Jihad Ward was determined to make something of himself in football, even if it meant traversing the streets and waterways of New York via bus, subway, and ferry to get from his dorm to the practice field to the classroom at Globe Institute of Technology.
Ward, a North Philadelphia native who starred at Bok, followed that grueling schedule for two football seasons and four hours or more of travel per day. It might have been difficult to stay positive, especially since he didn't always have enough money for carfare and had to skip a meal every once in a while.
But Ward stayed upbeat, and his perseverance paid off with a scholarship to Illinois, where he will line up for his 10th straight start at defensive end Saturday when the Fighting Illini host Penn State.
"Where I come from, 16th and Lehigh, there's a lot of negativity," the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Ward said in a telephone interview. "You don't want to be around that. You want to find positive things. Being negative, you're not going to achieve what you want to achieve.
"I wanted to be something. I wanted to play Division I football. Staying there in junior college for two years, I just grinded it out. It was a blessing."
The story of how Ward, the oldest of five children, got to this point involves the love and guidance he received from his mother, Kareema Ward. With her help, he grew into a focused and disciplined young man.
"She means a lot to me," he said. "She makes sure all of her kids are doing the right thing. She's a strong woman. My father was never around, and she made sure that she made me learn my lessons so that I could be the man of the house."
With his size and athleticism, Ward attracted attention from a number of colleges, including Penn State and Temple, but did not qualify academically, so he went to Globe Tech, a junior college, and endured plenty over two years.
"It was a struggle with transportation and no food most of the time," said Ward, who wears No. 17 to commemorate the age at which his mother gave birth to him. "I didn't like asking my mom for food so I had a mind-set where I had to find a way. It was hard traveling from my dorm to school every day, but I tried to make it look easy."
During football season, most days started for Ward at 5 a.m. at his dorm on Staten Island. He would take the ferry into Manhattan and head to a soccer field on the West Side for practice. Classes were next at 7th Avenue and 37th Street, and he usually did not get home until 11 p.m. or later.
"Sometimes I didn't have any money, and you had to pray that the bus driver is going to let you slide," he said. "As soon as you finish class, you figure out: 'How the hell am I going to get home?' "
Still, he excelled in football and colleges were in contact again, with Illinois and West Virginia in the lead. Luckily for the Illini, they had a Philadelphia guy - Sharon Hill's Bill Cubit - on their coaching staff.
"I thought I had a chance to get him because I'm from Philly," said Cubit, the team's offensive coordinator. "We developed a real neat kind of bond. He's a humble kid. I'd sit down with his great-grandmother and we'd talk about the old Phillies and Dr. J. It's a neat relationship that we have."
Ward, who is friendly with Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes (Northeast) and exchanges texts with him, has made the transition to Big Ten football, but wants to do more.
"It's a dream come true, but I need to take it to the next level," he said. "The game ain't over. I've got to watch film, do good in class, keep working, and keep moving. Ain't no time to stop."
Not committed. Defensive tackle Adam McLean of Gaithersburg, Md., backed out of his commitment to the Nittany Lions. The 6-foot-1, 293-pound McLean, who had given Penn State an oral commitment on April 12, announced his decision on Twitter, saying it was based on "thinking things through and reevaluating things with my family."
McLean was rated four stars by Scout.com, which ranked him as the nation's No. 13 defensive tackle. McLean's flip reduced Penn State's 2015 class to 18 players.