Charlie Ward is one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time, but his story is much bigger than football.
In the next installment of our College Football Narratives series, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Charlie Ward’s Heisman Trophy and national championship in 1993.
Charlie Ward is one of the most remarkable talents to ever grace a college football field.
As a senior at Florida State in 1993, he won the Maxwell Award, which is annually given to the best all-around player in the country. He also snagged the Davey O’Brien Award as the best quarterback in college football.
In addition, he won the James E. Sullivan Award as the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. And then there’s the matter of him winning the most prestigious award in all of college football, The Heisman Trophy. And, oh yeah, he also led the Seminoles to the school’s first-ever national championship.
But to sum up Charlie Ward by highlighting his athletic achievements on the gridiron would be doing the man a grave injustice.
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To get the initial glimpse of who he would later become, both as a person and an athlete, you have travel back to September of 1958, to a classroom on the campus of Florida A&M University where his parents first met while working on a group project together in the Introduction to Education 101 class.
MOM, DAD AND FLORIDA A&M
His mother, Willard, was shocked to find out that one of her partners on the project, a skinny boy from Thomasville, Georgia, starred for the Rattlers football team. In her eyes, he was far too skinny, and polite for that matter, to fit the mold of a stereotypical college football star.
Charlie, Sr. may have been humble, well-grounded and skinny, but he was an exceptional athlete. In high school, he starred as a quarterback, punter, kick returner and safety. One of the best players in the country, he accepted a scholarship offer to play at FAMU.
Today, enrolling at Florida A&M to play football may not warrant more than a glancing acknowledgment. But back in the late ’50s, it engendered a sense of awe and wonder.
When we revisit the Deep South in the middle of the twentieth century, educational options for elite Black athletes were severely limited due to rampant racism and segregation.
And that is why the very best football players in America at the time could be found on the rosters of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Textbooks will glorify the national championships won by the likes of Texas, USC, Notre Dame and others in that era. But any true educated person who understands the nuance of college football history will tell you that the teams from those Blue Blood institutions could not hold a candle to the teams being fielded by the likes of coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling, or Jake Gaither at FAMU.
Imagine if all of the talent that stocks the rosters of schools participating in this year’s playoffs – Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma – could not play at those schools simply because they were Black.
“It was an embarrassment of riches in a sense in that era for Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Florida A&M,” Alvin Hollins Jr., the Assistant Sports Information Director for Florida A&M wrote to Jon Finkel, the author of The Athlete: Greatness, Grace and the Unprecedented Life of Charlie Ward. “Most of the better teams overwhelmed you with their quality and depth, much like a modern day Florida or Ohio State. Remember the late, great Deacon Jones? FAMU was so stocked with talent during the coach Jack Gaither era (1945-1969) that Jones was turned away and ended up at South Carolina State.”
Florida A&M’s 1961 team, on which Charlie Ward Sr. played, went undefeated while beating their opponents by an average score of 51-3.
How good was that squad? “Bullet” Bob Hayes, the future Olympic Gold Medal sprinter and Hall of Famer with the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t even first string. So you do the math.
During a 24-year career at FAMU, Gaither amassed an astounding record of 203-36-1.
“Gaither recruited the combined eventual talent pools of Miami, Florida State and Florida at one school,” said author, cultural critic and Shadow League Contributor Bijan C. Bayne. “They won their first six games in ’61 by an average of 71-1. Not only did they have Haynes on the bench, but they had three sprinters on that one team who ran 9.3 seconds or faster in the 100-yard dash.”
“Essentially, Gaither had an Olympic-caliber 4×100 relay team in his backfield with the alternates as his wide receivers,” wrote Finkel.
Charlie Ward Sr. was recruited to play in that backfield. On that 1961 team that many regard as one of the most unstoppable and talented teams the college game has ever seen, he played halfback
“You know Louisville’s quarterback Lamar Jackson who won the Heisman Trophy in 2017?” Ward Sr. asked Finkel. “You’re looking at him. I played just like him. When I saw him play Florida State and they couldn’t tackle him and then were afraid to tackle him late in the game, that was me in high school. That’s exactly how I played.”
Torn ligaments eventually derailed his dream of making it to the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to make a larger impact through the game as a high school coach and teacher.
That’s why in some parts of Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia, when someone mentions Charlie Ward, they’re not talking about the Florida State legend. They’re talking about his father.
Around those parts, the ’93 Heisman winner and national champion is simply referred to as “Junior.”
Charlie spent the majority of his youth hanging out with his father’s teams on the sidelines during practices and games. And that’s probably why he always saw any game he played in through the eyes of a coach.
In neighborhood sandlot games against his friends and neighbors, he exhibited the reflexes of a cat. Prior to him enrolling in high school, his athletic exploits had already brandished him as a neighborhood legend and child prodigy.
