Timmy Ward’s journey to the walk-in catcher

Timmy Ward told himself he wouldn’t cry.

He had never stood in front of a group of people to discuss what he had been through or the adversity he faced. But there he was, standing in front of the rest of Rutgers’ wide receivers, in turn sharing some of his experience so his teammates could get to know him better.

Ward quickly moved through his early years. Then he came to his high school years.

He started choking.

Nobody would blame him.

After all he had been through — the diagnosis, the chemotherapy treatments, the torn anterior cruciate ligament, the surgery, the unorthodox path to becoming a Big Ten football player — the equipment manager turned walker -on of the Scarlet Knights had endured a journey few could recount. for.

Ward dreamed of being part of a major college football program. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, he told himself he could do it.

So he did.

There’s excitement as Rutgers is set to play its annual Scarlet-White game Friday (7 p.m., Big Ten Network) at SHI Stadium in Piscataway to cap off spring training.

It’s an excitement that Ward is part of.

“Even now, waking up every morning and coming here,” Ward said in a recent Hale Center interview, “is a blessing to be able to do that.”

“I was starting to get worse little by little”

Ward was an outstanding football player and wrestler at Canton High School in Pennsylvania.

As a wide receiver, he caught 36 passes for 645 yards and seven touchdowns in his junior season. As a defensive back, he had 84 tackles, 11 interceptions and a fumble recovery.

And he did all of this even though he didn’t feel quite well.

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Ward had a swollen lymph node under his right armpit. He didn’t tell anyone at first, saying it was nothing serious. When training camp started, he wasn’t feeling well. He started training more, although his fitness was not the issue at all.

“I was working hard and nothing was improving,” Ward said. “I was starting to get worse little by little.”

His vision was not normal. When he made a tackle, the pitch felt like it was shaking.

Something was wrong, but the doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause.

“Even just to get the lump checked, (the doctor) said, ‘Yeah, that’s a swollen lymph node that hasn’t returned to its normal size like it’s fighting an infection. It’s common,” Timmy’s mother, Michelle, said. “He had blood work done and he had a chest X-ray done twice when he went to his pediatrician and nothing came back horribly out of place.”

Doctors performed a biopsy after the season.

Ward was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on November 26, 2018.

His first treatment at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center took place two weeks later. Chemotherapy was done in three-week cycles – the first week would be three days of treatment, the next week would be one day, then one week off.

It lasted three months.

“A big part of what has helped me is that I live in a very small community so everyone knows everything, which has helped me,” Ward said. “Everyone was rallying around me, doing everything they could to help me. It was awesome.”

The chemo ravaged his body. He lost almost 30 pounds. The muscle that made him such a dominant football player is gone.

Still, football provided a distraction.

While undergoing treatment, Ward watched a game movie from his previous season.

“Some of his treatments were like eight hours, so he was lying in the infusion center, his dad and I were sitting there and he was watching game movie after game movie,” Michelle said. “He spent the whole time thinking about football.”

another hurdle

Ward was declared cancer-free on May 1, 2019. The State of Pennsylvania allowed him to repeat his freshman year of high school because he missed so much time during treatment.

He did not play football that fall. His body was not ready.

But Ward returned to the wrestling mat that winter.

“He practiced a lot and when he first walked into the mat room he couldn’t do five push-ups,” Michelle said. “He then kept working hard and working hard and ended up struggling that season.”

Ward ultimately finished sixth in his weight class at the state championships.

“Then I started training for football,” Ward said. “I was like, ‘This is it.’ I was so excited it was my moment.

In Canton’s first scrum before their first game, Ward was running to make a block. His right knee popped. Michelle remembers him screaming in pain. He didn’t get up.

“It was just that everything was falling apart around him again,” Michelle said.

An MRI later confirmed his worst fears: a torn ACL.

“I looked at (my doctor) and I was like, ‘I’m playing. I need to play.

Rutgers wide receiver Timmy Ward makes a catch during a recent practice.

