Sam Mellinger

Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward’s path from wheelchair to mama’s boy to the NFL

At the moment this wild journey began, the boy lying behind his mother on the tan couch in apartment A1-1 in a small Mississippi town may have been the least likely future NFL cornerback in the entire state. His mother would have thought so.

Dedrick Johnson was an assistant coach at McComb High and had just come in to drop off Charvoun Ward after practice one day. Johnson saw Charvoun’s younger but bigger brother and asked if he might want to play ball.

Tanya Ward looked behind her at her second son, Charvarius, and laughed.

“Coach, he ain’t going to play no football,” Johnson remembered her saying. “He might read a book or something, but he ain’t playing no football.”

But Johnson was persistent. Charvoun was a good player, just small. If his brother was bigger, maybe he would be even better. So Charvarius agreed. He’d come out for spring ball. That lasted two days, and then he quit. He calls himself anti-social. Didn’t like being around that many people.

But Johnson was persistent. He’d seen something in those two days — raw, sure, but long and fast. Charvarius agreed. He’d come out for summer practices. That lasted two days, and then he quit. He calls himself a mama’s boy. He missed her, and wanted to help with his younger siblings.

“I’m, like, glued to my mama,” he says now.

But Johnson was persistent. He’d seen even more in those summer practices — an aggressiveness on the field that juxtaposed his introverted way off of it. Finally, Charvarius agreed. He’d come out for the team. And this time, he’d stay.

The coaches were elated. They grabbed equipment and made sure he had some goggles (more on this in a minute). A few games into the season, they had a new starting cornerback who hadn’t played football since quitting pee-wee ball in part because of a cancer scare that left him on crutches or in a wheelchair for the better part of two years.

Look at Charvarius now. He’s the red-dreaded starting cornerback for the Chiefs, an undrafted rookie free agent who was so nervous before his first start four weeks ago that he told his uncle he was having an anxiety attack. Now, he is a central part of a radically improved defense on the cusp of the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 49 years.

The Chiefs would probably be playing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday without Ward’s emergence. But they would not be as confident, or sound defensively, a weakness replaced by a tough, fast and hyper-competitive cornerback who remains so attached to his mom that he FaceTimes her more often than his girlfriend.

“Been coaching 20 years,” Johnson said. “Then I find this kid just laying on the couch.”

Kindergarten twice

About those goggles. They were prescription. Charvarius doesn’t know his diagnosed visual acuity, only that he cannot read or see a football or even watch TV without glasses or contacts.

As a kid it was so bad his teachers thought he had a learning disability. They made him take kindergarten twice.

He breezed through the second time with glasses, all those basic skills coming easily once he could see. Turns out, Charvarius was actually smart. Like, really smart. So smart the teachers at McComb High had him skip his sophomore year. They didn’t tell Charvarius or Tanya, either.

One year he was a freshman. The next, a junior. Graduated with a 3.8 GPA. Amazing what happens when you can see. Tanya wasn’t making a joke about Charvarius reading a book, either. He was that kid, the one who’d rather be at home reading with his mom than playing outside with his friends.

A proud giggle comes when Tanya talks about her second son. He’d always tell her, I just want to be able to take care of you. Lots of kids say that. Some stick with it. Some don’t.

Charvarius stuck.

“I have five kids, and I could always get rid of four of them,” Tanya said. “He’s always with me.”

About that wheelchair. Happened in the second grade. He was playing around at his aunt’s house, chasing a dog, and jumped off a porch. Four feet off the ground, maybe five. The pain shot through him immediately. Tanya took him to the hospital that night. The fear gripped Tanya when she saw the X-rays: a cyst, right there on his hip.

“Nothing but bubbles on the scan,” she said. “His bones were, like, literally paper thin.”

For six months, Charvarius was on crutches, and that wasn’t even the hard part. The doctors thought it might be cancer, a secret Tanya guarded from her boy. Surgery eased the worst fears, but then Charvarius was in a wheelchair for six months. Then more time with crutches, and even after that they told him to be extra careful because the next break would be worse.

Charvarius wasn’t thinking too much about anything that would put his bones at risk. He has a younger brother and two younger sisters. Before he graduated high school, his mom was given custody of her stepsister’s baby boy, a child in such bad health that he spent most of his first six months in the hospital. A year later, her stepsister had another baby. Tanya took him on, too.

So, Charvarius wasn’t thinking much about football. He wanted to work. To help. Tanya was too busy for a steady job, and Dad was in jail. So Charvarius wanted to bring in some money.

He’s always been like that. As a kid, he’d get money for good grades. By the time he showed his uncle and grandmother and other adults in the neighborhood, one ‘A’ on a report card might be worth $20. Charvarius never spent the cash. He saved everything under a mattress. Once, Tanya came up short on rent.

“We were going to get put out,” Charvarius said. “So I went into my stash and helped her pay the bills.”

You’re dang right he wanted to help. In high school, he tried everywhere he could think of. McDonald’s. Walmart. Kroger. Nobody called back. He’s still not sure why.

