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'I live through them': An inside look at three lifelong friends and the true meaning of family

(Left to right) Linebacker Andrew Ward, wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton and wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan pose for a photo on signing day at Muskegon High School in 2017. (Photo: Sullivan family)

Andrew Ward sat forward in his chair and kept his head down, speaking softly only when called on. One day before the Mid-American Conference championship game, he didn't care to smile.

He wore a maroon sweatsuit like everyone else on the team, but what set him apart was the brace wrapped around his neck from an severe injury sustained Oct. 19 against Bowling Green.

The injury to the linebacker could've resulted in paralysis or death.

Ward will never play football again, and that's not going to change. He knows it and was showcasing all the signs of devastation, frustration and confusion of a career cut short.

But when a question was asked about his best friends and teammates, wide receivers Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan, everything about Ward's demeanor changed.

Ward's eyes shifted from a downward position to looking straight forward as he rocked back in his chair.

His teeth appeared in the form of a smile. He even began laughing.

"They were my first friends," Ward said. "When I moved to Muskegon in first grade, they were my first friends. Ever since then, we've been rocking."

It might've taken Ward and Pimpleton a year away from Sullivan, but they all got back together for a reunion in Mount Pleasant for the 2018 season.

Ward was granted immediate eligibility from the NCAA after his transfer, but Pimpleton did not get his waiver cleared and had to sit out.

For the first time since the 2016 season at Muskegon High School, Ward, Pimpleton and Sullivan took the field at the same time in 2019 under coach Jim McElwain.

"The Big Red pride runs deep, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have our Big Reds on the team," McElwain said. "They’re great leaders to have on this football team."

Eight games after finally rejoining forces for the Chippewas, three was trimmed to two when Ward broke his neck, but his legacy lives on through his lifelong friends and the true meaning of family.

Ward loves Pimpleton and Sullivan, and the two wide receivers undoubtedly love him.

Empathetically, they all feel each other's pain in one way or another. That's what makes Ward's career-ending injury a struggle for all of them.

When one feels on top of the world, everyone celebrates. 

And when one is broken-hearted, the others show support throughout the gut-wrenching journey.

"I live through them now," Ward said. "That's what I told them. That's the message I gave them. I tell them that I live through y'all now as far as the football part goes."

Central Michigan linebacker Andrew Ward walks around the field in warmups in the New Mexico Bowl at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

'I’ve heard about what they did in high school'

By the dictionary standards, family is considered as a group of parents and children living together in a household.

But that definition doesn't mean anything to Ward, Pimpleton and Sullivan.

They consider themselves family as brothers living together in the household of football, encapsulated by two cities – Muskegon and Mount Pleasant – that tie everything together.

The three of them live together in an apartment on campus.

“That’s my brother," Sullivan said of Ward. "I know how much he put into this game, how much he loved this game, how much he sacrificed and how much it took to get here. I just wanted to show him I love him and am standing by him through whatever."

The trio felt this way from the moment Ward moved from Grand Rapids to Muskegon in first grade.

The ongoing relationship includes middle school football games, state championship appearances in high school and, eventually, college ball.

While Ward, Pimpleton and Sullivan were at Muskegon from 2013-16, the Big Reds went to three state championships and earned a combined 45-9 record.

Ward racked up 122 total tackles as a senior in 2016. He was the Muskegon Chronicle Defensive Player of the Year. 

In that same season, Pimpleton was the Muskegon Chronicle Football Player of the Year after compiling 2,551 yards and 38 touchdowns as a quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Sullivan had 25 receptions for 571 yards along with 74 tackles and five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown). 

Even former starting quarterback Quinten Dormady was familiar with the legacy his current teammates left behind at Muskegon. 

“I’ve heard some things about what they did in high school with KP playing quarterback and stuff like that," Dormady said.

Once more, just a week before the MAC championship, the three Chippewas returned to Ford Field to watch Muskegon play River Rouge in the 2019 Division 3 state championship.

Ward was in his neck brace as the group wore white T-shirts with a block "M" to represent Muskegon and the word "Brotherhood" on the front with "Ward 43" printed across the back.

As for their brotherhood on the field at Central Michigan, it didn't happen overnight. Sullivan was always supposed to be a Chippewa, whereas Ward and Pimpleton were not.

Sullivan made his commitment and signed as a member of the 2017 class. At the same time, Ward and Pimpleton did so at Nebraska and Virginia Tech, respectively.

One year later, both returned home as transfers.

Sullivan was waiting with open arms.

