FSU legend Charlie Ward settling in back where it all began

Photo: Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

A few weeks into his new job, not far from where his decorated athletic career launched, Charlie Ward showed how quickly he’s settled in.

He organized an 18-hour sleepover with his Florida High boys basketball team in Tallahassee. A campout, of sorts, complete with a variety of activities and inspirational moments to bond a team.

The experience inside the school helped wrap up a month-long summer league with Ward’s re-introduction to being a basketball coach.

“It has been a positive step,” said Ward, who spent the last four seasons as Booker T. Washington High’s football coach. “The kids are excited, the people around (the program) are excited about what we have been able to do.”

Add in that Ward has not coached basketball in a decade, and you start to get the picture.

After his 11-year NBA career, which ended in 2005 with the Houston Rockets, Ward transitioned into coaching. He was both football and basketball coach for one year at Westbury Christian School in Houston, before choosing to focus on football.

That itself was a return to his athletic past.

Ward, 47, led FSU to its first national championship in 1993 and was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy that season as quarterback. He then led FSU’s basketball team as point guard to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

The readjustment back to basketball again has a different scope.

“There will be some transition I will have to work through again,” said Ward, who is the only athlete in American sports history to have won a Heisman Trophy, then become a first-round NBA draft pick. “When I started (at Westbury in 2007), I had been in basketball for 13 years and was really out of football … I was completely out of football.

“I had to learn a lot. And there was a lot more guys to manage, a lot more things to consider. In this case, I’m fortunate to have some good assistant coaches with me (at Florida High). One of those (Steve Cherry) was an assistant coach at TCC (Tallahassee Community College) and that will be a help for me.”

In so many ways, this new role is a special homecoming.

Ward is naturally most adored in Tallahassee, which is 35 miles from Thomasville, Georgia, where he played for his father in both football and basketball at Thomas County Central High.

Incredibly, Ward was also an accomplished baseball player, and good enough to drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school, then the New York Yankees in 1994 despite never playing college baseball.

He also was terrific as a tennis player in high school. And dabbled in golf. A sporting Superman.

His parents still reside in Thomasville and his wife, Tonja, is from Atlanta.

His oldest son, Caleb, who played three seasons as receiver Washington before a leg injury that wiped out most of his senior year in 2017, and is now a freshman walk-on at FSU for new coach Willie Taggart.

Ward will also be involved with FSU, but under NCAA guidelines and restrictions as a prep coach. He knows what’s permissible.

“One of our goals was to work our way back to closer to our parents,” Ward said. We left Houston, we moved back closer. And then this opportunity came open.

“We’re getting older, our parents are getting older,” Ward said. “It was something we wanted to do for our kids to be able to be around their cousins more, and also see the aunts and uncles and just for us to be around our parents.”

His four seasons as Washington coach, where his former FSU star teammate Derrick Brooks and close friend, once shined as a player, proved a challenging struggle.

The Wildcats did not have a winning season. Their team roster was far smaller than any of the other local teams in District 1-6A.

But Ward hopes he was able to make an impact beyond the won-loss record.

“One of things I was most proud of is we were able to leave it better than we found it,” Ward said. “That was one of the goals moving forward. We made great progress —maybe not so much in record — but structure, building stability and respect.

“We were on the brink of getting it turned around. which hopefully this year, they will continue to make those strides.”

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