Last year, Jimmie Ward was taken 30th overall by the San Francisco 49ers, the second highest a player from Northern Illinois University had ever gone in the draft (behind only the immortal Larry English). It would seem that Ward, who has exceeded expectations at every level, would finally get his shot to shine on the biggest stage of them all. Except nothing about his rookie season turned out as he had planned.
First, he had to transition from safety to nickel corner. Then in his second game as a pro, Brandon Marshall caught three touchdowns on him on national television. Finally, a foot injury landed him on injured reserve midway through the year. He ended his rookie campaign with zero interceptions, and when San Francisco wiped the slate clean this offseason, his head coach had been fired and four of his teammates had retired. Then, just as 2015 training camp was beginning, he watched as the Niners released Pro-Bowler Aldon Smith. Needless to say, it’s been a ride.
Luckily, a familiar face may help steer Ward back into football’s good graces: The 49ers used their second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on safety Jaquiski Tartt, who happened to be Ward’s former teammate at Davidson High School in Mobile, Alabama. Now they’re looking to star in San Francisco’s secondary together. And really, the Niners could use all the help they could get.
As he works his way back at 49ers training camp, Ward spoke with Rolling Stone about putting last season behind him, playing with a chip on his shoulder and that game against Brandon Marshall.
Can you describe the feeling you had when the 49ers drafted Jaquiski?
I was excited like I got drafted. It was just another chance to play with a friend who I played with in high school, so the chemistry is already there. I know we’re gonna work and work on each other to get better. We’re always gonna push each other. I like the chemistry with the team. Got a lot of new, young players. Pretty talented. And I got my hometown friend playing safety with me, so me and him are just calling the shots at practice today.
You’re from Mobile, Alabama – essentially 200 miles from the University of Alabama and Auburn University – but ended up going to Northern Illinois. Did you play with a chip on your shoulder because of that?
I just wanted to prove a lot of people wrong. I think me and Jaquiski [did]. I just didn’t understand the recruiting process, because me and him were out-statting every safety in Alabama, but at the end of our high school careers we didn’t really have too many offers. My head coach [Fred Riley] did a good job at the program, but the recruiting coach didn’t really put us out there. He had his other picks who he wanted to put out there. So he told me – I don’t know if he told ‘Quiski – but he told me that I wasn’t a D-I player. That not every guy makes it to the NFL. But that was just a chip on the shoulder, I wasn’t gonna let it stop me.
I had a lot of negative attention because I wasn’t that big – a lot of people thought you had to be big and “do this” or “do that” to play for Alabama or Auburn. And that’s the difference between me and a lot of people, because when most people are told “you’re too small” or “you’re not fast enough,” they quit. It just depends on what type of heart you got. But I wasn’t raised like that. So when somebody told me that, I wanted to work harder. I had something to prove. I still got something to prove.
Were you paying attention when you started to shoot up NFL draft boards and began getting first-round hype?
Oh yes! I remember watching it. Me and Jaquiski used to communicate in college, he used to tell me his stats and I’m like, “Golly, man! You goin’ hard!” So he made me step up my game when I was at Northern Illinois. We used to always call each other and compare our stats and what happened in our games. I remembered our teams played the same quarterback, and I was telling him that it was a real good quarterback – I think it was at Southern Illinois or Western Illinois – I just know that Jimmy Garoppolo was the quarterback and he was real good. [Note: It was Eastern Illinois.] I remember telling him “Yeah, he almost beat us and I know he’s in your league,” because Jaquiski was in Division I-AA.
So after all that we just kept up with each other’s stats. And I’m like, “Man, I’m moving up the ladder,” and I told him, “I need to get my interceptions up. I need more picks!” So the first three or four games, I caught a pick, and I noticed I broke into the top 10. Like towards the middle of the season I was top 10, but still, top 10 is not good enough for just a safety. You gotta be top two if you really want to make some noise.
What was your biggest challenge as an NFL rookie?
I would say the injury, because they found it at the combine – and I was not aware of the injury, I didn’t feel it – and then after that I had surgery and it felt fine until game eight or game nine, when it kind of broke on me. So that was irritating, because I had the injury in the back of my head, ’cause I’m thinking, “I got a screw in my foot.” I wasn’t worried about any problems, but that happened, a wall, but everybody hits a wall. It’s about how you go about it afterwards. Are you going to keep going, are you going to quit, or are you going to give it your all?
The 49ers had a number of unexpected retirements this offseason. Did you ever get a sense that Chris Borland, a member of your rookie class, was going to retire after only one year?
No clue. I could picture everybody else [Patrick Willis, Anthony Davis, Justin Smith] retiring, because they played a certain amount of years in the league, but I didn’t think Borland was gonna retire that early. But I wasn’t at Wisconsin with him, so I didn’t know that he was catching that many concussions. It’s just a decision he made for his life, because concussions can mess you up for a lifetime. Everybody loves life more than they love football. So he just made a life decision.
