From 1985 to 1988, Deion Sanders was a two-sport star for the Florida State Seminoles.
Sanders then took his talents to the pros where he played both football and baseball professionally.
As fate would have it, only a few years later, the Seminoles would have another talented two-sport star.
In 1992 and 1993, Charlie Ward quarterbacked the football team to a combined 5,679 passing yards and 49 touchdowns.
He led FSU to the school’s first National Championship in a thrilling two-point win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers on New Year’s Day of 1994.
That same season, Ward brought home a ton of hardware during the awards season, including the Heisman Trophy.
On this day 29 years ago, Charlie Ward became the first @FSUFootball player to win the Heisman.
He was one of a kind 🍢 pic.twitter.com/FjtG4Dk9hL
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) December 11, 2022
Not only did Ward shine on the gridiron, but he also excelled on the hardwood for the Seminoles.
For four years, he played as a point guard for the school’s basketball team and set a program record for steals while averaging more than 10 points per game during his senior year.
Then, in the spring of 1994, Ward had a difficult time choosing between playing pro football, pro basketball, and for good measure, pro baseball.
Despite his gifts as a quarterback, Ward chose the NBA and played 11 years in the league.
This is the fascinating story of Charlie Ward.
Following in His Father’s Footsteps
Charlie Ward Jr. was born on October 12, 1970, in Thomasville, Georgia.
A big Happy Birthday to Thomasville, Georgia native Charlie Ward. One of the best athletes of the century. pic.twitter.com/wgqZ5wNjpY
— Craig Sager II (@CraigSagerJr) October 12, 2014
Ward’s father, Charlie Sr., was a high school football star and played collegiately at Florida A&M alongside “Bullet” Bob Hayes (who would later win an Olympic gold medal as a sprinter and a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys).
It was at Florida A&M that Ward’s father met his future wife, Willard.
The couple had six children, and they were a mix of hard workers and mischief-makers.
“Three of them are good listeners, all you gotta do is talk to them. The other three you gotta whip,” said Ward’s father.
Ward Sr. became a high school coach and teacher, and Charlie grew up with athletics as the primary household language.
He became adept at several sports but gravitated toward basketball and football.
“He would run around and run around on that field and nobody would touch him,” said his sister, Leta. “Then he’d throw it a mile to whoever was open. People still talk about what he did on that field as a kid. It was like he could see what was gonna happen before it happened.”
When Ward Jr. arrived at Central High School in Thomasville, he was under the watchful eye of his father, who coached football and basketball at the school along with his teaching duties.
On the hardwood, Ward’s father was the school’s head coach, and Coach Ward was a bit harder on his son than his other players.
“I always knew my dad was the social studies teacher and coach at Central and that we’d be at the same school when I got to ninth grade,” said Charlie. “I know that he didn’t want to show any favoritism, so he coached me harder than he coached anyone else, but it didn’t bother me. I never felt any extra pressure to perform or to be at a higher level than my teammates.”
It was evident that Ward Jr. was excelling in athletics as his father had before him.
Not only was he silky and sleek on the basketball court, but Ward Jr. was also highly talented on the gridiron.
He wasn’t overly big or tall, but Ward brought other intangibles such as an intense drive, elusiveness, and fantastic athleticism.
“When Junior stepped on the field, everyone instantly believed they were going to win,” said Mark Lastinger, who called the Central High football games on local radio. “He was the coolest customer I had ever seen. Looking back, the only way to explain how he played was to say he was Michael Vick as a runner with Joe Montana’s arm. He was unstoppable. Defenders would have him dead to rights and he’d disappear. At the last second, he’d slip away or step back or roll like a bullfighter, and he’d be gone.”
During Ward’s senior year, he passed for more than 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Thomas County Central High School Yellow Jackets! State champions in 92,93,94,96, and 97. Proud home of such illustrious alumni as Heisman-award winner Charlie Ward, NFL players Joe Burns, Danny Copeland among others.
