T.J. Ward's story of reaching the NFL followed an unconventional path, balancing unfortunate hurdles with an unbroken focus.
In high school Ward was a member of the dominant De La Salle High School football program that won 151 straight games, but didn't move into the starting lineup until his senior year due to the abundance of talent the team had during those years. In his third game as a starter, however, he injured his knee and was out for the season. Without scouts and recruiters pursuing him, Ward stayed true to a promise with his teammates to stay together in college and decided to attend Oregon and become a walk-on with the football team.
From there he worked his way up the depth chart year by year. According to Oregon's website, he was a scout team defensive player of the week in his redshirt season in 2005; in 2007, he became one of the Ducks' best reserves for the secondary, making an impact on special teams; and then in 2008, he moved into the starting lineup. In his first full season as a starter, he led Oregon in tackles with 101 and was an all-around defensive weapon, breaking up passes and wrapping up opponents behind the line of scrimmage and forcing turnovers.
Despite an early injury in his senior season, Ward would return for the final half of the season. He had the fifth-most tackles on the team that season even with missing about half of the season's games.
Then, after years of pursuit—of a starting role, of moving to the biggest stage available without it falling out beneath his feet—he became pursued by NFL teams when he began the draft process.
"It was kind of a rise for me, the whole draft process," Ward said. "When I first came out—or when the season first ended—I had missed six games of my senior season, so it was like 'He's injury-prone, he's going to go late-round' and then I kind of started creeping up to the middle rounds."
The months after the season and leading up to the draft are arduous, and the Scouting Combine puts players in the spotlight and asks them to perform at their best, physically and mentally. One prospect said they were told to prepare for interviews like they were games, and then there's the pressure of performing in the workouts.
Ward's draft is now five years behind him, but he said that his interviews and meetings were probably what set him apart, though each part of the process is important.
"You have your film so they know how you can play football. They know what you can do on the film," he said. "They want to bring you in and see if you can perform in front of the lights under pressure and that sort of thing, but I think your interviews are just as important because football players are equally athletic and all that but they have to be as equally smart."
Go through a frame-by-frame sequence from three different angles of T.J. Ward's fourth-quarter interception return against the Dolphins.
And Ward proved himself to be as smart as he is athletic, he said, able to dissect a play and shrug off the pressure of the situation.
"When you get in those interviews and coaches start to ask you questions and try to get under your skin and have you write on the board, see if you know what you're doing defensively or offensively within the scheme, that's as much pressure as third-and-long for the game, or fourth-and-one," he said. "I'm a smart player, I take pride in that, so I know whatever they asked me to do on the board, I nailed it."
Having performed well, Ward was starting to hear the effects of positive interviews and workouts.
"...when I went on one of my visits, that's when the second-round talk started coming," he added. "I heard from a couple teams that they were going to take me in the second round..."
Ultimately that's exactly where he landed at 38th overall, the sixth pick of the second round. He was the 10th defensive back taken in the 2010 NFL Draft, but only three of those defensive backs selected ahead of him have made the Pro Bowl as many times as him.
Looking back at the draft process now, Ward remembers the stress and difficulties but also the rarity of being a participant and how much he valued it.
"It was enjoyable but at the same time, it was a little strenuous," he said. "It's definitely a long process but at the same time, you have to enjoy it because it's definitely something to cherish: How many guys get to do this?"