Garland Ward thought Charvarius needed to lighten up. He is Tanya’s cousin, but he and Charvarius have the kind of relationship that everyone calls him his uncle. So after Charvarius quit football in the spring, and after he quit football again in the summer, Garland made him a deal:

Play football, have fun, keep your grades up and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that you and your mom have everything you need.

“He just needed to be allowed to be a kid,” Garland said. “Quit trying to be an adult.”

Perspective is a tricky thing. There is no doubt that Garland was right. Charvarius deserved some time for himself, for something that would keep him active and provide new experiences. To be a kid instead of a provider.

But Charvarius doesn’t think of it that way. To him, playing football was the risk. A little scary, emotionally more than physically. He’d always wanted to take care of Mama, so that didn’t feel like work. That felt safe. Playing football was the more daunting move. He’d be away from Mama.

“I had to grow up,” he said. “I had to adapt. I had to grow with those guys.”

All those years and all that talent and it was never the glasses or the wheelchair or even the need to provide that kept him from playing football. He just wanted to be close to Tanya. He missed her, even just for a couple hours for practice.

“Eventually,” Tanya said, “I just told him, ‘Go play football. It’s OK.’”

Every once in a while, with the benefit of hindsight, Tanya has the same thought:

Thank goodness none of those jobs called him back.

‘He’s going to be a pro’

Steve Ellis was the next coach to see Charvarius on that couch, but by now the boy didn’t need to be talked into playing football.

He lacked the pedigree to interest Division I schools but had played well enough as a senior at McComb High to be named All-Region. That led to a scholarship at Hinds Community College, which led to Ellis sitting on that couch and pitching Charvarius on Middle Tennessee State.

“He’s going to be a pro,” Ellis remembered saying.

“Say what?” Garland replied.

We should explain. There are no athletes in Charvarius’ family. In a phone conversation this week, Garland laughed when asked if either of Charvarius’ parents were athletic.

Somehow, the second son grew to 6-foot-1, with hands that measured more than 10 inches, a 37 1/2-inch vertical, an 11-foot broad jump and 4.4-second 40. All of those marks exceed the general average for an NFL cornerback.

“Where he gets it, only the Lord knows,” Tanya said. “Because I don’t know.”

Ellis had coached a few players who reached the NFL, most notably safety Kevin Byard, who led the league in interceptions and made first-team All-Pro for the Tennessee Titans in 2017. Ellis thought that Ward’s physical gifts matched or bettered all of them, that all he needed was time and work.

In a year and a half at Middle Tennessee, Ward gained 28 pounds of what football people call good weight. Most of his measurements at his pro day were better than those of Iowa’s Josh Jackson, who the Chiefs were thought to be considering before the Packers selected him with the pick immediately before the Chiefs’ in the second round.

Ward went undrafted but fielded interest from a handful of teams. The Chiefs weren’t one of them. Ward chose the Dallas Cowboys because they were the closest to home — closest to Tanya. He had a good training camp, but the Cowboys had depth at defensive back and a need for offensive line help. That matched perfectly with the Chiefs, who sent Parker Ehinger to Dallas in a trade on the day of the last preseason game.

Ward impressed immediately. The Chiefs chose Tremon Smith in the sixth round, and special teams coach Dave Toub called him the team’s second-fastest player. But Ward passed him on the cornerback depth chart quickly and was in line for more playing time in early December before a bad week of practice.

The Chiefs lost to the L.A. Chargers on a two-point conversion as time expired, when veteran corner Orlando Scandrick missed a switch that left the receiver wide open. That Tuesday, Chiefs coach Andy Reid called Ward into his office. Ward would start that week at Seattle, on Sunday night.

“We believe in you,” Ward remembered Reid saying. “This is why we traded for you.”

Ward said he was so out of shape both physically and mentally for that first game that he felt like he couldn’t breathe. In the third quarter, he asked to come off the field. He struggled that night, too — flagged for three penalties and gave up five catches on seven targets for 110 yards, including two of the game’s biggest plays that helped seal the Seahawks’ win.

The decision to play him was bizarre on the surface and widely criticized in the wake of a loss that endangered the Chiefs’ pursuit of homefield advantage in the playoffs. And maybe the Chiefs waited too long to replace Scandrick, who was heavily penalized and often beat.

But there is no doubt they are a better team now with Ward playing. Reid noted this week that Ward has improved each game, and complimented his preparation. Bob Sutton, the team’s defensive coordinator, has said the Chiefs are better with Ward’s energy and competitiveness.

This team has been and always will be about Patrick Mahomes and the offense. But if the Chiefs make it to the Super Bowl, it’ll also be at least in part about this unexpected boost from an unexpected source. Fans have already picked up on Ward’s red hair, and by now you won’t be surprised at the story behind that.

Happened over Thanksgiving, on the bye week, when Ward was back home. His brothers have dyed their dreads before, but Charvarius never had. His brothers went with green and purple and blue. Charvarius chose red, to represent the Chiefs, and if you look closely you can see Tanya’s influence.

“The gold in there, that was mama’s idea,” he said. “Her opinion always matters.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.