“If you can believe it, the mind can achieve it.” Ronnie Lott.
A teenager from Kankakee, Ill., did just that in highschool. Jonathan Ward believed in his ability and running back and, in return, achieved the opportunity to play at the collegiate level.
Jonathan Ward was that young man. Ward played under Coach Rich Zinanni at Bishop McNamara Catholic School.
Ward was a three-year starter at Bishop McNamara. During his high school career, Ward recorded 83 touchdowns and 5,689 rushing yards, both of which are school records. Ward also set single-season records for yards (2,400) and TDs (36).
Coach Zinanni helped prepare Ward both as an athlete and as a person for the collegiate level.
“Playing under Coach Z installed a leader mentality within me; he treated me like a leader and expected nothing but excellence from me,” Ward said. “When you are called upon to make plays, that is what they expect you to do, and being an athlete, they expect you to be an exceptional man as well as an athlete.”
But Ward learned more from Zinanni during games. Whenever Ward made a spectacular play, Zinanni wouldn’t get excited as most coaches would. Instead, Zinanni, much like collegiate coaches, would give the nod and go on the other end of the field and coach up the defense.
Ward did not expect the little things such as that to prepare him for the collegiate level. But it did.
After graduating from Bishop McNamara Catholic School, Ward found his journey take him to Mount Pleasant, MI., home of Central Michigan University.
Ward repped the Maroon and Gold with pride and found success early during his collegiate career.
Ward saw action in eight games as a true freshman. During those games, Ward ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries.
Ward saw his role increase on the offense and excelled on the field in year two at Central Michigan University.
Ward appeared in all 12 games, making eight starts in 2017. Ward led the team in rushing yards (990), rushing attempts (166) and rushing touchdowns (9). Due to his success on the field, Ward was named to the All-MAC Second Team.
The offseason between the 2016 and 2017 season provided the opportunity for Ward to elevate his game. An opportunity that Ward capitalized on, not for the sake of himself but his teammates.
“I took my off-season training to a different level and looked at the game from a different perspective,” Ward said. “Also, that offseason, we switched our offense from a pro-style to a spread, and that helped open my playmaking ability to line up not only in the backfield but the slot as well.”
Ward played under Coach John Bonamego for three seasons at Central Michigan, but a coaching change took place heading into his senior season.
Central Michigan hired Mountain West Conference and Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, Jim McElwain.
McElwain is known around the college football universe as an offensive guru.
Ward and Co., knew what we were going to run regardless of the down and distance. A move proven effective for the Chippewas as both Ward and Kobe Lewis surpassed the 1,000 rushing yards mark on the season.
“Coach Mac opened my eyes and helped me look at the game not only from an athlete’s perspective but more so from a professional athlete standpoint,” Ward said. “He treated the game, players, prep. meetings, etc. like we were pros, and that’s how it helped me in the long run.”
Ward was a part of some surreal moments during his time at Central Michigan. Memories that include beating in-state rival, Western Michigan in 2017, and the Oklahoma State game in 2016.
“Beating Western Michigan my sophomore year, that game was something like off a movie,” Ward said. “I’ll never forget that comeback win.”
But it’s not just the memories on the field that Ward reflected on. It’s those moments in the locker room that Ward says will last a lifetime.
“Most of all, though, it’ll be the locker room,” Ward said. “We bled, sweated, and cried in those locker rooms along with laughter that’ll last a lifetime.”
With the doors on Ward’s collegiate career coming to an end, another set of doors will open. This time the doors will open up the opportunity to continue playing in the National Football League.
Ward is utilizing this offseason, preparing for the opportunity. His focal points will help elevate his game as he looks to succeed at the professional level.
“Just staying in shape trying to improve with my cardio, stamina, and just staying active,” Ward said. “Sharpening my footwork and catching along with agility is something I am focused on at this point.”
The NFL Draft is taking place virtually from April 23 to April 25.
Ward has the belief that he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL, and it’s because of that mental readiness that Ward will find success.