Sports Cancer and a torn ACL could not stop this...

Cancer and a torn ACL could not stop this equipment manager turned Rutgers football player

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Timmy Ward told himself he wouldn’t cry.

He had never stood in front of a group of people and discussed what he had gone through or the adversity he faced. But here he was, standing in front of the rest of the Rutgers’ wide receivers, his turn to share some of his background so his teammates could get to know him better.

Ward quickly moved through his earlier years. Then he got to his high school years.

He started choking up.

No one would blame him.

After everything he had gone 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 Scarlet Knights walk-on had endured a journey few could relate to.

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Ward dreamed of becoming a part of a big-time college football program. Even in the most difficult circumstances, he told himself he could make it happen.

So he did.

There’s excitement as Rutgers is about to play its annual Scarlet-White Game Friday (7 pm, Big Ten Network) at SHI Stadium in Piscataway to cap spring practice.

It’s an excitement Ward is part of.

“Still now, waking up every morning and coming here,” Ward said during a recent interview inside the Hale Center, “it’s a blessing to be able to do it.”

‘I was slowly getting worse’

Ward was a standout 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 that despite not feeling quite right.

Ward had a swollen lymph node under his right armpit. He initially did not tell anyone about it, believing it was nothing serious. When training camp started, he felt out of shape. He started training more, though his physical fitness wasn’t the problem at all.

“I was working my butt off and nothing was improving,” Ward said. “I was slowly getting worse.”

His vision was not normal. When he would make a tackle, the field felt like it was shaking.

Something was off, but doctors were not identifying the cause.

“Even just to get the lump checked, (the doctor) was like, ‘Yeah it’s a swollen lymph node that did not go back to its normal size like it was fighting an infection. It’s common, ” said Timmy’s mother, Michelle. “He had some blood work done and he had a chest X-ray done on two different occasions when he had gone to his pediatrician and nothing came back horribly out of line.”

Doctors conducted a biopsy after the season.

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

His first treatment at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center was two weeks later. The chemotherapy was done in three-week cycles – the first week would be three days of treatment, the following week would be one day, and then a week off.

That continued for three months.

“A lot of what helped me was I live in a really small community, so everyone knows everything, which helped me,” Ward said. “Everyone was just rallying around me doing anything they could to help me. It was awesome. ”

Chemo ravaged his body. He lost nearly 30 pounds. The muscle that had made him such a dominant football player disappeared.

Still, football provided a distraction.

During his treatments, Ward watched game film of his previous season.

“Some of his treatments were like eight hours long so he would be laying in the infusion center, his dad and I would be sitting there and he would be watching game film after game film,” Michelle said. “He spent the whole time just thinking about football.”

Another obstacle

Ward was declared free of cancer on May 1, 2019. The state of Pennsylvania allowed him to repeat his junior year of high school since he had missed so much time while undergoing treatment.

He didn’t play football that fall. His body was not ready.

But Ward returned to the wrestling mat that winter.

“He worked out quite a bit and when he went into the mat room the first time he couldn’t do five pushups,” Michelle said. “He then just continued to work hard and work hard and ended up wrestling that season.”

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

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

In Canton’s first scrimmage before its first game, Ward was running to make a block. His right knee popped. Michelle remembers him screaming in pain. He wasn’t getting up.

“It was just everything crashing down around him all over again,” Michelle said.

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

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

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

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

Ward chose safety.

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

This time, Ward decided to have surgery.

He had already gone through something life altering. He had already survived cancer.

‘I went and just did it’

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

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

Ward accepted.

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

Ward worked with the defensive backs as a manager, an arduous and demanding job. He soaked in as much information as he could. He studied the way practice ran, he observed how players worked.

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

Ward said he looked up to Stevens for the way he worked. Stevens remembers a hard-working manager in Ward, who wears No. 29 as Stevens did.

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

He also wanted to show the coaches that work ethic.

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

The tryout took place at SHI Stadium in September.

Ward said he debated whether he should work at practice that morning, but decided he needed to show he was committed to his job. Once the tryout began, with other equipment managers sitting in the stands to support him, Ward just focused on competing.

Schiano was not at the tryout, but his assistants who were there reported back to him.

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

Rutgers walk-on wide receiver Timmy Ward during a recent practice.

That’s when the wait began.

Rutgers were not prepared to make any moves during the season. Ward continued his manager job.

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

“I was talking to my dad like, ‘What’s the next thing?'” Ward said. “We were kind of figuring like maybe it’s not going to happen.”

Almost immediately following that conversation, Ward’s phone buzzed.

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

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

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

More than three years had gone by since Ward had played in a football game. He had beaten cancer. He had recovered from a torn ACL. The entire time, he told himself he’d suit up again, somewhere, at some point.

Now, Ward was a Big Ten football player.

“He personifies FAMILY – Forget About Me I Love You, I sacrifice for you,” Schiano said, referring to one of the team’s mottos. “The sacrifice he made for our program as manager, that’s a real sacrifice. That’s humbling and he worked his tail off. That’s what we love. Guys who love football and love being around it.”

Ward said whether he eventually plays in a game or is on the sideline supporting his teammates, he plans to carry the same attitude into every practice and every day.

He’s not taking this for granted.

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

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

Email: iseman@northjersey.com Twitter: chrisiseman



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