So if you were in the same position as him, you’d make the same decision?
Uh…I don’t know [laughs]. I might be kinda stubborn. It’s hard to elaborate on that question. I feel like somebody really important in my life would have to tell me to stop. They’d really have to break it down to me for me to come off. In Chris Borland’s case, that’s probably what somebody did. Probably his mom, or he could’ve had a doctor he grew up with that told him like, “If you get one more concussion, this is what could happen.” So I understand what happened to him, but if I’m ever in that situation, it’s kinda hard to say what I’d do.
Did you expect Jim Harbaugh would be fired? Did your teammates?
You know, it was in the locker room, some people talked about it. But the crazy thing about it is that I didn’t even hear it in the locker room – my parents called and asked me about it. I was like, “How do y’all know about it and I’m in the locker room and I don’t know about it?” I was focusing on practice and the game; I couldn’t handle all that. The head coach being fired, that’s over my head, so I wasn’t worried about it. But a few players did talk about it and you could just sense it. You know when something’s wrong, you can just sense it in the air. I don’t know what happened with all of that. I know Harbaugh, the year before he had a good season. So I don’t really – I can’t really talk too much about that. That’s just a decision that they made upstairs.
You’ve got a new head coach, Jim Tomsula, but he was there last year as the defensive line coach. What’s he like as a coach?
Everything’s going good. Jim talked to a lot of guys last year. He’s always been an open guy, he does a lot of nice things for other people, he loves kids. There’s a lot of stuff that me and him have in common. I was very open to talk to him and he always talked to me when I got my injury, told me everything was going to be cool. That’s why I kinda liked him, so when they made him the head coach I was good, I can roll with it. He can lead and I’ll play for him.
What did you think of Harbaugh as a head coach?
Oh, he was a cool guy. Two totally different guys [laughs], two totally different guys. But I like his philosophy too. I don’t really judge coaches. I feel like you can learn something from every head coach, you can learn something from every position coach. You can never stop learning. Everybody has something to offer to the table.
Speaking of learning, Brandon Marshall gave you a quick education in Week 2, when he caught three touchdowns against you. Can you just go through that game and what that was like?
Oh, the Brandon Marshall game…yeah. That was a game to remember.
I felt like everything was going good in the game and then when we got to the maroon zone, I felt like they should’ve given him a flag on that first touchdown. He pushed off, I stumbled and I looked back. No flag. It’s crazy how a wide receiver can push off but DBs, you can’t even put your hands on ’em past five yards. That’s what I don’t understand, either. DBs don’t even get that flag. I just didn’t understand it.
Other than that, on the goal line, Marshall just uses his body a lot. That’s what he was doing. He was shielding me with his body at the goal line and out-jumping me.
Did you use that game to figure out how you’d handle him the next time?
Yeah. In the middle of the field, I feel like I can handle him because he’s not shifty or anything. It’s when we get close to the goal line and it’s one-on-one. They tried to get one-on-one with me and Marshall the whole game, so when we got close to the goal line – I can’t remember what defense we were in – but they ended up getting it. He boxed me out on the second touchdown, I had inside leverage. I have to get more into his body. I thought I did, but I ended up letting him out-push me and the QB put it right in that pocket.
What about the way pass interference is called these days? Seems like they don’t want wide receivers to get touched at all.
Yeah, man. That’s so, so hard. I remember I got one called against me when I was playing against Tavon Austin when he was on a whip route. He went out and came back in but it was before five yards, so if he’s whipping and I’m jamming and it’s before five, you shouldn’t throw the flag. And I got a flag thrown against me. I just didn’t understand why they would throw that flag.
Another flag I got against me, this was past five, this was when you’re turning and you’re bumping man-to-man and I ended up bumping him a little bit and they called a flag in the Dallas game. But I didn’t understand that either, because I see cornerbacks playing bump-and-run past the five all the time. I just feel like some of the referees, they just need to call it a couple of times, and I was just on the wrong end of the stick.
What do you think of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman up there in Seattle?
I like them. I like Earl the most. I heard about Richard talking from [Michael] Crabtree. You know what happened with that situation. That’s about it. You can watch from the TV, turn on ESPN and see Richard running his mouth so I don’t think anyone has to tell you that he talks.
Is he one of the top corners in the game?
Yeah, he’s proven it. He’s a top corner right now. Really the mouth doesn’t mean anything, that’s probably a part of his game. He talks to people to get them off of their game. Other than that he’s got the stats to prove it.
Talking doesn’t seem to be part of your game; in fact, you strike me as a pretty humble guy.
Yeah, I’m very humble. I don’t change if success happens, I don’t change if failure happens. It just always was that way growing up.
After all the changes, people don’t know what to expect from the 49ers this year. What do you think?
I know we got a good team, so I’ll let all the critics and all the fans, and all the opposite team’s fans, talk. I feel like we got something good going on here.