Written by Stephen Hargis- Chattanooga Times Free Press
As the sun began to set behind Atlanta's expansive downtown skyline, E'Jay Ward stood on the sidewalk at the intersection of Walnut Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and became more anxious with each lengthening shadow.
Less than an hour earlier, Ward and all of his football teammates at Ware Prep Academy had been told the school no longer had the funding to operate and would be closing its doors immediately. The former three-sport star at Brainerd High hurriedly packed everything he owned -- clothes, shoes, microwave, mini fridge and television -- and called his brother Tyrus, a Brainerd assistant coach, to say he needed a ride back home.
E'Jay spent the next three hours on that chilly November evening in 2007 waiting and wondering what his next step would be.
"It was scary, standing out on that street waiting for my ride back to Chattanooga," Ward said. "There were homeless people passing by looking at all my stuff and a few other random people who thought I was homeless and asked if I needed help. I was embarrassed and I was mad that I was put in that situation.
"I was scared that I was going to get robbed, because downtown Atlanta can be a scary place, especially once it gets dark. But what was scarier for me was not knowing what I was going to do with my life next."
His arduous journey would lead from that brief stop in Atlanta through rural Mississippi and Baton Rouge, La., before he settled in on the cozy campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College.
Once he arrived in Athens, Ward quickly became a favorite on campus with his quick smile and positive attitude, but it was his tenacity on the court that helped lead the Bulldogs to the Appalachian Athletic Conference's regular-season and tournament championships and now the NAIA Division II national tournament March 7-13 in Point Lookout, Mo.
"He's the glue that holds our team together," Wesleyan coach Mike Poe said. "He just has that natural ability to lead people. He's the type of guy everybody respects because he has no quit in him. He could have folded his tent and quit a long time ago, but that's not in his makeup.
"People can see his talent on the court, but I'll sit and talk about E'Jay Ward's character and leadership ability all day, because I've seen how he's made not only our basketball team better, but everybody that knows him will tell you he has made our campus and our whole community a better place. He's just got something special about him that makes the people around him want to be better."
Ward had started all four games at Ware before that school closed its doors. The following January, still lacking the needed ACT score to enroll in a four-year university, he enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Junior College and tried out that spring to be a receiver for the football team. But junior colleges in Mississippi are allowed to keep only eight out-of-state players, and Ward was cut shortly after the final spring practice.
Not wanting to return to Chattanooga and see the disappointed looks on the faces of his friends and family when asked what he was doing, Ward moved to Baton Rouge to live with his grandmother and enrolled at Southern University. It was the first time since he was 4 years old that he was not part of an organized athletic team.
That fall, the 5-foot-8, 150-pound Ward knew it was time to give up on his dream of playing college football, but he believed he could still earn a scholarship in basketball, where he had been a three-year starter at Brainerd. So the following spring, on the suggestion of a former high school teammate who had played at Tennessee Wesleyan, Ward showed up for an open-gym tryout and impressed the coaches.
The problem was there wasn't a roster spot for another point guard at the time, so Ward went back to Baton Rouge, planning to continue classes at Southern, before a timely call came through on his cell phone.
"I was literally in line to find out what financial aid I would qualify for when one of the coaches at Wesleyan called to say that one of their guards wasn't coming back and would I be interested in joining the team," Ward said. "Man, I said yes immediately, jumped out of that very long line, packed everything back in my car and drove straight to Athens.
"All I could think for that whole eight-hour drive was that I couldn't believe God had opened up another door for me. I knew I would work my butt off to keep that scholarship and keep playing ball."
Now a junior, Ward has been a starter all three years at Wesleyan, and in addition to 9.8 points per game he leads the nation with 4.5 steals per game and is second with 7.2 assists. He also was named the AAC's defensive player of the year, and his offensive rebound with 15 seconds remaining led to Desmond Crisp's winning shot with 2.1 seconds remaining in Saturday's conference championship game.
"Not a day goes by that I don't look back on the things I went through, the tough times and how I got where I am now," Ward said. "All I can say is that God had a plan for me. He had a reason for me to go through some things so I would be the person I am now. It humbled me and makes me appreciate things a lot more now.
"It would've been easier to just quit. But I wouldn't change it because I plan to teach and coach after college, and I think being able to share the things I went through with younger kids might show them to never give up."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.