Father, Son and Football

Alex Ward and his father, Derek Ward Sr.. Photo by John Torsiello

Story By John Torsiello

   There was one football moment that Derek Ward, Sr. just had to make sure he captured on camera it was when his son, Alex, then a sophomore, scored his first touchdown for Holy Cross High School. Alex would never forgive his father if he didn’t have that special score to save for posterity.

   “Alex was playing tight end and I was following him down the field, he caught the pass and scored,” said the elder Ward, while sitting outside Holy Cross on a cool autumn afternoon. “I caught him raising his arms after he scored and that has to be my favorite photo that I ever took.” Said the younger Ward, “I was wondering if he got that shot.”

   An accomplished photographer, Ward, Sr. has seen his son’s football career at Holy Cross often though the lens of his camera. “I thought it was a good way to get out of the stands and closer to the action,” he said of taking his camera to games. “I figured if I was going to take pictures of Alex, I would also take photos of the other kids on the team. I know they and their parents are appreciative of having those photos. I usually upload my photos from my IPad to social media where parents and kids can view them.”

Derek Ward is a gifted photographer who shares his images throughout Waterbury. Photograph by Felix Rodriguez

   Alex has had a lot of magical moments to catch on film this season. He has rushed for 1,067 yards (8.7 yards a carry) and scored 16 touchdowns through his team’s first eight games. He also plays defensive tackle and was an All-City selection at that position last year. But it is on offense that Ward feels most comfortable.

Alex has bowled over many defenders this year. Photo by Derek Ward

   “I definitely like playing offense much better,” said Alex. “It’s where I see myself playing in college. I really want to play at the next level but I don’t know where yet. I’d like to go to a Division I school if possible but I’m open to playing at any level.”

Alex will lead the Crusaders into a Thanksgiving Day matchup with Wolcott at 10 am.

Despite not playing youth football, Alex has made a solid impact on the city gridiron.

Derek is a familiar figure at sporting events throughout greater Waterbury.

   The Wards are an athletic family. Another son, Derek, Jr., played football, basketball and track at Holy Cross a decade ago and daughter, Aiyana, was a star athlete in several sports (basketball, lacrosse and swimming) for the Crusaders before graduating earlier this year. She is now playing basketball for Denise Bierly at Eastern Connecticut State University (the team upset two-time defending national champion Amherst last night 70-67).

   And, of course, Derek Ward, Sr. had a notable career in high school playing basketball, football and track at Crosby High School. After graduating from he went off to Syracuse where he played linebacker for the Orangemen, who went to several bowl games, including the 1988 Sugar Bowl. The Orangemen finished third in the national polls that year.

Derek Ward Sr. played linebacker on an undefeated Syracuse football team.

   “We didn’t have much success my first few years there but by my junior year we were getting good. My senior season we really took off. We were undefeated and ranked in the top 10 in the nation before heading to the New Orleans Superdome where we faced Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. When asked if he was awestruck playing in the Superdome in such a major national eve, Ward, Sr. stated, “It was very exciting to be in that atmosphere. But I have to say I wasn’t necessarily awestruck about playing in the bowl game and possibly playing for a National Championship (there were no four-team playoffs in those days and if all schools in front of them in the pools lost in their bowl games a team could jump up four or five spots).”

   Ward, Sr. continued, “By that time we had been through a lot and we felt like we had earned the right to be there. Dick McPherson was a great head coach and my linebacker coach was Dick Gerber at the time. Paul Pasqualoni eventually became my linebacker coach and subsequently went on to become head coach of the Orangemen. George DeLeon from Cheshire was also on the coaching staff. I enjoyed myself at Syracuse.”

   The Sugar Bowl ended in a tie, which left an ironic sour taste in Ward’s and his teammates’ mouths. “We were winning late in the game and Auburn was driving. They had a fourth down and they decided to kick a field goal to tie the game and not go for the win. It made the whole game anticlimactic. To this day we are still upset that they did that.”

   A Note: In protest of the decision to go for the tie, a Syracuse radio station mailed Auburn coach Pat Dye, 2,000 ugly ties which Dye autographed and auctioned off, raising $30,000 for the Auburn scholarship fund.

   Playing college football was a thrill and an honor, said Derek Ward, Sr. But it also left an indelible emotional and potentially physical mark that affected the way he would approach the game when it came time for his sons to play football.

   “We were playing West Virginia and I got hit hard and was knocked out for a bit. I came out of the game for a short time but then I went back in after halftime. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I had a concussion during that game. I often think back to that one moment when I struggle to remember certain things. I’ve asked doctors but they can’t really say for sure.”

   With so much growing concern over traumatic head injuries and cumulative damage from hits to the head during football games, Ward, Sr. came to believe that the game is best left to older kids.

   “I didn’t want my kids playing junior football, I said they had to wait until high school. They kept badgering me but I wouldn’t change my mind. I don’t think it is wise for young kids to be playing a sport where there is such a risk of trauma to the head. Other parents can make up their own minds, but for me it was something that I wasn’t going to back down from.”

   Alex Ward, who was called a “team leader” by Holy Cross head football coach Mike Giampetruzzi, was itching to play football. He idolized pops and went to Syracuse games as a young child.

Derek and Alex at a Syracuse football game with old teammates.

   “Both of my parents graduated from Syracuse so everything around my house was orange,” he said. “I remember wearing a lot of orange, and even the stuff in  my bedroom was orange. I wanted to play football as a young kid. My friends were all playing and they wanted me to play. But I couldn’t until I was in high school, which kind of made me even hungrier for the game once I started playing.”

    The younger Ward also took part in just about every sport he could, from running cross-country, to swimming, to lacrosse and basketball. But it was football that became his passion once he got to high school.

   Alex hit the weight room with a vengeance, bulking up from 170 pounds as a freshman to a muscular 230 as a senior. He also grew from 5-8 to 6-feet.

Alex Ward training with teammates. Photo by Derek Ward.

   Said Ward, Sr., “With some kids you have to push them. That has never been the case with Alex. He always decided to go work out on his own. He’s disciplined, motivated, watches his diet and is mean on the field, but humble off it. He’s the kind of kid who gives up his chair in class to a girl if there is nowhere for her to sit down.”

   Derek Ward, Jr., despite being a good athlete, decided not to play in college. Following graduation from college in 2013 he made the decision to join the Air Force. “Alex has always done thing his own way and he seems happy with the choices he’s made to date.”

   Said Alex, “Me and my brother are very close and he taught me a lot about what to do in sports and how to do it well. After my games he calls and checks in on me.”

   Dany Ward, Alex’s mom also plays a key role in his development, especially off the field. “His mom is a product of a Catholic family and she runs a tight ship,” said Derek Ward, Sr. with a respectful grin.

Dany and Derek met while attending Syracuse University.

Alex Ward. Photograph by Derek Ward.

   With a superb pedigree, a champion’s work ethic, size, strength and speed, a father who keeps an eye on him through a telephoto lens and a mother who won’t put up with nonsense, Alex Ward remains hungry and seemingly is just tapping into his immense potential on a football field.

(Alex Ward's final game  is Thanksgiving Day as Holy Cross entertains Wolcott beginning at 10 a.m.)