“He would run around and run around on that field and nobody would touch him,” his sister Leta said. “Then he’d throw it a mile to whoever was open. People still talk about what he did on that field as a kid. It was like he could see what was gonna happen before it happened.”
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He became a phenom at Central High School, with his father serving as an assistant coach.
“I always knew my dad was the social studies teacher and coach at Central and that we’d be at the same school when I got to ninth grade,” said Charlie. “I know that he didn’t want to show any favoritism, so he coached me harder than he coached anyone else, but it didn’t bother me. I never felt any extra pressure to perform or to be at a higher level than my teammates.”
“I just went out and did my job,” he continued. “I also knew that there were plenty of kids whose dads weren’t even around, so I was fortunate to not only have mine as a coach but I was able to talk to him about strategy and ask questions after practice.”
Grainy footage of his high school highlights make it seem as if he was covered in grease.
“I wasn’t a big believer in getting hit,” said Charlie. “So I’d avoid getting touched at all costs.”
“When Junior stepped on the field, everyone instantly believed they were going to win,” said Mark Lastinger, who called the Central High football games on local radio. “He was the coolest customer I had ever seen. Looking back, the only way to explain how he played was to say he was Michael Vick as a runner with Joe Montana’s arm. He was unstoppable. Defenders would have him dead to rights and he’d disappear. At the last second he’d slip away or step back or roll like a bull fighter and he’d be gone.”
As a senior, he was considered among the top recruits in the country, with Notre Dame and all of the major ACC and SEC schools trying to get his name on a National Letter of Intent.
He completed 109 of his 190 passing attempts for 1,891 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine more scores. In addition, he was also one of the best punters in the country as well.
The family mailbox was bombarded with letters from the country’s top coaches, asking him to take an official recruiting visit.
His parents were adamant about one thing during his recruitment, given that many exceptional Black high school quarterbacks are often asked to play receiver or defensive back once they hit the college practice field.
“We wanted Junior to go somewhere he’d feel comfortable and where he could play quarterback,” said his mother, Willard. “We didn’t want a coach saying one thing and then trying to turn him into a receiver once he agreed to attend.”
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There was also another caveat. Charlie wanted to play college basketball as well.
Bobby Bowden promised the Ward family that he was recruiting Charlie to play quarterback. But he urged patience, because the Seminoles’ depth chart at QB was loaded.
The coach, who’d been feeling some heat from some in the local fan base for failing to win a national championship despite consistently having one of the top programs in the country, also promised that Charlie could hoop for the Seminoles as well. With a previous track record of allowing quarterback Brad Johnson to also play basketball at Florida State, that tipped the odds in FSU’s favor.
Charlie would choose play his NCAA ball in the same town that his parents attended college. But unlike his father, whose options were limited due to segregation, Charlie’s exploits would be celebrated the world over.
And eventually, he’d become the first African-American to ever start at quarterback for Florida State.
THE MAKINGS OF A FLORIDA STATE AND COLLEGE FOOTBALL LEGEND
It became evident at the end of summer training camp prior to his freshman year that Charlie Ward would blossom into something special.
Coach Bowden liked to end camp with a scrimmage pitting his first and second stringers against those lower down on the depth chart. It was supposed to provide a boost of confidence to the starters prior to kicking off the season.
But Charlie single-handedly ruined the confidence of FSU’s talented and vicious starting defense, a unit that featured many future pros.
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“We took our best guys against the rest,” said Bowden. “All the good players are over here and the other guys are over yonder, and this team of good players is supposed to run up and down the field. And the game is going to end up 50 to nothin’. But Charlie Ward nearly beats the first team. Game probably ended up 33-28. We could not stop him. He was just making stuff up.”
“That’s when you really realized we got something here, boy,” Bowden continued. “It was just amazing.”
Still, Ward had to exercise patience. He was officially listed as the fourth quarterback on the depth chart behind starter Peter Tom Willis and back-ups Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson.
But he had faith that his time would come behind center. As a freshman, he was content with being the team’s starting punter while alternately destroying their first team defense in practice as the scout team’s quarterback.
The next season, with Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson next in line for the starting QB position, Charlie redshirted in football and suited up for the Seminoles’ basketball squad.
In his college hoops debut against Texas Southern, he had 10 points, six rebounds and two assists while playing only 14 minutes. In mid-January, against Nolan Richardson’s powerhouse Arkansas squad that was ranked #2 in the nation, he scored 13 points, handed out four assists and had seven steals.
Against Louisville in the Metro Conference Tournament final, the Seminoles were down by 20 points early in the second half. They fought back to tie the game at 69-69 and with three seconds left on the clock, Charlie nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key to win the game. He finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals.
