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In Central Michigan career filled with turbulence, Jonathan Ward leaves impact on program


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Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward hands flowers to family members before a game against Toledo Nov. 29 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The story of Jonathan Ward begins with a 10-yard run on a Thursday night in September. 

His first career carry came in the Chippewas' 49-3 over Presbyterian on Sept. 1, 2016, at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant.

In that contest, he scored his first career touchdown on a 45-yard run in the fourth quarter.

The burst of speed displayed on that carry gave Chippewas a glimpse of what was to come in the future for the native of Kankakee, Illinois. 

If only fans knew what really would occur. 

Throughout his four-year career, Ward has rushed for over 2,600 yards and 28 touchdowns. He's also dealt with numerous injuries and has played a full season just once. 

Ward's been at both the bottom and the top of the Mid-American Conference's West Division.

After bursting onto the scene as a true freshman and showing flashes of his talent behind upperclassmen running backs Devon Spalding and Jahray Hayes, Ward was given the keys to the backfield as a sophomore.

Ward took advantage of the opportunity and exploded. He ran for 1,019 yards, 10 touchdowns and was named to the All-MAC Second Team. 

Expectations were sky-high for him heading into his junior season. Given the Chippewas loss of quarterback Shane Morris, they were starting a brand new quarterback and knew Ward would be heavily relied on.

The result was abysmal. 

Pairing numerous injuries with the poor quarterback play, Ward's 2018 season sputtered and the Chippewas finished 1-11 overall. He played in nine games and ran for just 212 yards, with his season-best effort coming against Northern Illinois where he rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries.

For a player who was talented enough to have professional football opportunities, his senior season would make or break those hopes after his junior season caused his stock to tumble. 

Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward carries the ball against Eastern Michigan Oct. 5 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Ward carried the chip on his shoulder and came through with his best season yet. 

Rushing for over 1,100 yards, he scored 15 touchdowns and was named to the All-MAC Third Team. Despite being snubbed of higher conference honors, Ward was named MAC West Player of the Week three times.

According to coaches and teammates, Ward's always had talent, but his development away from the field is far more impressive. 

"He understands that it ain't about him," offensive coordinator Charlie Frye said. "It's about his teammates. That's the growth I see."

Chippewa starting center Steve Eipper has been a part of all four of Ward's seasons. Offensive linemen are tasked with opening up holes for the running backs to run through but often get no credit.

That was Eipper's job, but the running back always made sure to give thanks.

"Seeing him do everything he does, the way he cares about us," Eipper said. "If he has a good game he'll bring the linemen food."

After last season, rumors swirled that Ward was checked out and was losing interest. Given a chance at a clean slate from first-year coach Jim McElwain, Ward used his senior season to turn away those doubts. Ward became the player he was expected to be following his breakout sophomore season. 

"Jonathan Ward has been a great leader for this football team," McElwain said. "The fact that he cares so much about this group of guys and how hard he plays, I'm just really proud of him and glad he's on our team." 

Ward did all of that while sharing the backfield load with up and coming sophomore running back Kobe Lewis. 

Lewis will likely inherit the starting job next season when Ward graduates, and he is appreciative of the lessons he's learned from the senior.

"Being behind Ward, he's teaching me a lot," Lewis said. "Just watching him sometimes and in some of the conversations we've had, just being behind him, he teaches you a lot."

On Saturday, the Chippewas face the second-best run defense in the country. Ward will have to find a way to be a factor in his final game if Central Michigan is to have a chance to claim the New Mexico Bowl trophy. 

Given the adversity Ward has had to face, it's a fitting battle to end his career.

One last hill to climb. 

One last opportunity to show the world the player Jonathan Ward really is.

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