After an uncertain beginning in DeKalb, Jimmie Ward cemented his spot as a playmaker and must-see talent early in his tenure as a Northern Illinois Huskie.
Since his time with the San Francisco 49ers, coaching changes (four head coaches) injuries (broken bones in five different seasons) and uncertainty (position changes) have been more prevalent, making things less than certain.
But if there’s anything that NIU taught Jimmie Ward as he plays in his sixth season with the 9-1 49ers, it’s how to push through whatever difficulties lay in front.
“It’s been rough,” Ward said. “When I first got in the league, dealing with injuries, I didn’t get hurt at all in college, so I had to overcome injuries and then (I) had to learn new positions because I was so athletic an versatile that they switched me around each year.”
Ward said he feels like “The Hard Way” was instrumental in his professional success.
“NIU just taught me to overcome adversity,” Ward said. “When you get that chance, just give it your all and I can live wit the outcome, as long as I’ve given 100%.”
Ward has faced his fair share of injuries as a 49er, something he wasn’t used to in his time in DeKalb. Over his first five seasons, Ward missed 29 games due to injury. San Francisco picked up the option on his contract this year, which NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco called a “one-year, prove-it contract.”
Ward had doubt cast in his mind again when he sustained a fractured collarbone this past spring.
“I’ve been in a long storm, a lot of different adversity,” Ward said. “It even started rough this year. But somehow I ended up getting past the storm and once we got the right pieces, things started getting better.”
The 49ers, who sustained their first loss of the season to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, 27-24, and followed it up with a 36-26 win over the Cardinals were allowing an NFL-best 142.5 passing yards per game, something Ward, a safety, has been a large part of by covering tremendous amounts of ground.
Learning from safeties coach Daniel Bullocks, who is in his fourth season instructing the position for the 49ers, has helped Ward pay more attention to detail as he's in the safety spot that has always felt comfortable to him, as opposed to cornerback, which felt unnatural.
“He (Bullocks) never lets anything slide, so I respect that about him," Ward said. "Because I want to get better and then I can take coaching … I always can take coaching ever since I was playing Pop Warner ball. I don’t yell, I don’t pout, I just say ‘yes sir’ and I listen and try to correct my mistakes on the next play or the next game or whenever I’m next on the field.”
Ward is a long way from the days when he barely received a scholarship from NIU.
“I remember when coach Kill first offered me, he told me most likely I’m going to redshirt, most likely I won’t be playing," Ward said. "He’d never seen me play in person … but really he wanted to offer another guy and the other guy committed somewhere else so he ended up giving me the offer. They thought I was good, but they really just didn’t know how good I was at the time.”
The then freshman made his mark on special teams with three blocked punts.
The rest was history for the future All-American first round draft pick.
“I was the last line of defense," Ward said. "But I ended up proving it in the camp and I didn’t redshirt. Throughout my time at NIU, they had the motto, 'The Hard Way.' I used to just always say, ‘why can’t we just do it the right way instead of the hard way?’ But that was the motto. We had no indoor. We had to practice outside where it was freezing cold.”
Ward wants to get the last word in when it comes to discussing his Northern Illinois days, which he still cherishes by talking to former teammates.
"Go Huskies," he says with a laugh.
This story was made available earlier this week to subscribers to the Yordon Report, the Daily Chronicle's NIU sports newsletter. To subscribe, go to https://www.daily-chronicle.com/newsletter/niu-sports/#//