Most of the players in the top 25 of this countdown took a similar path. Arrive in Tallahassee as a ballyhooed recruit, start making noteworthy contributions as early as eligibility rules would allow in the era in which you played, announce yourself to the college football world on the big stage, then become a high NFL draft pick. There are a few exceptions, of course. Andre Wadsworth walked on at FSU. Chris Weinke played baseball for half a decade before matriculating to Tallahassee. And Ron Simmons took people down in a ring instead of on the gridiron.
However, perhaps none of the all-time great Seminoles had a journey quite as unique as the revolutionary quarterback who helped usher in basketball on grass.
Charlie Ward originally signed with FSU in the spring of 1988. The Thomasville, Georgia native was a well known product in the south, making Super Prep Magazine’s All-Dixie team in football and second team all-state in basketball, however he wasn’t an elite national recruit. However, the recently enacted (and controversial) NCAA rule known as Proposition 48 forced Ward to spend a year taking courses at TCC before officially enrolling at FSU in the summer of 1989.
Lo and behold, Ward actually played his true freshman season...but not in the manner that some of you might be thinking. Believe it or not, the future Heisman winning quarterback’s career in garnet and gold began as the Seminoles’ punter. The stats—and my own memories—remind me that Ward’s leg was inconsistent, however he did average 43.5 yards on 4 kicks against Virginia Tech and 44 yards on 5 punts in the legendary upset over Miami, including his career long of 57 yards. Here’s some footage of him against Tulane in 1989 when he ran the ball, passed the ball, and punted all on one drive:
Side note—take a look at the QB depth chart for FSU in 1989, which might just be the most loaded in college football history:
a) Peter Tom Willis - 8th all time in single season passing yards at FSU (1st when he left FSU), tied for 1st in single game touchdown passes with 6, 3rd round NFL draft pick
2) Casey Weldon - Runner-up for the 1991 Heisman, consensus All-American, 4th round NFL draft pick
D) Brad Johnson - 9th round NFL draft pick, Super Bowl Champion QB, 2x Pro Bowler
garnet) Charlie Ward — He’s the No. 2 player in this countdown...
gold) Kenny Felder — Unanimous high school All-American (equivalent of 5* recruit today), 12th overall pick in the 1992 MLB draft
With that kind of talent, it’s no surprise Ward took a redshirt year in 1990.
Come 1991, Ward was beginning to make a name for himself around Tallahassee, only it was for his exploits on the hardwood instead of the gridiron. Nonetheless, he did see action in an early season top 5 showdown and even threw a pass...though it wasn’t exactly conventional:
In 1992, Ward’s patience and hard work (attention all recruits and current freshmen—are you reading this?!?) paid off and he was named the ‘Noles’ starting QB. Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly start off with a bang.
After two games FSU sat 2-0 with wins over Duke and Clemson. But Ward was wildly inconsistent, throwing 6 touchdowns against a whopping 8 interceptions. In fact, the best Ward looked in either game was with FSU trailing 20-17 in Death Valley and the Seminoles utilized a faster paced offense to march down the field and get a game winning TD pass from Ward to Kevin Knox with two minutes remaining.
Coming into the Week 3 road tilt with top 20 NC State, some were even thinking the Wolfpack could pull the upset. But as inconsistent as Ward was, he had a beautiful deep ball and despite barely completing 50% of his passes in Raleigh, he burned the Pack for not one but two TD bombs.
Still, something just wasn’t clicking. Ward was average against Wake Forest in week 4 and then downright awful against Miami (Wide Right II) and UNC the next two weeks, throwing for just 87 yards against the latter. Through six games of the 1992 season, Ward was literally averaging more turnovers per game on the football field than he did as starting point guard the previous year, tossing 13 INTs and just 10 TDs.
Up next was a trip to Bobby Dodd Stadium to face the 16th ranked Yellow Jackets looking to sting the vulnerable Seminoles. In a twist of fate, Tech was led by Shawn Jones, a high school rival of Ward’s and the leader of the 1990 national championship GT team. And for much of the game, it looked like Jones would be walking away with yet another win. Tech led 21-7 early in the 4th, thanks to two more Ward interceptions, and 24-14 with less than 5 minutes to play.
It was then, facing near certain defeat in Atlanta against a program FSU had never beaten, that the magic of “Chollie” was born.
Needing to score and score quickly, Bobby Bowden put Ward in the shot gun and let him run what would later become known as the “Fastbreak Offense.” This shift away from FSU’s classic I-Formation allowed Ward to operate more in space and make use of his basketball-honed vision, not only resulting in an epic FSU comeback but also revolutionizing college football offenses almost overnight.
Following the win over Georgia Tech, FSU spent one more week trying to iron out the kinks, slogging past UVA 13-3, before finally unleashing the buzzsaw of the Fastbreak Offense full time in a 69 point explosion against Maryland.
From there, you probably know the story well.
Florida State averaged nearly 53 points per game over its final four contests of 1992, including a 45-24 thrashing of the 6th ranked Gators. The following season would be the long awaited year for Seminole faithful and Coach Bowden, as FSU would go 12-1 and win its first ever college football national title.
Ward, as anticipated, was exceptional. A second-team All-American in 1992, the senior signal caller used his devastating dual-threat ability (rare in those days) to become one of the most decorated football players of all time in 1993. In fact, Ward won every single athletic award he was eligible for, including the Heisman, Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas, and Walter Camp awards. His Heisman victory is still the third largest in history and he even won the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award given to the nation’s top amateur athlete, becoming the first college football player earning that honor since Doc Blanchard and Arnold Tucker won it in 1945 and 1946 while starring at Army.
Oh and he just happened to author two of the most memorable plays in Florida State history that season, both of which highlight his masterful vision, escapability, and feathery soft touch.
After graduating, Ward became a first round draft pick, only not in the sport some expected. Intent on playing hoops, he was selected with 26th overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft by the New York Knicks. Ward would play 12 seasons in the NBA, 10 with the Knicks, including starting every game at point guard during the 1998-99 season that saw New York advance to the NBA Finals. And who could forget this classic NBA brawl featuring P.J. Brown flipping Ward over his head?
Ward retired in 2005 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame one year later. Today, Ward is back in Tallahassee serving as a high school basketball coach, while also inspiring others through speaking engagements across the country.