— Dean (@_Xuk_) April 30, 2020
He also left tacklers gasping for air when he took off running for more than 1,000 yards and nine more touchdowns.
Almost as an afterthought, Ward was a reliable punter with good hang time.
In addition to his play in basketball, college recruiters frequently visited the Ward family.
For the next chapter of his life, Ward was seeking a college where he could play both football and basketball.
He also discarded any program that intended to play him at a position other than quarterback.
“We wanted Junior to go somewhere he’d feel comfortable and where he could play quarterback,” his mother, Willard, said. “We didn’t want a coach saying one thing and then trying to turn him into a receiver once he agreed to attend.”
Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden came by for a visit and promised Ward that he could have the best of both worlds.
He could play on the ’Noles hoops team as well as play at quarterback, although FSU was stocked at the position.
There was also another matter that the Ward family was concerned about.
At that time, a black quarterback had never started for the Seminoles.
Ward’s parents put Bowden on the spot about the program’s history, and Bowden once again assured the family that Ward would have a chance to start if he proved himself.
The coach’s assurances were more than enough for Ward and his family, and Charlie signed his letter of intent with FSU.
Part II of a compilation of old quotes remembering Florida State legend Bobby Bowden features reflections from All-Americans Charlie Ward, Clay Shiver and Tay Cody: https://t.co/IyGF1vcoe9 pic.twitter.com/5ikMlr0TAq
— Fifth Quarter (@FifthQuarter) August 9, 2021
He would have to wait to play for a year, however.
Ward’s ACT score did not meet NCAA minimum requirements, which meant he would spend a year at the JuCo level, working on his academics and getting a better score on the standardized test.
With his JuCo year behind him, and the necessary score on the ACT achieved, Ward headed to Tallahassee.
As Bowden had warned, there was a logjam at the quarterback position when Ward arrived in 1989.
The Seminoles had Brad Johnson, Casey Weldon, and Peter Tom Willis, all of whom would play the position in the NFL.
Florida State QB Brad Johnson pic.twitter.com/DAQlO7sj5I
— Quarterback Club (@TheNewQBClub) January 6, 2016
Ward got a little playing time that year.
When the starting punter was injured, Ward played the remainder of the season and averaged just over 37 yards per punt.
That same year, FSU went 10-2 and beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1990, Ward was still buried on the depth chart, and Bowden redshirted him.
Since he wasn’t needed for the football team, Ward began playing with the Seminole basketball team, which he hadn’t done in 1989.
During the 1990–91 season, Ward started 21 games and averaged eight points, 2.4 steals, and 3.4 assists per game.
He became the starting point guard after the first 10 games of the year and played as if he’d been a starter all his life.
“He is a pure point guard,” said Seminole assistant, Dave Zimroth. “He gets the ball to everyone, elevates everyone’s play. You know where he is the most incredible? On the fast break. As the guys fill their lanes, and Charlie sees all his options, he always makes the right decisions. In those situations he is incomparable.”
The Seminoles had been a .500 team before Ward became a starter but ended the season 21-11 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Slowly Gaining Ground
In 1991, Ward saw action in both sports, though he was still limited on the ’Noles football team.
He received some playing time in mop-up duty and totaled nine completions for 68 yards.
During the college basketball season, Ward teamed with Sam Cassell and Bobby Sura to form a scary good FSU team.
Ward wasn’t with the team until the college football season ended, but he shined when he returned.
In a game against the North Carolina Tar Heels and coach Dean Smith, Ward seemingly came out of nowhere to drop in 18 points.
Florida State's Charlie Ward drives against Carolina's George Lynch. Hubert Davis and Kevin Salvadori. PHOTO COURTESY OF: Getty Images#UNCommon #tarheels #GoHeels #ACC #CarolinaFamily #GDTBATH #uncbasketball #UNC #Carolina pic.twitter.com/nQVUFaUWyo
— Blue Heaven (@uncsportsphotos) December 18, 2022
Thoroughly impressed with Ward’s play, Smith found the point guard after the game.
