UC's Ward makes you believe again

Saturday, August 15, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kevin Ward makes it possible to believe in college football. He makes it possible to see a purpose beyond profit, and values more lofty than violence. He is an excuse to overlook its excesses and celebrate its possibilities.

The University of Cincinnati's senior tackle is a testament to opportunity, a reminder that quasi-professional sport has the capacity to open doors and change lives. He is college football's best foot forward.

"You can do anything," Ward said Friday afternoon. "This is my testimony to other kids. Don't let your circumstances determine your future."

Kevin Ward has had every chance at failure, but has chosen instead to succeed. He was born to a 15-year-old single mother and raised on some of the meanest streets of Roanoke, Va. At an early age, he was diagnosed with a learning disability. A few days before his 18th birthday, he was arrested for selling crack cocaine.

But instead of becoming a statistic -- another misguided kid caught up in crime and despair -- Kevin Ward decided to skewer a stereotype. He will suit up for UC this fall having already obtained his undergraduate degree, as the president of UC's student-athlete advisory board, and as the Bearcat most likely to bench press 500 pounds.

Taking over

"I want to be a dominant player," he said Friday at Nippert Stadium, his 297 pounds tightly squeezed into an overmatched theater seat. "A dominant player controls the game. When they talk about Cincinnati and they talk about the defense, I want teams to respect the defensive line and to have certain plays that they have to draw up especially for me."

Kevin Ward has learned to dream on a large scale. He has been influenced by Les Brown, a motivational speaker whose message is that no problem has to be permanent.

"He (Brown) talks about when life knocks you on your back, if you can look up, you can get up," Ward said. "My life has been a struggle for every break I've ever had."

His biggest break to date was in September of 1992, when his uncle, Ken Belton, convinced a judge to entrust Ward to his care instead of that of the Virginia penal system.

On a Monday, Ward was taken to Chantilly High School in Northern Virginia to meet with the principal, the football coach and guidance counselors. That Wednesday, he was sentenced to probation and community service for his drug offenses. Two nights later, Ward broke through the line in the final minute to force a fumble that secured a victory for his new school.

He was a minority of one at the suburban school -- a black kid from the projects among affluent whites -- but his football prowess helped to make him a hero. The Washington Post included his forced fumble among its plays of the week. From these fresh circumstances, a new future was born.

Fitting in

"At first, I was in culture shock," Ward said. "But they greeted me with open arms. I learned there was more to life than I had been exposed to. I wasn't used to African-American men wearing a suit and going to work. Before, all I knew were drug dealers. That's because we looked up to them because they had nice cars."

Ward was a dominant player for Chantilly. He had 17 sacks in his one season there, and was named to the All-State team. His impact in the classroom, however, was not as immediate. He needed a year in military school to qualify for a college scholarship, tearing up in triumph when he opened the envelope containing his SAT scores.

Kevin Ward's ordeal has taught him he was not learning disabled, merely disadvantaged, and he has sought to use his story to help ease the way for others. He wrote a paper at UC called "How I Overcame" and relishes telling the tale to school children. Last year, during the Bearcats' bowl trip to Boise, Idaho, Ward was honored with the event's Humanitarian Award for community service.

His future remains undetermined, but his circumstances have changed.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com