Central Michigan wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan walks onto the field at UB Stadium to play Buffalo in an Oct. 26 game in Buffalo, New York.

'He's a strong person'

When Sullivan walked out of the tunnel Oct. 26 at UB Stadium for a matchup against Buffalo, he didn't display excitement in his outward emotions.

After watching his longtime friend go down with a career-ending injury just a week earlier, his only thought was playing for Ward.

Just a few days before the Chippewas made the trip to New York, Sullivan walked into McElwain's office with a request.

He wanted to wear Ward's jersey.

“I was hurting," Sullivan said. "I was sad about my brother seeing him at home sitting on the couch. I just thought I’d see if Mac would let me wear his jersey to represent him.”

McElwain granted Sullivan his wish and commended the junior wide receiver for it.

Sullivan, who was a "little extra turned up" for the chance to let Ward play through him, made seven receptions for 114 yards and one touchdown against the Bulls. Watching from home, Ward said he was surprised when he saw Sullivan on the field in his jersey.

The act of kindness signified a brotherly love.

"I honestly thought he looked nice," Ward said. "I was like, 'You almost look better than me in it.' That's what I told him."

And when Pimpleton scored his touchdown that game, he pulled up his jersey to showcase a gray shirt with "Forever 43" written on the abdomen area.

With Ward on his mind every step of the way, Sullivan had one of the best second halves of the season boasted by anyone on the roster. He made 42 receptions for 529 yards and two touchdowns in the final seven games. Sullivan finished his junior year with 808 yards and three scores after just 153 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.

Ward got a front-row seat to Sullivan's breakout season and supported him the entire way, while the wide receiver did the same for his injured friend.

“He’s a strong person," Sullivan said. "Through the highs and lows, he was the same person. He was respectful to everyone and never showed fake love. He was always himself.”

Central Michigan wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton gestures for a first down against Northern Illinois Nov. 2 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

'I know deep down it really hurts him'

Pimpleton followed Sullivan's footsteps in the next game, a 48-10 win over Northern Illinois at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Flashing Ward's No. 43 jersey, Pimpleton caught five passes for 50 yards and one touchdown.

When the 5-foot-9, 175-pound receiver heard the news of his friend's injury, he wasn't sure how to react.

"That’s my boy," Pimpleton said. "We’ve grown up together since we were kids. He keeps a smile on his face, but I know deep down it really hurts him."

Pimpleton described Ward as a player that has never taken football for granted and a family man. He focuses on whatever task is at hand and completes it thoroughly.

That's why Pimpleton isn't too worried about Ward's success off the field.

"I know he’s going to miss this game dearly, but he said not to worry about him," Pimpleton said. "I try to allow him to play through me – every game.”

Just like Ward did with Sullivan, he was by Pimpleton's side for his first full season of college football. The receiver played in all 14 games, making 82 receptions for 894 yards and six touchdowns, seven carries for 81 yards and 24 punt returns for 208 yards.

And Pimpleton was also there for Ward, who took a couple of weeks away from the program before his teammates helped him get back in the groove.

"Once I was back around, I realized that it helped me actually, through my process, just swallowing that pill of knowing that my football run was kind of over," Ward said. "The team and the staff helped me a lot."

Central Michigan linebacker Andrew Ward cheers from the sidelines before the MAC Championship game against Miami (OH) Dec. 7 at Ford Field in Detroit, MI.

'They're keeping my name alive'

Ward's legacy is nowhere near complete.

Coming from Muskegon, Sullivan said some people automatically lost hope for Ward's success in life following the injury. After all, football was his greatest passion.

But that's not the case, as Ward plans to earn his degree as a criminal justice major. He wants to be a juvenile probation officer and get into coaching as a graduate assistant or within player development once he obtains his undergraduate degree.

With Ward's criminal justice degree, he said he'd like to return to his hometown of Muskegon and make a difference in the community that helped raise him.

Ward will remain on scholarship, and he'll continue to be around the football program. He will watch Sullivan and Pimpleton score touchdowns for the next few years while giving them in-game advice on what he notices from the opposing defense.

"They're keeping my name alive now that I can't do it on the field," Ward said.

Despite the friendship that forever ties them together, Ward is more than just a byproduct of Pimpleton and Sullivan.

He's his own man with hopes, goals and dreams unique to his personal journey.

Ward's career-ending injury is only a small part of that voyage, but it's one that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

"I know my brother," Sullivan said. "He’s going to work to get back healthy, do right in school and be successful in life.

"He’s still got a long journey ahead of him."