“I don’t know how good a football player you are,” Smith told Ward, “but you can play this game at the next level.”
By the end of the regular season, FSU was headed back to the NCAA tournament, where they advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing.
Finally a Starter
At long last, Ward was poised to be the starting quarterback for the Seminoles.
Even more memorable, he was going to be the first black starting quarterback in team history.
The Seminoles initially had to wait for Ward’s basketball season to wrap in the spring of 1994 because the team was in the NCAA tournament.
When the ’Noles finally lost, Ward had to quickly switch gears and learn a new offensive system during spring ball.
“It’s been on-the-job training for Charlie,” said Bowden. “He’s had to work the kinks out on the field.”
During the 1992 season, Ward completed 204 passes for 2,647 yards and 22 touchdowns.
He also rushed for 504 yards and six more scores.
It was also apparent, as Bowden mentioned, that Ward was still learning as he was picked off 17 times.
“He’s going to be the best in the country,” said Bowden, “as soon as he learns to distinguish jersey colors.”
Although he made many poor throwing decisions, Ward’s teammates were still awed by his athleticism.
“Every day I see him on the field,” said defensive end Carl Simpson, “Charlie does something that makes me say, ‘How did he do that?’ “
Case in point:
During a game against Georgia Tech, the Seminoles were down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Exasperated, Bowden told Ward to play their two-minute offense for the remainder of the quarter.
Ward did so with the authority of a seasoned field general and passed for 207 yards in the final quarter alone to lead the ’Noles to a 29-24 victory.
The Seminoles and Ward continued to win as they finished the regular season 10-1 and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 27-14.
When he joined the FSU basketball team, Ward averaged 7.8 points, 2.8 steals, and over five assists a game.
The Seminoles finished the season 25-10 and made it as far as the NCAA tournament Elite Eight until running into a buzzsaw Kentucky Wildcat team.
In the 1993 preseason college football polls, FSU was ranked as the top team in the country, and they did not disappoint.
Using their relatively new “fast-break” offense, the ’Noles crushed their first five opponents to the tune of 228-14.
In the team’s sixth game, they got past their in-state rival, the Miami Hurricanes, on the way to a 28-10 win.
Ward never seemed rattled no matter the level of competition.
“Charlie has an inner strength that most of us don’t have,” Bowden said.
Then, in mid-November, the 9-0 Seminoles lost to Notre Dame by seven points.
On this day in 1993, @FSUFootball & @NDFootball faced off in another classic #1 vs. #2 matchup! The Irish were up 31-17 in the 4th QTR, but Hall of Famer Charlie Ward brought the Noles back to trail only 31-24. Despite a valiant effort, the Irish held on for the win. #ImARealFan pic.twitter.com/pQ0AtSnKzg
— College Football Hall of Fame (@cfbhall) November 13, 2019
The setback didn’t faze Ward. Instead, it gave him and FSU the incentive to finish strong.
“We go back to work this week,” Ward said. “And if things work out, we’ll get another chance at Notre Dame. Let the coaches or writers or whoever votes match us up again. That would be fine with us.”
FSU wouldn’t get another crack at the Irish, but after ending the regular season with only one loss, the squad faced the Cornhuskers again, this time in the Orange Bowl.
When Notre Dame lost to Boston College a week after beating FSU, the ’Noles reclaimed the top spot in the nation while Nebraska was ranked second.
With barely a minute remaining in the contest, FSU was down by one.
Ward calmly led his teammates down the field and kicker Scott Bentley nailed a 22-yard field goal to win the game 18-16.
The win meant that Florida State was college football’s national champion for the first time in school history.
During the 1993 season, Ward passed for 3,032 yards, 27 touchdowns, and only four picks while running for 339 yards and four more touchdowns.
His completion percentage was just a shade under 70%, and his passing efficiency rating was over 157.