Ward’s doctor gave his approval, but on the condition that Ward only play one side of football.

Ward chose safety.

Canton opened their season the following day against their rival, Troy. Ward went through three quarters. Then his knee popped again.

This time, Ward decided to have surgery.

He had already been through something that had changed his life. He had already survived cancer.

“I went there and I did it”

Ward always wanted to play college football.

He had a chance at East Stroudsburg. He enjoyed his visit and had a good relationship with the coaching staff.

But Ward hadn’t given up on his dream of playing at the highest level either. And there was still a way for Ward to become a Scarlet Knight. Albeit in an unconventional way.

Rob Hinson, at the time a Rutgers player personnel analyst, told Ward he could join the program as an equipment manager with the option to try out and potentially join the team as a walk on.

Service accepted.

“Not many people understood what I was doing,” Ward said. “But I guess the important thing was that I did it, my family did it. They knew what I wanted to do. I went there and did it.

Ward has worked with defensive backs as a manager, hard and demanding work. He soaked up as much information as he could. He studied the course of training, he observed how the players worked.

One of those players was Don Bosco Prep product Lawrence Stevens, who started his time at Rutgers as an extra before earning a scholarship and becoming a special teams ace.

Ward said he admired Stevens for the way he worked. Stevens remembers a hardworking manager at Ward, who wears No. 29 as Stevens did.

“I feel like he was very excited,” said co-captain Stevens in 2020. “I feel like sometimes people can take things for granted and kind of go through the stages . But he arrived with a smile on his face. … Practices can be very difficult. Coaches can shout, yell. But looking at him, it didn’t really affect him in that moment.”

He also wanted to show coaches that work ethic.

“We have a group of managers who are really committed kids, and Timmy was right at the top of that list,” coach Greg Schiano said. “Just a grinder.”

The trials were held at SHI Stadium in September.

Ward said he wondered if he should work out in practice that morning, but decided he had to show he was committed to his job. Once practice began, with other equipment managers seated in the stands to support him, Ward focused on competing.

Schiano was not on trial, but his assistants who were there reported to him.

They told him they thought Ward could potentially help the team – not just as a manager.

Rutgers wide receiver Timmy Ward during a recent practice.

That’s when the wait began.

Rutgers was not prepared to do anything during the season. Ward continued his managerial job.

About two weeks after the Gator Bowl, Ward was home on winter break. He wasn’t sure what his future would be.

“I was talking to my dad like, ‘What’s the next thing?'” Ward said. “We kind of thought that might not happen.”

Almost immediately after this conversation, Ward’s phone rang.

“He’s on the couch and he’s got this weirdest look on his face and he’s gasping,” Michelle said.

Ward had received a text from Joe Susan, Rutgers’ special assistant to the head coach, telling him he had a spot as an extra.

“I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a chance,'” Schiano said. “He was really good at his job as a manager. He took it very seriously and he’s doing a really good job as a player.”

More than three years had passed since Ward had not played in a football game. He had conquered cancer. He had recovered from a torn ACL. All the while, he told himself he would get his suit back, somewhere, sometime.

Ward was a Big Ten football player.

“He personifies FAMILY – Forget me, I love you, I sacrifice myself for you,” Schiano said, referring to one of the team’s mottos. “The sacrifice he’s made for our program as a manager is a real sacrifice. It’s been humbling and he’s worked hard. That’s what we love. Guys who love the football and who like to be around.”

Ward said whether he ends up playing in a game or being on the sidelines supporting his teammates, he plans to take the same attitude every practice and every day.

He doesn’t take that for granted.

“I’m not here to say I’m going to be a starter even in four years,” Ward said. “I’m just here to work hard and hope we can win baseball games, win a Big Ten title, win a national title. I’m just here to work hard and have fun.

Chris Iseman is the author of Rutgers Football Rhythms for the USA TODAY Network-New Jersey. For unlimited access to all Rutgers analysis, news and more, please subscribe today and download our app.

E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @chrisiseman

Lance B. Holton