Returning to Lincoln Financial Field always stirs something in Jihad Ward.
It’s tough to define what the feeling is, but it originated more than a decade ago when the Ravens defensive lineman and former Bok Tech standout set foot in the Eagles' stadium for the first time as a Public League All-Star in 2012. That afternoon, whether it was seeing the Eagles logo at midfield, hearing the crowd, or running on the meticulously maintained turf, the genesis for Ward’s now-accomplished life goal of making it to the NFL was formed.
“Playing in the Eagles stadium, I’ve seen this vibe. The whole 'hood knows about it,” Ward said. “Just from that experience, everybody had belief. I didn’t see myself really being in the NFL if it wasn’t for that.”
Ward, who grew up at 16th and Lehigh in North Philadelphia, will come back to the Linc with the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday for his third professional appearance in his hometown stadium.
He said the feeling he had the first time he played at the Linc rushes back to him whenever he returns. The first time he played there, as a pro with about $7,000 spent on tickets for 20 of his closest family and friends, he almost cried. Shortly after he fought back the tears, he went out and had his first career sack.
“It’s special for me, man,” Ward said. “I barely see my family at home, and now they always see me playing. Everybody in the city watched me play since I was a little kid, and it’s just amazing. They still can’t believe it to this day that I could sack a [Nick] Foles or sack a [Carson] Wentz. Every time I play the Eagles I get like a sack or something, just a nice play. It feels good. It feels good to be home.”
Ward is in his fifth year in the NFL after starting his career as a second-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2016. He was cut by Oakland after the 2017 season, and bounced around with the Cowboys and Colts before currying favor with the Ravens last year.
“Jihad Ward is just one of my favorite players,” Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh said during a conference call earlier this week. “When we come in on Monday morning after we play, he’s the first guy in the weight room. Well, I got to tell you, I’m in there first. But he’s in there like right after me. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who played all those snaps because all I did was stand on the sideline and watch."
Ward concedes that Harbaugh does in fact beat him to the weight room after game days.
““No bull [crap], Coach is the first one,” Ward said, laughing. "I’m the second one. But he knows I’m always coming. If I ain’t in the weight room on that Monday, probably something’s up.”
‘See the ball, go get it,’
If Ward does manage to tangle with Wentz on Sunday afternoon, there will be a form of friendly fire afoot. Both of his former coaches from Bok, Tommy DeFelice and Frank “Roscoe” Natalie, text him frequently, and DeFelice will send him a message sometime before he takes the field with a signature reminder he’s been teaching for decades.
"I’ll text him Sunday, ‘Jihad, go up the field,’ " said DeFelice, a Philadelphia native. “In other words, go where that quarterback’s going to be. Not where he is, but where he’s going to be.”
DeFelice first saw Ward as a towering freshman on Bok Tech’s junior varsity team. His dreams of Ward dominating along the defensive and offensive lines were interrupted by assistant coach Vince Trombetta, who suggested they utilize Ward’s athleticism on the perimeter.
“He said 'I think this kid Jihad could play defensive back,’ ” DeFelice said. “I said, ‘What? Defensive back? He’s 6-2, 6-3. What are you talking about, defensive back?’ ”
Trombetta got his way in the end, and Ward became a physical box safety, and a receiver known for his ability to make contested catches over shorter defensive backs.
“I was one of those safeties where it was like, ‘See the ball, go get it’ types of players," Ward said. "At wide receiver, they had me running those [corner] and [go] routes, especially those [go] routes. Just go get it.”
One of DeFelice’s favorite memories came in the Public League 2A championship game in Ward’s sophomore season, when the safety had a 102-yard interception return for a touchdown called back because the ball apparently hit the ground. The ruled incompletion led to a turnover on downs, and Ward caught a 60-yard pass that set up a score.
New York travels
The following year, Natalie took over the team, and moved Ward to defensive line in hopes of getting his star player more college attention. Ward flourished but didn’t have the grades to make it to Division I. Even though he was a three-star recruit, he went to Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in midtown Manhattan.
He was on partial scholarship, and lived in student housing in Staten Island, about 25 miles away from the campus by car.
“Once he got there, he just flourished,” Natalie said. “His grades. Everything. Playing football, it just seemed like he was getting bigger and bigger.”
For two years, Ward’s daily routine started at 5 a.m. by getting on a Staten Island ferry and sneaking onto buses and trains because he couldn’t afford the fares.
“There’s cops that might chase you, that might catch you," Ward said. "You never know. You just have to be blessed that day. I did that for two years.”
After practice was over, Ward would go lift weights at a local gym, and take a shower but not before trying to figure out what he could get for lunch without any money in his bank account.
“I’d ask Coach for a dollar,” Ward said. "Those dollar slices are big as hell in Times Square.”
Ward would sneak his way back home via public transit and typically get home around 1 a.m.
“And guess what? The next day I would have to do that [stuff] all over again," Ward said. “That was just the transportation part. I didn’t have a meal plan. Nothing whatsoever. ... Throughout that JUCO process, I [remembered] I’ve been through worse.”
Once the Ravens arrive at the Linc on Sunday, Ward, now 6-foot-5, and 287 pounds, will have some sideline searching to do for a childhood friend.
He and Eagles safety Will Parks have known each other since the two “were in diapers” and went to Morrison Elementary School in Olney.
“When I see him on the field, I’ll probably give him a headlock on the ground or some [stuff,]” Ward said.
Seeing Parks draws nostalgia from Ward. The two are a part of a tight-knit group of North Philadelphia kids who used football to get out.
“It’s definitely a brotherhood,” Ward said. “We still talk about it to this day. We still talk about how Imhotep could never beat Bok. I don’t care how nice their damn jerseys are. They’re always sponsored by Nike, but they could never beat us. We always talk trash. But then again, it’s a brotherhood. We still talk about everything to this day. We don’t want anything to happen to each other. We’re just trying to send positive vibes to everybody.”