Ever since he was a 4-year-old in the Eastside Bulldogs youth football program in Kankakee, Jonathan Ward was one of many kids across the country who dreamed every night of hearing their name called at the NFL Draft. This week, Ward could see his dream come to fruition.
A 2016 Bishop McNamara graduate, Ward ended a four-year career at Central Michigan University with a career-best 1,108 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in his senior year, giving him his second 1,000-yard season and putting him on the map of NFL front offices ahead of this year’s draft, which begins Thursday.
“I’m excited. ... It’s something I’ve been working for and envisioned all my life,” Ward said. “Slowly but surely, it’s coming true.”
After spending his youth torching opponents with the Bulldogs, Ward chose to attend Bishop McNamara, where he became one of the most heralded players in the school’s rich football history, owning every rushing record there is when he graduated.
Ward’s star shined brightest in his senior year, when he ran for 2,165 yards and 32 touchdowns, winning the Chicago Catholic League Player of the Year award as he helped the Irish capture the IHSA Class 3A State Championship. But coach Rich Zinanni said he knew early on Ward was special, reminding the legendary coach of Tyjuan Hagler, the most recent Irish star to make it to the NFL when he played for the Indianapolis Colts from 2005-10.
“A lot of kids really sell out and have the attitude that they’ll be the best they can, but a lot of the time, they don’t have the talent to back it up,” Zinanni said. “Jonathan has that — he’s a very talented young man, and he’s very similar to Tyjuan in that regard.”
After the 2019 season, the second 1,000-plus-yard season Ward posted at Central Michigan, he was selected to the 2020 NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl, where he drew the start at running back for the American team, finishing with a team-high six attempts for 19 yards.
Despite his on-field success, Ward wasn’t invited to this year’s NFL Draft combine, although he sits higher on several draft boards, both in the league and the media, than scores of the 337 invitees.
The snub wasn’t out of the ordinary for Ward. Despite cementing himself as one of the best running backs in Chicago Catholic League history, his only full scholarship offer came from Central Michigan.
“I’ve always had to find my way in some way, some how,” Ward said. “Not getting to the combine when I felt I was deserving of it was heartbreaking but not something I’m not used to.”
The combine ran from the end of February through the first two days of March, but with his scheduled pro day a few weeks later on March 14, Ward still had a chance to wow scouts. That was until Central Michigan’s pro day was canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
To make up for the cancellation, Ward and his agent, Orlando Arnold, put together a workout tape and sent it to the league, a tape Ward said he has gotten good reaction from.
“I didn’t have the combine or a pro day, so I just had to put a tape together, send it out to the scouts and just get feedback from [scouts and teams],” Ward said. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. It was a good workout and a lot of scouts liked it.”
Mock drafts from CBS and Walter Football have Ward pegged as high as the sixth-round in the draft. Zinanni said Ward’s potential comes from his versatility.
“He can do it all — he’s similar to Alvin Kamara from the [New Orleans] Saints, where he could come in and be the best receiver on your team from the running back position,” Zinanni said. “He’s mentally and physically strong enough to pass block; he can run inside and outside. ... He’s just a good athlete that can do all of those things.”
Ward’s numbers tend to align with Zinanni’s sentiments, particularly when it comes to catching out of the backfield. During his four years as a Chippewa, Ward caught 98 passes for 909 yards and four touchdowns.
“I’m one of the most versatile backs in the class, and the scouts treat me like they know that,” Ward said. “It’s just about running with whatever opportunity I get.
“I just let my playmaking ability speak for itself, and whatever happens from there, happens.”
Aside from his balanced skillset, Ward’s early history of working with top-notch coaches has him a step ahead of similarly-ranked running backs. Zinanni, a member of a handful of different halls of fame, is third in Illinois history with 351 wins.
For the first three years of his college career, Ward played for John Bonamego, the special teams coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams who has about 20 years of NFL coaching experience. And as a senior, Ward played for Jim McElwain, whose success with the running game is highlighted by his time as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, where he coached backs like Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson.
“Seeing how they move around and conduct themselves, things like that have helped me become more advanced. Any knowledge helps in this game,” Ward said. “At a certain point, you meet your match with physical traits, and it comes down to who’s mentally tougher and things like that.
“Having coaches like that in my career helps,” he added. “Not all players have that opportunity to be blessed with hall-of-fame coaches and guys known across the nation.”
Zinanni was quick to point the credit right back to Ward.
“Some of these kids, you can just tell by looking in their eyes that they’ve got the fire,” Zinanni said. “For even the most talented athletes, that can be hard, and there are a lot of wasted athletes out there that don’t understand that.
“Jonathan has it, and we’re excited about it.”
The draft begins Thursday and ends Saturday. For those three nights, Ward will be watching at home, just like millions of fans. As the 32 teams go up and down the draft board for seven rounds, Ward will be confidently hoping one of them will call his name.
“I don’t need everybody to fall in love with me. I just need one team, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get a shot,” Ward said. “If a team falls in love with me, they’ll be satisfied with what they get.”