MOBILE, Ala. – As soon as the plane doors opened, warm air wrapped around Jimmie Ward like a blanket, and teammate Chandler Harnish took off his sweater. He wouldn’t be needing that here. This was the south, where it’s 70 degrees in January. The region is infiltrated by the Gulf Coast, sea food and football. And it has a distinct smell.
“I can’t explain it,” Ward said. “It’s like ... heavy. Up [in DeKalb], it seems like the air is more clean, more light. But down there it’s so hot and humid, and I just got used to it.”
License plates proclaim “Sweet Home” across their tops, and Mobile has been Ward’s since he was 3. For Northern Illinois’ sophomore safety, this weekend is a sweeter opportunity.
Ward attended three GMAC Bowls before it switched sponsors to GoDaddy.com. One year he watched Toledo. Another year it was Ball State. He can’t remember who played the other time, but he says he never will forget it rained. A lot.
Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where the game is played, was a secondary home field for Ward when he played at Davidson High, a powerhouse in Mobile. Ward estimates he’s played 20 games there. When he moved almost 1,000 miles straight north two years ago, he never expected anything like this weekend. Until a few months ago, he never knew NIU even could play here.
But Ward will get his homecoming 8 p.m. Sunday when NIU plays Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on ESPN. He might be young, but he knows the opportunity – going home to play a bowl game – is rare.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Ward said. “I was expecting the last game I was going to play in Mobile would be high school, but I get another chance. It’s special.”
A HERO’S WELCOME
Inside Davidson’s walls, Harnish was invisible. Ward took him there on a trip to Mobile the two took with coach Dave Doeren last month. They walked the halls and – for once – Harnish was the sidekick, not the main attraction. Finally, NIU’s senior quarterback, one of the most visible players in program history, found a safety who could steal the attention.
Former schoolmates started chanting “Nico Suave,” Ward’s legal middle name. A couple of students, who apparently hadn’t realized Ward left for college two years ago, asked if he still was in school.
Around his teammates, Harnish said, Ward is quiet and reserved. This was a different environment. Harnish said he saw a new dimension to Ward’s personality.
“He lit up. He was smiling ear to ear,” Harnish said. “You could tell just by how proud people were he was so honored to be back. It was his home, and you could feel it.”
Ward couldn’t stop sharing stories. And the best Jimmie Ward stories, Davidson coach Fred Riley said, are “the ones Jimmie probably doesn’t want to be told.” Like the times, as an underclassmen, Ward would hide in his home instead of going to morning workouts. Riley laughed as he recalled dragging Ward out of bed most offseason mornings at dawn.
“We knew he was in there,” Riley said.
Hearing of Ward’s past workout exploits cracked Harnish up, he said, because now Ward is a “weight room warrior,” the last person you’d expect to decline another rep. He had to be.
One time, during a youth football game when all of Ward’s teammates were injured, his coach skipped him twice before reluctantly putting him in the game. The league had a 110-pound weight limit, and Ward’s father, Derrick Daniels, said his son wouldn’t exceed that mark even wearing his pads and helmet. Ward’s coach thought he was too small to play.
It’s a perception Ward has tried to block ever since.
PUNT BLOCKING EXTRAORDINAIRE
Riley was confident with his scheme. When he sent his players to execute it during a game during Ward’s junior season, he expected a punt block.
Which is why he couldn’t comprehend what Ward was thinking.
Ward’s job on the play was to thwart any punt fake from the edge. In effect, he was supposed to make sure the football actually was punted. But there he was, sprinting toward the punter, threatening to blow everything.
Riley found himself screaming, “No! No! No!”
The next sound he heard was a thud.
“The punter wiggled into him from the pressure inside, and he reached out with one hand and blocked it,” Riley said. “It was like one of those things, ‘Did you see that?’ That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe we should have him be the guy who’s trying to block the punt,’ and everything we did the rest of his career was designed to help him improve as a punt blocker. But the natural knack he has for controlling his body and not running into the punter is great.”
Last season, Riley heard of Ward’s punt block at Minnesota, and he wasn’t surprised.
“We all just grinned and said, ‘Hey, that’s Jimmie,’ “ Riley said.
As a freshman at Davidson, Riley said, there was nothing special about Ward. Especially not in a high school program that has sent 44 players to Football Championship Subdivision schools the past eight years, including the likes of Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas. But Ward’s physical attributes couldn’t measure his football intellect.
“We’ve got players scattered all over the country,” Riley said. “But Jimmie was the best pure high school player we ever had. That understood the game, that understood how 11 guys could get lined up, he was the best we’ve had. He’s just a great success story.”
HOME SWEET HOME
Ward has fond memories of playing high school football in Alabama. To him, “Friday Night Lights” is nothing compared to it. The mere suggestion that the atmosphere chronicled in Buzz Bissinger’s biography of Odessa, Texas, is unlike anywhere in the country draws a scoff.
“Oh, it’s way better,” Ward said. “It feels like a NFL game. Alabama is the best place for high school football.”
The whole district comes to Davidson games. Many want to be there Sunday night. Ward said he was given 18 tickets to distribute to family and friends. Eighteen may meet one quarter of the requests he’s received.
“You don’t meet anybody who don’t need a ticket,” said Ward’s father, Derrick Daniels. “Right now, everybody needs a ticket. I know everybody won’t be pleased. There will be some people left out, but we’re going to do what we can. We’re going to try, and somebody’s going to have to end up paying.”
Daniels stopped short of saying the whole town is looking forward to Ward’s homecoming. But he said he’s heard from everybody in the district. And, without a doubt, he thinks the money will be well worth it.
“I’m looking forward to a pick-six,” Daniels said. “I’ll definitely be looking forward to him putting on a show. He’s going to go out there and give 110 percent, if not more. He’s definitely not planning on losing this game. Because if they were to take a loss, the rest of the team may be cool, but he’s at home. He can’t be cool with it.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. The rust: Any time a team has been away from the field for longer than a month – as NIU has – it is interesting to see the return. The last time the Huskies played, NIU coach Dave Doeren said he thought they were playing their best all season. How long it takes to get back in their rhythm will likely decide their competitiveness.
2. Number of possessions: As a stat, time of possession can be tricky. But, in a matchup of two explosive teams, the actual number of possessions will be crucial Sunday night. NIU and Arkansas State know how to score points. The more possessions they get, the more they score.
3. Third down defense: Arkansas State's offense can take away a defense's desire if it stays on the field. At the heart of the NIU defense's improvement this season has been better play on third down. The Huskies have to be successful on that down again Sunday night.
4. Who is NIU's defense? You have seen every possible performance from NIU's defense this season. The question in this season finale is which unit will show up. If it's the group that has played the past four games, its chances should be good.
5. Special teams: Doeren said Arkansas State is a mirror image of his team. In a competition that is almost a dead heat on paper, special teams should be crucial.