Charlie Ward paused for a second as he tried to get his phrasing exactly right. The question-and-answer portion of the Bradenton Christian gala had just begun, and the first question was about his sometimes-controversial and certainly jarring experience moving from Tallahassee to New York for a career with the Knicks.
“It’s called,” Ward said and then pauses for another beat. “Culture. Shock.”
Ward isn’t from Bradenton and didn’t attend a small Christian school like BCS, but he shares plenty in common with much of the crowd in attendance at Bradenton Christian School on Friday. Thomasville, Ga., is even tinier than Bradenton, and leaving Georgia to attend Florida State didn’t take him to much bigger of a town.
The first couple of nights he spent in New York were during the lead up to the 1993 Heisman Trophy ceremony and his quick assessment of the city wasn’t positive.
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“My eyes were opened to the New York lifestyle,” Ward said. “I thought they were rude, they drove crazy, they honked horns all the time and I’m like, Man, if you ever want something in life — be sure to write this down — tell God that you don’t want to do it because I said, when I left New York after the Heisman, that I could never live in New York.”
So of course the Knicks drafted Ward with the 26th pick in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft about six months after Ward won the Heisman. He spent 11 years in New York as a role-playing point guard for some of the best Knicks teams of the past 40 years, leaving him with one of most unorthodox post-college career paths for any Heisman winner.
He laced a retelling of his journey with dry humor and faith as the headlining speaker at the Panthers’ annual gala, which ultimately pushed NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, a BCS parent, down to second billing.
Vincent, who was a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro for the Eagles, spoke briefly to introduce Ward and then ceded the stage to the former Seminoles two-sport star.
Ward focused on patience. He went to FSU with the expectation of playing quarterback, but that didn’t happen until his redshirt junior season. As a freshman, head coach Bobby Bowden made him a punter. As a sophomore, Ward redshirted and shifted his focus full-time to basketball. Even when he finally got on the field, he struggled. In his first two games as a starter, he threw eight interceptions.
“Since we’re in a Christian environment, I would like a confession,” Ward said. “How many of y’all wanted me to sit down somewhere?”
By the end of his senior year, he had the reputation as one of college football’s all-time greats. He won every award he was eligible for as a senior while leading Florida State to a national title. Vincent described him as the best college football player to never play in the NFL.
Since we’re in a Christian environment, I would like a confession. How many of y’all wanted me to sit down somewhere?
Charlie Ward, former Florida State quarterback on his early struggles
For the rest of the evening, Vincent and Ward got interactive. Vincent walked back on stage with Ward for a rapid fire question-and-answer session of his own before yielding the questioning to those in the audience.
And Ward tied everything back to his faith. He now coaches football at Pensacola Booker T. Washington and even there he’s had a slight culture shock. Before he returned to Florida, Ward had been a coach and teacher at Westberry Christian in Houston.
It made his stop at BCS familiar. Even though he came from a different town, he comes from the same world.
“Something that I miss now that I’m coaching and teaching at a public school is chapel,” Ward said. “Being in a Christian environment brought back great memories for me.”