After every phone call that brought more bad news, through three years of learning that their youngest son had been cut or waived or released once again, Greg Ward Sr. and his wife, Mary, always called on a core practice of their Christian faith to sustain them, and him.
For 21 years, Greg Sr. has ministered and preached to the small congregation of Porters Chapel Church of God in Christ in Tyler, Texas. He has been the church’s pastor for six years, and as part of their lives as Pentecostals, he and Mary fast two or three times a week for 15 hours at a stretch. From midnight to 3 p.m., they deny themselves food and water, “stripping your spirit and weakening your flesh,” he said, “so you can have a closer relationship with God.” And whenever Greg Jr. told them that the Eagles still didn’t think that he was a bona fide NFL receiver, the couple would offer their fast as a sacrifice on their son’s behalf. Maybe then a door would open for him. Maybe then his dream wouldn’t die.
“He’s not the type of person who will open up and say what’s on his mind,” Mary said by phone recently from the Wards’ home in Tyler. “He’ll just hold it in. I’d ask him, ‘You all right? You all right?’ And he’d just say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He never complained or anything, but I know it was hurting him, because it was hurting us.
“But we told him, ‘When God opens a door for you, can’t no man close it.’ If you keep your mind on God, He’ll keep you in perfect peace. You have to have a strong mind and will, and I’ve noticed this about my son: He has a strong mind and a strong will, and when he sets his mind to something, he’s not going to give up until he accomplishes what he’s after.”
It’s too early to tell whether the last six weeks qualify as an accomplishment for Ward or just the beginning, at age 24, of a longer career. Either way, of course, the Eagles will take it, and so will he. His 28 receptions over those six games, his game-winning touchdown catch against the Redskins on Dec. 15, his sharp route-running and soft hands as a slot receiver: Ward has been more than reliable during the Eagles’ late-season push into the playoffs, into Sunday’s wild-card game against the Seahawks.
He has been indispensable, and for him and his family, his emergence as one of Carson Wentz’s favorite targets and as the Eagles’ primary punt returner isn’t a surprise. It’s a reaffirmation of Ward’s refusal to believe that a 5-foot-10 undrafted free agent who played quarterback at the University of Houston couldn’t make it in the NFL.
“If that was my mindset, I would have quit a long time ago,” Ward said. “But I can’t quit. I wasn’t raised like that. My parents didn’t instill that in me. My brothers didn’t allow it. No matter what was going on, no matter what the situation is, you never quit.”
Yes, those two older brothers, Reggie and Anthony Nelson, would text Ward every time Doug Pederson or Howie Roseman or another Eagles official told him that the team didn’t have room for him on its 53-man roster. Yes, they’d offer the same encouraging words over and over: You’ve been through this. You’re built for this. We’re praying for you. Keep your faith. Yes, they would grow angry over what they saw as the injustice and unfairness of it all. Wasn’t Greg improving? Hadn’t his stint with the San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football shown the Eagles that he could play wide receiver and return punts at football’s highest level?
“To me,” Anthony said, “it was like a slap in the face when they didn’t put him on the 53. It was really hard for me to understand. The first two years, I watched his game, and I would see he wasn’t ready yet. He needed more work on his routes. And I kept watching him, and I was like, ‘I don’t understand this year.’”
Football came so easily to the kid, after all. It always had. That’s why Reggie, who’s eight years older than Ward, and Anthony, who is five years older, never hesitated to include him in the neighborhood games they’d played as boys. The family’s rancher-style home in Tyler overlooked a grassy lot bracketed by two ribbons of concrete. The ribbons were the sidelines. Getting tackled out of bounds meant an added measure of punishment: gashed knees, bruised shoulders, palm heels and elbows scraped to sharkskin. Reggie, Anthony, and their friends started letting Greg play when he was just 6. “That’s where he got his toughness,” Reggie said.
Before he became a standout basketball player at Tyler Junior College, where one of his teammates and friends was a fellow named Jimmy Butler, Reggie often played quarterback during those pickup football games. One day, the group chose up sides, and he picked Greg, giving him some simple instructions: Go deep, and just stand there. No one’s going to cover you. No one did, and 14-year-old Reggie chucked the ball 30 yards to his wide-open 6-year-old brother. “He caught it,” Reggie said. “No chest, nothing. Just pure hands. Pure hands, man. Ever since, I was like, ‘Yeah, man, he’s going to be special.' ”
When Ward was in middle school, Anthony was a sophomore running back/quarterback at Tyler Lee High School, and the front-yard workouts between them that had once been fun became too one-sided. Their disparity in size and speed was too great. Greg just couldn’t stop Anthony from plowing him over, not until Reggie took Greg behind the house and showed him proper tackling technique. Such are the benefits of big brothers.
“He cut me and flipped me over,” Anthony said. “If he played safety, he could have went to any school he wanted.”
But what he wanted was to play quarterback.
“In Pop Warner, he’d be the only little kid who could throw 30, 40 yards,” Anthony said. “They tried to go get a quarterback and have him throw it to Greg, because Greg was such an athlete. That didn’t work out, so they had to move him back to quarterback and start letting him bootleg and hit his little friends when they were open.”
Soon, Greg and Anthony were practicing drop-backs and scramble drills together, watching videos of DeSean Jackson, Reggie Bush, and Steve Slayton to incorporate the moves of those shifty, explosive runners into Greg’s repertoire. Ward threw for nearly 7,800 yards at John Tyler High School, but because he was just 165 pounds, Houston recruited him as a wide receiver.
No matter. Over his four years there, he took over as the Cougars’ starting quarterback, rushing for 1,114 yards as a junior and throwing for 3,557 as a senior, but also catching 25 passes and returning 11 punts. His ability to play multiple positions gave him options in the NFL, options that the Eagles eventually recognized, even if he and his brothers struggled to make their parents understand that his versatility made him valuable.
“I still think he can play quarterback,” Greg Sr. said.
Such is the faith of a loving father. A dozen people filled the Wards’ house for that Redskins game, when Greg Jr. hauled in that feathery 4-yard pass from Wentz with 26 seconds left in regulation. “We were all rejoicing,” Mary said. The next night, while leading a Bible study class, Greg Sr. cited his son as an example of perseverance, of never giving up in the pursuit of something as small as your personal goals or as great as God’s grace.
Two weeks later, after six catches in the victory over the Giants that won the Eagles the NFC East, Greg Jr. picked up some of his clothes that were scattered across the MetLife Stadium locker room floor, tossed them into his duffel bag, and said he had no idea that his mother and father had fasted for him and his dream, no idea at all.
“We always call each other, and they pray for me all the time,” he said. “But I didn’t know they’d fast. That’s absolutely amazing. To have parents like that … I don’t know. That means so much to me.”