When they beat the University of Southern California and their star guard Harold Minor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it was Florida State’s first March Madness win in over 10 years.
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The next season, their first in the ACC, Charlie, along with Sam Cassell and Bobby Sura, would lead them to the Sweet 16.
NO MORE ANONYMITY
By the time he returned to the gridiron in the fall of 1992, his days of enjoying anonymity were behind him. He was a star point guard on the basketball team in addition to being the starting quarterback on a team that considered a national championship contender.
And in a mid-October matchup against #16 Georgia Tech, the glare of the spotlight would increase.
Down by two touchdowns with less than 15 minutes to play, Bowden made a decision that would impact the future evolution of college football offenses for decades to come. The coach told Charlie to operate strictly out of the shotgun and run the two-minute offense for the entire fourth quarter.
Charlie led them to a scintillating comeback win. On the game’s last three drives he accounted for 207 yards. And hence, “The Fast Break Offense” was born and Ward’s name started becoming synonymous with late-game magic.
With Charlie dazzling audiences as he operated the fast break full-time, the Seminoles crushed everything in their path the rest of the way, culminating the season with 27-14 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Back on the basketball court, the ACC, which Florida State had joined the season before, was boasting some incredible talent.
Wake Forest had Randolph Childress, Rodney Rogers and a freshman phenom named Tim Duncan. North Carolina suited up Eric Montross, George Lynch and Donald Williams. Georgia Tech had a vicious backcourt combo in Travis Best and Jon Barry. And Duke had the likes of Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill.
Charlie was once again the defensive glue and a spark plug, and the squad made a run to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Rick Pitino‘s juggernaut Kentucky Wildcats that were led by the incomparable Jamal Mashburn.
And despite all that he’d accomplished as a Florida State athlete, nothing would compare with his senior season on the football field.
A SENIOR SEASON FOR THE AGES
The coaching staff had spent the winter and spring fine-tuning and experimenting with the various permutations of the fast break offense. And expectations were huge, with the Seminoles opening the season as the #1 ranked team in the country.
Charlie not only lived up to the expectations, he and his team surpassed them.
They beat their first five opponents by a combined score of 228-14. They finally exercised the demons of constantly losing to Miami, with Charlie giving Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and the Hurricane’s dominant defense fits in Florida State’s 28-10 win.
Prior to the much anticipated matchup against #2 Notre Dame, Florida State smacked Virginia, Wake Forest and Maryland by respective scores of 40-14, 54-0 and 49-20.
But they lost to the Fighting Irish, 31-24. In a despondent locker room after the loss, Charlie was even and measured in response to reporters suggesting that their national championship hopes had been dashed.
“We go back to work this week,” Charlie said. “And if things work out, we’ll get another chance at Notre Dame. Let the coaches or writers or whoever votes match us up again. That would be finer with us.”
“I’m not taking this too hard,” he continued. “Football is not life. We haven’t gotten killed. No one is dead. Football is not a game of life and death. The fans are down, but I know that tomorrow the sun will come up on a new day.”
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That day arrived on November 20th, when Notre Dame lost to Boston College. FSU went out that afternoon and spanked North Carolina State, 62-3.
After beating Florida that next week, 33-21, with Charlie throwing for 446 yards and four touchdowns, the Seminoles would finally be playing in the national championship game.
But prior to that, the young man who many were already mentioning as one of the best and most dynamic players to ever play the game of college football had to collect his post-season hardware.
ESPN’s Lee Corso said, “He’s the best quarterback I’ve seen since Roger Staubach. He takes the game and plays it at another level.”
The Heisman voters seemed to be in agreement. Charlie took 91% of the first-place votes, the largest margin of victory in the history of the award at that time.
In the 1993 Orange Bowl, which hosted the national title game, he led them on a game-winning field goal drive as they trailed a formidable Nebraska squad led by Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips, 16-15, with 1:16 left in the game.
It was Bobby Bowden’s and FSU’s first football national championship. For the season, Charlie threw for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He also rushed for 339 yards and four more scores.
He went on to a 12-year career in the NBA, most notably with the New York Knicks, solidifying his status, along with the likes of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, as one of the greatest two-sport athletes ever.
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And when it comes to college football, few were as impactful.
Charlie Ward left an imprint on the game that is still being felt.
But Ward’s story is so much bigger than just college football, college hoops or the NBA.
It’s a story of a humble young man who believed in the beauty of his dreams, who never thought he was bigger than the team, who grew up in a family cocoon that stressed faith, academics and hard work.
And ultimately, it’s a story of legacy.
He carried the torch that was handed to him from his father, a man who was denied playing on the biggest stage because of America’s insidious disease of racism.
But his son, when given that chance, proved that his father and earlier generations had not struggled in vain.