When it came time for the college football awards season, voters chose Ward to be FSU’s first winner of the Heisman Trophy.
On this day 29 years ago, Florida State football quarterback and 2-sport star Charlie Ward became the first Seminole ever to win the Heisman Trophy. Ward finished his senior season with more than 3,000 yards passing, 31 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. pic.twitter.com/PDZHMU2A1o
— FSU History (@ThisDayFSU) December 11, 2022
The tally wasn’t even close as Charlie received 1,622 more points than second-place finisher Health Shuler of Tennessee.
That mark still serves as the fourth-largest margin of victory in the award’s history.
In addition to winning the sport’s most coveted award, Ward also received (among other accolades) the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Davey O’Brien Award, Toyota Leader of the Year, Walter Camp Player of the Year, ACC Offensive Player of the Year, unanimous All-American, and was just the second college football player to receive the Sullivan Award for the nation’s best amateur athlete.
In 1999, the Seminoles inducted Ward into the school’s Hall of Fame, and he owned 14 team records at the time.
Of course, he still had a final college basketball season in 1993–94 and Ward averaged a career-best 10.5 points per game along with 2.8 steals and 4.9 assists per contest.
He was elected into the College Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Ward Chooses Basketball
Looking ahead to 1994, the sports world wanted to know if Ward would play in the NBA, the NFL, or both.
Less than a decade before Ward faced this decision, Auburn’s Bo Jackson had a similar question to ponder.
He was a heralded football and baseball player, and he had also won the Heisman Trophy in 1985.
The media believed that Jackson would head to the NFL, which had the money to pay him what he was worth.
Instead, picking first in the 1986 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers badly misplayed their recruitment of Jackson.
Even though the franchise still selected him with the first pick, Jackson stiff-armed the Bucs and chose to play pro baseball with the Kansas City Royals.
The move stunned fans of both sports, although Jackson would eventually play in the NFL with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Ward had that bit of history tucked into the back of his mind as well as the experience of former FSU standout Deion Sanders as a two-sport pro star.
Surprisingly, Ward was drafted by the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers in 1993 and the New York Yankees in 1994, although he did not seriously consider playing professional baseball.
The Ward family sought advice from several NFL player personnel members and scouts.
They asked point blank where the scouts believed Ward would be selected in the ’94 draft.
Although Ward believed his college stats made him a definite first-round talent, the actual talent evaluators believed he would be no better than a mid-round candidate, based on his small stature and the uncertainty of his NBA decision.
In the 1994 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks did select Ward in the first round.
— NY Knicks 1999 (@1999Knicks) June 23, 2022
That essentially made up his mind, and Ward declared that he would ditch pro football to become an NBA player.
In 1994–95, the Knicks, led by coach Pat Riley, had a stacked team that included Patrick Ewing, Greg Anthony, Derek Harper, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, and John Starks.
Just like his early experience with FSU football, Ward had to bide his time as he was behind both Harper and Starks on the depth chart.
Ward would only see action in 10 games that year, although he officially became the only Heisman winner to play in the NBA.
🎂 Happy 52nd birthday to Charlie Ward!
📊 630 GP, 6.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 4.0 APG
🎯 40.8 FG%, 36.4 3P%, 77.1 FT%
Ward is the only Heisman Trophy winner to play in the NBA. He started all five games for the Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals. pic.twitter.com/HVr2Qaq196
— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) October 12, 2022
That same year, the Kansas City Chiefs contacted Ward to see if he would be interested in backing up Joe Montana.
Ward declined and continued trying to become an NBA starter.
In his second year, new head coach Jeff Van Gundy played Ward a little more. The point guard started one game.
During his third year in the league, Ward started 21 games and averaged 5.2 points and 4.1 assists.
He quickly became a fan favorite for his humility and desire to let his play do the talking.
His toughness was on full display in Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals when Miami Heat forward P.J. Brown slammed Ward to the ground during a game.
