Jonathan Ward matures through adversity, serves as team leader in push for MAC title
When Jim McElwain came to lead the Central Michigan football team, he asked all the players to rid themselves of selfishness, move on from the past and come together as one unit.
Nobody exemplifies that better than senior running back Jonathan Ward.
Everyone has noticed. It's not just McElwain, who is on the verge of taking the Chippewas to the Mid-American Conference championship game.
"He understands that it ain't about him," said offensive coordinator Charlie Frye. "It's about his teammates. That's the growth I see."
Playing in nine of 11 games this season, the 6-foot, 202-pound running back has accumulated 151 carries for 968 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's also caught 28 passes for 284 yards and one score.
In the same number of games during the 1-11 season in 2018, Ward was nowhere near as effective.
He went for 212 yards and one touchdown on 76 carries while adding eight catches for 41 yards.
Ward has matured since then. He's learned how to fight through adversity, and the transition from his junior to senior year is a perfect example of that growth.
"That's maturity," Frye said. "Sometimes you go through things that are hard, and you learn a lot more from your failures than you do from your successes."
Even though Ward claimed he never left his status as one of the best running backs in the MAC, showcased by a 2017 sophomore season where he posted 1,494 yards from scrimmage, he acknowledged playing as one unit has changed his perspective on the game.
After all, that's what McElwain called for his players to do.
"Getting back together as a team and playing as one helps me expose my abilities," Ward said.
One of the most well-known names on Central Michigan's staff, besides McElwain, is Frye. He's the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach but was a third-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
After a four-year career for Akron from 2001-04, Frye played in the league for the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders before retiring and becoming a coach.
Frye spoke highly of Ward, and he said the running back's newfound team mentality gives him an advantage moving forward in football and life.
"Going through a time and getting another crack at it, saying, 'No, I don't want to be like that. I want to make it about my guys,'" Frye said. "That's the growth that you see. That will help take him to the next level on his journey whatever that may be."
And Ward isn't just a leader behind closed doors. He's named captain nearly every week, gathers the team at the end of practice to deliver whatever message needs to be sent and speaks on the sideline to either celebrate or get his offense on the right track.
Ward delivers donuts and tacos to his offensive lineman, a gesture of thankfulness for all the work they do in the trenches. Without them, the speedy and shifty back wouldn't be able to do his job.
"Ward's grown up a lot," said senior center Steve Eipper. "If we're having a bad practice, Ward will be the first one there to get everyone in check and make sure practice doesn't end that way.
"Ward will speak, and everybody will listen to him."
Shortly before the season began in late August, McElwain acknowledged that he needed Ward to lead, but he wouldn't comment on the past since he wasn't around for the John Bonamego era.
McElwain also made it clear Ward would get as many opportunities as he could handle.
"He's a real special player and he needs to see touches," McElwain said before the campaign began.
As long as Ward stays healthy, he'll end up playing in at least 11 games – maybe 12 – this season. He's on pace to break his previous career-high of 178 carries in 2017 when he played 13 total games.
Ward is currently at 151 right now, and 24 of those came in a 45-44 victory over Ball State on Nov. 16 to keep Central Michigan's MAC West title hopes alive.
And of those 24 carries against the Cardinals, four went for touchdowns: from 1 yard, 6 yards, 9 yards and another 1-yard score.
Nothing came easy in the 17-point comeback.
"Those are hard-earned yards," Frye said. "Who is the tougher man? That's the physical toughness and the mental toughness to stick your foot in the ground and run somebody over."
McElwain said earlier in the season that Ward "could be a real voice" for the Chippewas.
That was three months ago.
It's safe to say Ward has found his groove as a leader on the team, and his maturity has come full circle from the tough 2018 season. His development off the field has translated to success on the field.
"He prepares the right way and is a true leader on the team," said Eipper, Ward's teammate of four years.
With Central Michigan on the verge of securing a spot in the MAC championship game, his growth couldn't have come at a better time.