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Former FSU star Charlie Ward, UF star Earnest Graham head back to school

By Chris Hays, Orlando Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 03--If Pensacola Washington or North Fort Myers high school leaders were just looking for football coaches, they would have made a simple selection from a pile of résumés.

Each school, however, was in need of far more. The respective administrations were looking for not only someone who could draw up the Xs and Os, but also a person who could lead, mentor, guide and develop teens into young men; positive, contributing members of society.

Football, for most of them, is nothing more than an extra-curricular activity. It is not life.

So these schools searched for the men they thought could lead type of forward-thinking movement. These players needed guidance. Any person can scream and berate them. The right person, however, would have better methods.

Both schools found their answers, in Charlie Ward and Earnest Graham, former stars who they believe will be the ones to make a difference.

It wasn't easy for either school to bring them in. It took some coercing.

"I never once thought about it," said Graham, the former Florida Gator and Tampa Bay Bucs running back who begins his first season as a football coach at North Fort Myers on Monday when high school football practice opens across the state.

He was approached this past winter about the job. The school needed Graham; and Pensacola Washington needed Ward.

Athletes at the two schools used to carry a swagger. They walked with their chests out when they wore their jerseys. Back then, guys like Deion Sanders and Derrick Brooks roamed these hallways.

Both are Pro Football Hall of Famers. Brooks was inducted Saturday night.

During the past seven years, however, the two schools have won just 32 games between them. For perspective, that's 32 out of 70. In 2012, Washington was 1-9 and North Fort Myers was 0-10. These are not the kind of numbers upon which tradition is built.

It didn't used to be that way. In a three-year span from 2004-06, both schools piled up 45 wins in 80 games. Washington has one state championship in its trophy case.

Both schools want the tradition back. Change is in the air.

"I didn't think I would enjoy coaching, but I truly have," Graham said, who cut his teeth on this initial foray into coaching during the spring practice session. "Every day you face something that you have experienced and you get a chance to teach ... and learn again for yourself."

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Graham and Ward have taken different paths through life, but they each preach the same values and goals. Building football teams is one thing. Building young men is their platform.

Back to Florida

Ward, a former Florida State two-sport star and Heisman Trophy winner, was not only FSU's starting quarterback in the early 90s, but also the point guard on a Seminoles basketball team that made the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1992. He led the football team to the national championship in 1993.

Ward was selected in the first round of the 1994 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks after declaring that he would not play in the NFL unless he was a first-round draft pick.

He spent 12 seasons in the NBA, 10 with the Knicks and the final two with the Spurs and Rockets. After two years as an NBA assistant coach in Houston, Ward decided to join the high school ranks and took a coaching position at Houston'sWestbury Christian School in 2007 to be able to spend more time with his family. The NBA grind had become too much.

"Family time. ... I wanted to spend more time at home with more of a regular schedule and high school was the next best thing," said Ward, who has three children with wife, Tonja. Ward's oldest child will start high school this year.

Ward, who sits No. 2 on the FSU career total offense chart with 6,636 yards and has the school's top career pass-completion rate at 62.3 percent, started off at Westbury coaching basketball and eventually took over the football program. But he needed something else.

"Because our parents are getting older, we wanted to be able to be within driving distance," said Ward, whose parents still live in his hometown of Thomasville, Ga. His mother-in-law lives in Atlanta.

He searched for a little more than a year for the right situation, "but nothing really came up or the timing wasn't right at our school for me to leave ... but last year I just decided to resign and pursue something closer."

It was not and easy decision. Tonja had established her own career in the Houston area with Christian radio and so the next place had to be the right fit. The initial conversations about moving to Pensacola were "not favorable," he said.

"Derrick [Brooks] approached me on it. The AD [Troy Faucheaux] sent me an email about it, but I really didn't think my wife would want to come. She had a pretty good job, so I turned it down initially," Ward said. "But then the mayor and the superintendent got involved and talked me into at least listening to the opportunity. ... My wife asked me to have an open mind and so that's how it all came about.

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"Of course this is Derrick's high school and he was the first one to approach me. ... Derrick was instrumental in making all of this work."

It's definitely a bit easier when you have a Hall of Fame buddy in your corner.

"He has a great reputation and he's willing to support, and not just from a financial standpoint, the things we are trying to get done here," Ward said. "He understands and feels comfortable supporting his alma mater now."

