Fueled by faith: Jonathan Ward begins NFL career with debut with Cardinals
Jonathan Ward waited to smile.
He’d been called in for a brief meeting with Arizona Cardinals special teams coach Jeff Rodgers. For the past week, Ward had an idea of the message that would be relayed to him. The one-on-one meeting was more of an affirmation than a surprise.
That didn’t make Rodgers’ message any less special. Ward’s emotions were eating at him, but he held in the joy until he walked out of his coach’s office and shut the door.
And as soon as the door clicked closed, Ward smiled from ear to ear – because he was going to play in the NFL.
“At first, I didn’t really know how to react honestly,” Ward said. “I mean I tried to keep it professional but on the inside I was, of course, happy as hell.”
Ward did indeed make his NFL debut Sept. 27 against the Lions, contributing on special teams. In doing so, the Central Michigan graduate continued a journey that saw all 32 NFL teams pass on him in the 2020 NFL Draft. Throughout the whole process, Ward’s faith guided his journey.
“In my mind, it was never that I wasn’t gonna make it,” Ward said. “It was just always keep going, day by day, day by day. A day that you’re here is another day to celebrate that you’re worthy of staying.”
Taking a different path
Traveling to Glendale, Arizona, after going undrafted, Ward relied on his faith. It was that faith that carried him through the struggles in college and the disappointment of having all but one opportunity to perform in front of NFL scouts.
There was also the fact that he had never experienced the grind of an NFL training camp. Additionally, the NFL canceled all preseason games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Ward was again stripped of an opportunity to impress coaches with in-game reps.
“Coming out here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Ward said. “There were guys getting cut from the team before we even stepped on the field.”
The uncertainty cleared once training camp began. With no preseason games to prepare for, the atmosphere was similar to fall camp in college football: No games, just practices and light scrimmages.
Despite performing well, Ward’s faith was tested yet again on Sept. 5, when he was not a part of the Cardinals’ opening 53-man roster. The Cardinals elected to keep three running backs on roster, with Ward being the odd man out. He was waived but promptly brought back on the team’s practice squad.
His faith in himself never changed. He knew what the end result would be.
"I kept that mentality that I’m just as good as the next man," Ward said. "Someone’s gotta show me why they think I’m not good enough to compete with the top-tier, the best of the best in the league. That’s just something that I pride myself on."
With the practice squad, Ward spent a majority of the season’s first two weeks in meetings. If he wasn’t with the running backs, he was with the practice squad preparing to provide the Cardinals’ starting defense a scout team presence.
After the Cardinals’ week two win over Washington, the mood began to change. Fellow Cardinals running back DJ Foster was injured and the team needed someone who could fill his void on special teams.
Ward was ready to step up.
Fueled by faith
When news broke that Ward was joining the active roster, several veteran teammates reached out. They were happy for him, but also wanted to remind him he’s still a rookie.
“When the news was announced, they were all giving me my dues and stuff,” Ward said. “Just in the football life, you know, you tend to see potential in guys early, that’s just what the older guys tell you. It’s a process, it’s a marathon.”
As a special teamer, he didn’t see the workload he’s accustomed to. He’s still waiting for his first carry, but it didn’t take long for him to realize what he’s accomplished. After jogging off the field following a block on the Cardinals’ kick return team, it set in.
“Once I jogged off to the sideline, then I caught my breath,” Ward said, “and I was like, ‘Okay cool, I just did that.’”
Though the stat sheet won’t bear Ward’s name, the game against the Lions proved as another stepping stone in his journey. Despite the odds being stacked against him playing in the NFL, Ward’s unwavering faith carried him to this moment. It fuels him each time he steps on the field.
“That’s just something that I pride myself on,” Ward said. “And with faith, just believing that wherever is meant for me is meant for me.
"I feel as if God hasn’t brought me this far to stop me.”