IOWA CITY — The Ward family is, simply put, a bunch of doers.
Brian Ward is the dad. He played football at the University of Illinois. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz recruited him and struck out.
Ryan Ward played offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten). He ended up with only a few starts in his career. Right now, he’s applying for medical school. That’s doing something. There’s an older brother who works for Boeing, doing things that keep planes up in the air. That’s good, too.
Let’s talk about the youngest brother Kevin Ward. He’s a fifth-year senior, walk-on, special teams fixture, exercise science major and, last weekend at Northwestern, he was Iowa’s starting outside linebacker. It was an emergency thing and Ward held up his end of the bargain, making four tackles and covering everyone who wore purple jerseys.
If you sit at the Wards' dinner table, you probably aren’t wearing a bath robe and slippers and you probably remember the last time you went outside. No slackers. You’ve got to keep up.
“That whole family is unbelievably smart, it makes no sense,” senior linebacker Bo Bower said. “I hate it.”
Now, Bower can make that joke. He lives in the same condo-type place that Ward lives in, basically “feet” away, and they’re great friends. They started their careers as walk-ons at Iowa in 2013. Bower, a three-year starter, was awarded a scholarship a few years ago.
Ward hasn’t gotten the big rewards, but if you slice open any healthy college football program in the country, Kevin Wards fall out. They’re going to captain your special teams, they’re going to be there when you need them. That gives programs a degree of stability. There’s obvious value in that.
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“He’s a captain for a reason,” senior outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “He’s a four-phase special teams guy. When his number was called this last weekend, he stepped right in the role and we really didn’t miss a beat.
“You want a team made up of guys like him, definitely.”
Ward has been a team captain a lot this season. That’s something players vote on every week. It certainly says something. Of course, it’s a source of pride for Ward, a Homer Glen, Ill., native who walked on after an all-conference career as a safety at Providence (Ill.) Catholic (a frequent supplier of Iowa football players, including all-American offensive lineman Eric Steinbach).
(The modesty here is real. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the real thing.)
“It’s incredible,” Ward said. “It’s not how I would’ve thought it would play out when I walked on here. I was just a kid with the dream of playing Big Ten football, you know, see what happens.
“I just came to work every day. The coaches, they’re very good about rewarding effort around here, giving opportunities to guys who came from a modest background football-wise. It’s been a great honor, it’s been a great ride just being able to come from a walk-on position and make something of a name for myself.”
When the year started, Ward and safeties Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase were the only Hawkeyes on kick and punt coverage and both return units. That’s the “four phases.”
They called themselves “savage backs.” There’s never anything wrong with a little moto in football.
“It’s just this goofy thing that we came up with as guys who played on all four special teams but who weren’t starters,” Ward said with a laugh.
Funny thing happened for the savage backs last weekend. All three started.
“I don’t think we really did,” Ward said when asked if they took a moment to soak that in. “It’s great. It just shows that you can make a name for yourself on special teams and then from there you can easily move up to a position where the coaches trust you to go out and start and make plays on defense.”
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Ward’s goal with his exercise science degree is to get into the strength and conditioning field. He wants to be a “coach Doyle type,” referring to Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
Of course, a special teams grinder wants to have a career in strength and conditioning. The grind runs that deeply in some people. If you listen to Ward speak about special teams, there’s something else going on. Yes, it’s football and it’s returns and coverages.
There’s also a connectivity that needs to be there for them to work. Special teams, after all, cover a ton of ground and it’s usually with players whose only shot to see the field is that one play. You’ve got to know and trust each other to make it go.
“It’s mostly just the leadership aspect of it,” Ward said. “Coaches want you to be a leader out there and set an example, getting at guys when they’re not up to par and also being a resource for guys, young guys. We have a lot of young guys on special teams. Just be a resource for them, ‘Hey what do you think about this? What do you think about that?’ And being able to help them out.”
That kind of hands-on leadership is like football electricity. You don’t actually see electricity power the lights, but you know it’s there or you would be in the dark.
The current needs to be there if a team has plans to win the College Football Playoff or a Heisman Trophy or beat Minnesota (4-3, 1-3), which is front and center for Iowa this week.
“He’s been a really good special teams player. The players keep voting him as a captain,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s been every week now. That says a lot about him. ...
“Those are the kind of stories that fly under the radar, but that’s what it takes to have a good football team. His attitude has been stellar ever since he showed up.”
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