Distant Replay 📆:
— 𝙏𝙖𝙡𝙠𝙞𝙣’ 𝙉𝘽𝘼 (@_Talkin_NBA) May 15, 2019
That led to a brawl that got Ward suspended for Game 6.
Hard Work Pays Off
After three years of putting in hard work, Ward became a starter in 1997–98.
He became a leader on the floor and surprised opponents with his three-point shooting and passing.
Ward led the NBA in games played with 82 and averaged 7.8 points and 5.7 assists.
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) May 2, 2020
During the ’98 NBA All-Star weekend, Ward was selected to participate in the three-point shooting competition.
In 1998–99, an owners’ lockout shortened the NBA season.
New York finished the regular season with a 27-23 record.
Meanwhile, Ward led the league again in games played with 50 and averaged 7.6 points, 5.4 assists, and a career-best 2.1 steals per game.
Along the way, Ward re-signed with the team after his rookie contract expired, the last Knicks draft pick who would do so until “The Charlie Ward Curse” was broken in 2022.
Unexpectedly, the Knicks got hot at the right time and defeated Miami, Atlanta, and Indiana before facing the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 NBA Finals.
21 years ago today the '99 Knicks clinched a birth to the NBA Finals as an 8th seed. In this clip, Chris Childs and Charlie Ward reveal the keys to their cinderella run and the one person who kept them together amidst a ton of adversity.
— Knicks Fan TV 🏀🎥📺🏁 (@KnicksFanTv) June 11, 2020
San Antonio would prove to be too much, and the Knicks lost in five games.
As of 2022, New York has not returned to the Finals.
Ward Plays for the Spurs
For the next few years, Ward was a consistent presence for the Knicks, helping the team return to the playoffs in 1999–00 and 2000–01.
He averaged over seven points and four assists in both years and then injuries limited him to only six starts combined in 2001–02 and 2002–03.
Part way through the 2003–04 season, Ward was packaged with several other players and shipped to the Phoenix Suns.
— Jeph Duarte (@jeph_duarte) July 11, 2020
The Suns immediately cut him, and he signed with San Antonio.
“We are thrilled that Charlie Ward has decided to join the Spurs family,” San Antonio General Manager R.C. Buford said. “He is a veteran leader and a proven winner.”
Playing through injuries, Ward averaged three points and one assist in 36 games.
After getting cut by the Spurs following the ’03–’04 season, Ward signed with the Houston Rockets for 2004–05.
He started 13 games and averaged 5.4 points and three assists.
Random #Rockets Player Of The Day: Charlie Ward, PG (2004-05)
The former Heisman Trophy winner played his final 14 NBA games with the Rockets (13 starts) & averaged 5.4 points, 3.1 assists & 1.1 steals, taking the majority of his shots from three point land where he shot 31% pic.twitter.com/zBF2GrLtvR
— RLS Hamilton (@RyanLSack) November 8, 2021
Unfortunately, injuries continued to plague him, and Ward retired following the season.
Throughout his 11 years in the NBA, Ward averaged 6.3 points, 4.0 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.
Ward has been a member of the Christian faith his entire life.
After retiring, he was an assistant with the Rockets and then transitioned to high school coaching.
Ward was the head football coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston before becoming the head basketball coach at Booker T. Washington High School in Florida.
In 2018, Ward became the head coach of FSU’s Research School, also called “Florida High.”
Florida High experienced a period of success with Ward as their coach. In 2021, the conference named him Coach of the Year.
I’ve been named the All-Big Bend Coach of the Year for boys basketball, but I don’t take credit for the honor. I dedicate the award to the entire varsity team and coaching staff. I’m proud of what we accomplished together this season. #1Team #WeAreFSUShttps://t.co/uBqAZMYjNf pic.twitter.com/6O3TMHJ0cJ
— Charlie Ward (@RealCharlieWard) March 24, 2021
Ward is currently married and has three children.