He's still in transition. He sat in his office at Washington High recently and pondered the question of whether he was happy he made the choice. A perplexed look came across his face. Charlie Ward's facial expression rarely changes. His calm, near stoic demeanor was what made him such a successful athlete, who was also selected in the 1993 and 1994 Major League baseball free-agent drafts by the Brewers and Yankees.

"Um yes ... I'm still working on all of the certification stuff at this point," Ward said. "You can be a coach, but you don't get the benefits and all of that kind of stuff until you are certified. But I'm hired. We got that part taken care of.

"It's been good. It wasn't easy. ... It's been a bit of a transition. It's a lot different than what I had become accustomed to, which was at a private school."

Now Ward just hopes to set something in place to build on at Washington.

"We have some very good athletes here. They are just in need of some structure, some guidance," Ward said. "Our kids have bought into what we are trying to get done, so that's been good."

And Ward has the support of the players.

"It's great. I enjoy it. He has a lot of rules and he makes us work hard," Washington offensive tackle LaShawn Campbell said. "He's very professional and he's out on the field with us every day and has us very disciplined. It's a whole new atmosphere. He doesn't yell at us. He knows how to talk to us.

"When we first heard about it, everybody was excited and everybody was glad to see him there and we were all just hoping we'd be a different team this year. I had seen him on my video games, [EA Sports NCAA football] ... and so I was like, 'OK, now I know who he is.'"

Ward, a former student body vice president at FSU, brings far more than his sports experience to the table, and it's that knowledge and understanding of his place in the lives of young men that he shares with Graham.

"What we teach our kids is stuff that I learned along the way, and that's not just stuff on the football field, but also in the classroom. ... Characteristics that you are going to carry with you after you graduate," Ward said. "So that's our goal. We're going to teach them footwork and that kind of stuff, but when it's all said and done, being able to relate and deal with issues that you have going on is part of being a coach with a purpose."

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Back to football

When Graham retired from the Tampa Bay Bucs, his only NFL team, in 2004, he left the game behind. He thought that's what he wanted.

Graham, a Fort Myers native, came back home and opened up an insurance business with his wife, Alicia. But a friend who happened to be the principle at North High, Jeff Spiro, approached him.

"He gave me a call about the coaching job, and I just kind of had the itch to get back into the game, so I scratched it," Graham said.

He sometimes finds himself scratching his head. There's more involved than he figured. He's learning along the way

"I didn't realize all of the details that go along with it," Graham said. "So I take my hat off to all of those guys who have been doing it for a long time, keeping everything organized and keeping a handle on their boys, making sure they are both playing good football and being good students."

He is still the second all-time leading rusher in the history of Lee County high school football, behind Noel Devine, who currently volunteers on Graham's staff while still chasing his own pro football dreams.

Graham certainly did his bit of chasing. It wasn't always easy. Ward could have played three different professional sports; Graham worked his tail off to play one.

"Coming out of high school I was a celebrated guy, but coming out of college, I had to go the long road to the NFL," said Graham, who finished his career as the No. 6 all-time leading rusher in UF history with 2,411 yards. He's been passed by Tim Tebow and Chris Rainey, but he remains in the top 10.

Graham went undrafted in 2002 but latched on with the Bucs as a free agent. He is No. 9 on the Bucs all-time rushing list with 2,047 yards.

"I played for the same NFL team for nine years, starting out as a special teams player and working myself up to starting running back," he said. "But more importantly, I ended up being a huge asset to the community both in Tampa and in Fort Myers, and that's what you want to ask of the kids, no matter if you are a marginal guy or a superstar.

"It's a chance to give back. That's the key. You learn that when you've done something for 20-some years and you don't know anything other than that, so you try to confront that and try all these new things ... but you have these experiences and those experiences give you a certain richness and so I have been able to give that back."

The North High players are certainly happy to be the recipients, and Graham's coaching style surprised them.

"It's definitely a great experience playing for Coach Graham. He brought a winning mentality that we kind of lacked around here," North High senior offensive lineman Dean Lance said. "He's the type of guy who speaks softly and normally, but you can understand when he's not happy or when he's disappointed. I've known him maybe six or seven months and he's only raised his voice maybe once or twice. He can get his point across with a softer tone.

"I was surprised ... I expected him to be 24 / 7 football, football, football ... but he's very education-oriented, which is very good "We didn't really know what to expect. He's a very intelligent, eloquent, well spoken person who had success in professional football and I was personally surprised."

chays@tribune.com

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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