this weekend's Orange Bowl showdown with No. 2 Miami (Florida State is No. 3), Ward appears to have learned to distinguish jersey colors—he threw no interceptions against the Demon Deacons, while completing 19 of 29 attempts for 240 yards and a touchdown.
Ward spent his first three seasons in Tallahassee biding his time, running the scout team and honing his reputation among his teammates as a Houdini in cleats. "Every day I sec him on the field," says defensive end Carl Simpson, "Charlie does something that makes me say, 'How did he do that?' "
When Ward's turn to lead the Seminoles finally came this fall, the voluble Buckley assured his former teammates, on national television, "Charlie will lead you to the promised land!" Ward entered the season, as Tallahassee Democrat writer Gerald Ensley put it, as "part Moses, part Jackie Robinson."
He couldn't quite bring it off. In fact, after throwing his eighth interception of the season in the Seminoles' second game, at Clemson, he was even benched for a series by Bowden. Ward was not shaken by the experience. "Charlie has an inner strength that most of us don't have," Bowden says.
What is the source of this strength? The question was posed to Ward during a study break in his apartment last week. Without saying a word, he held up his Bible. Numerous scraps of paper sprouted from the top of the book, marking Ward's favorite passages. He turned to the first chapter of James, several verses of which he has marked with a yellow highlighter.
"My brothers," one passage begins, "consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way."
Thinking the verses might help Ward during his early-season travails, a friend had pointed them out to him at a recent Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. "Nine-thirty, every Thursday night," says Ward. "Why don't you come by?" The meeting lasted for more than an hour—but without Ward. "Slept right through it," he said later. "Sorry about that."
"He's got a strong faith, but he's just a normal kid," says Charlie Sr., a teacher and golf coach at Thomas County Central High. The elder Ward was born in Thomasville, which is just across the Florida border, about 30 miles north of Tallahassee. In the early '60s he went to Florida A&M, where he played football in the same backfield with Bob Hayes. At FAMU, as it is called, he met a bright, headstrong woman named Willard Watson and married her. They have six children, and Charlie Sr. finds it convenient to divide them into two groups of three. "Three of them are good listeners, all you gotta do is talk to them. The other three you gotta whip," he says.
It was the good fortune of Charlie Jr.—known around Thomasville as Junior—to be among the former. When Junior was going through high school, his father was an assistant football coach and the head basketball coach. As frequently happens in such father-son relationships, Charlie Sr. was harder on his son than he was on the other players.
One night the Yellow Jacket hoopsters lost a close game to Seminole County High. Ward's team, which had been coached to play aggressively, had taken a one-point lead with 15 seconds remaining when Junior committed a foul trying to steal the ball. The Yellow Jackets lost. In the car on the way home, the coach chastised the player for the unnecessary gamble. Then the coach's wife chastised the coach. "Live by the sword, die by the sword," Willard reminded her husband. "That shut me up," says Charlie Sr.
Willard Ward can be a formidable customer. In the fall of 1987, when she and the two Charlies talked to Bowden on the coach's official visit to the Ward home, Willard grilled Bowden at length. People had told the Wards that a black quarterback would never start at Florida State. Should they be worried? She demanded assurances that Charlie would not be switched to another skill position.
Bowden answered to her satisfaction and posed a question of his own to the prospect: "Are you patient?" Seminole quarterbacks require years of gestation, and at the time of Bowden's visit, the position was crowded with Peter Tom Willis, Brad Johnson and Casey Weldon—all of whom are now in the NFL.
Ward's expansive reply: "Yes, sir."
A good thing, too. Ward played only a handful of downs over the next three years. His matriculation at Florida State was postponed a year while he took classes at Tallahassee Community College to get his ACT score above the minimum qualifying standard. While he waited to enroll at State, basketball became his sole athletic outlet. Before long, Kennedy—who had been searching for a point guard—got a call from former Seminole guard George McCloud, now with the Indiana Pacers. Said McCloud, who had played against Ward in the Dade Street Rec League, "Charlie Ward is your point guard."
Now it was Kennedy's turn to be patient. In 1989, Ward's first season with the Seminoles, the freshman was assigned punting duties—he averaged 37.1 yards a kick—after starter John Wimberly was injured. State made it to the Fiesta Bowl, and Ward was needed through December. He did not go out for the basketball team until the following season. In 1990 Ward was redshirted at quarterback, and Bowden let him go in mid-October to practice with the hoops team. By then Ward was starving to compete in a game in any sport. "Basketball bailed me out, saved my sanity," he says.
Running the second team, Ward was as much a hindrance as he was a help to Kennedy. Instead of duplicating the offense of the upcoming opponent, Ward had the annoying habit of doing whatever he could to beat the first team and too often succeeding.
With the team 5-5 and foundering, Kennedy installed Ward at point guard. The Seminoles went 15-6 the rest of the way and made it to the NCAA tournament. Ward's 30-foot jumper in the waning seconds of a game against Louisville gave the Seminoles their first Metro Conference title.
"He is a pure point guard," says Seminole assistant Dave Zimroth. "He gets the ball to everyone, elevates everyone's play. You know where he is the most incredible? On the fast break. As the guys fill their lanes, and Charlie sees all his options, he always makes the right decisions. In those situations he is incomparable."
Last year Ward backed up Weldon and was unavailable to Kennedy until December. After the Seminoles upset the Tar Heels in basketball in Chapel Hill—in Florida State's first game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference—North Carolina coach Dean Smith made a beeline for Ward, who had scored 18 points and had taken over the game. "I don't know how good a football player you are," Smith told Ward, "but you can play this game at the next level."
Ward led the basketball team to the Sweet 16 of last season's NCAA tournament, where the Seminoles finally lost to Indiana. Bowden, who needed Ward for spring football, observed the progress of Kennedy's team with both delight and irritation: Every time the Seminoles won, he had to bump spring practice back another few days. Bowden was more impatient than usual to get started. In the off-season his assistants had persuaded him to scrap his beloved two-back offense and install the one-back, three-wide receiver set favored by Miami. That decision meant that Ward, in his first season as a starter, would be learning a new, more complicated offense.
"It's been on-the-job training for Charlie," says Bowden. "He's had to work the kinks out on the field." The turnovers prove that. Ward's eighth interception was probably his most boneheaded. In an attempt to force a third-quarter pass to a well-covered receiver, he put the ball squarely in the chest of Clemson defensive end James Trapp. Trapp, who was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic track team for the 4 x 100-meter relay, covered the 39 yards to the end zone with frightful ease to put Clemson in front 13-10.
One series later Bowden benched Ward—but only for two plays, perhaps the briefest demotion of a quarterback in the program's history. "When he came off the bench," recalls tackle Robert Stevenson, "he seemed a little more focused." It took Ward five plays to guide the team to a touchdown.
Clemson regained the lead on its next possession, which only enhanced the drama of what has since come to be known in Tallahassee as the Elway Drive. Ward completed five straight passes, to four different receivers, calmly marching the Seminoles 77 yards for the winning touchdown. Florida State never had a third down during the drive. Ward's leadership was flawless but for a minor detail. "Charlie has that high voice to begin with," recalls Stevenson. "To make himself heard above the crowd, he had to yell. A few times, his voice cracked."
That anecdote suggests a solution to one of Ward's most glaring problems: He has no nickname. At Florida State, alma mater of Neon and the General, a superstar needs a moniker.
Our suggestion: the Choirboy.