My dad would have been 49 today.
That’s pretty crazy. He would still be so young, you know? Hard to believe it’s been over two years since he passed.
I still think about him every day — every time I hold a door open for somebody, every time I remind myself to look a person in the eyes when I speak to them, every time I get tired or things get tough and I tell myself I need to work harder and push through it.
Those are all things that he taught me.
I also think about him every time I’m back in Bedford, Ohio — where I grew up, about 30 minutes southeast of FirstEnergy Stadium — and I drive past the Carylwood Intermediate School to the corner of Caryl and Melba, and I see the street sign with his name on it.
PAUL G. WARD JR. WAY
That’s one thing I wish he was here to see. When I think about everything that’s happened since he passed — me being named an All-American at Ohio State, getting drafted No. 4 by the Browns, picking off two passes in my first NFL game — I know he would be proud.
But seeing that street dedicated in his honor … I know that would have meant a lot to him.
His name was very important to him. He believed that a man’s name was everything, and that it was a man’s responsibility to make sure his name stood for something. Every time I stepped on the football field, my dad would say, “Make them know your name.” Not only with the plays I made, but with how hard I worked and the kind of teammate I was.
I took that with me to Ohio State.
Courtesy of Denzel Ward
He came to see me play my freshman year. I didn’t really play too much — just on special teams, really — but I know he was proud to see me out there, at a world-class university, playing for a powerhouse program.
After my freshman year, I went back home for a couple of weeks. One morning while I was home, my dad went to the gym for a spin class. I was with my mom in the kitchen when she got a phone call. It was somebody from the gym.
During the spin class, the woman on the phone said, my dad had collapsed.
He was being rushed to the emergency room.
I got into the car with my mom and we drove to the hospital. We ran inside and asked where my dad was, and when we got to his floor, we saw the doctor right away.
He said my dad didn’t make it.
He had passed away.
That was it.
I’ve heard people describe what it’s like when bad things happen — you know, a big moment like a near-death experience or an unexpected death in the family — and they say that everything slows down.
But I didn’t experience that.
For me, everything happened really fast. The phone call. The drive to the hospital. The news from the doctor. He didn’t make it. Then my mom calling family members and telling them the news, and everybody coming to the hospital crying and confused, asking how this could have happened.
We didn’t have any answers.
We later found out that the cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Courtesy of Denzel Ward
The funeral was tough. But it was also kind of eye-opening because I think that that was when I realized how big of an impact my dad had made on our community. I mean, he had worked in education for as long as I could remember, as a teacher and an administrator. And he had always been really passionate about serving our community and giving back.
When I was maybe six or seven, he took me and my brother to a shelter on Thanksgiving to help prepare food and serve dinner to the less fortunate — people who were homeless or who didn’t have anywhere to go. He was so passionate about serving our community, and he wanted to instill that in me and my brother, Paul III, by getting us out there and doing it ourselves.
Since that day, every year I’ve been able to, I’ve been back out there working at the shelter on Thanksgiving.
It’s just another one of those things that reminds me of my dad … and all the things he taught me.
He was a good dad. And I know that a lot of times, when somebody dies, people talk about how they didn’t appreciate them while they were here. I think that happens a lot. But it wasn’t like that with me and my dad. I think from a young age I understood that a lot of kids didn’t have their fathers in their lives, or any kind of male role models, really. So I’ve always kind of understood how fortunate I was to have had a dad like him.
But that day at the church, for his funeral, I realized how fortunate our community was to have a man like him.
The church was packed. Every seat was full. There were people standing along the walls. People standing in the doorway. People standing outside who couldn’t even get in because there wasn’t any room.
All people whose lives my dad had impacted.
Not long after his funeral, it was time for me to go back to school. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my mom alone. It was tough on her. She and my dad had been high-school sweethearts. They’d been married almost 21 years. Now, with him being gone, I didn’t want to leave her all by herself.
But my dad didn’t just prepare me for football, he prepared me for life. He taught me that when things get hard, you have to keep working, because life goes on. And my mom and I both knew that my dad would have wanted me to go back to school, finish what I had started at Ohio State, fulfill my dream of making it to the NFL … and inspire as many people as I could in the process.
So I went back to school.
Make them know your name.
That’s what I was thinking on draft night as I was walking from the green room to the stage after the Browns had taken me with the fourth pick — after the commissioner had called my name.
David J. Phillip/AP Photo
I think my dad would have been proud — probably as proud as he’d ever been. But I’m telling you … when they named that street after him? That would have been a great moment for him. Because he was never concerned with being the best father he could be. Or the best husband he could be. Or the best teacher he could be. He wanted to be the best man he could be. And he believed that if he did that — if he concentrated on that every day, every minute, every second — then everything else would take care of itself.
And that’s what dedicating that street to him represented. That he made a real impact. That he was a great man.
He had made everybody know his name.
My dad would have been 49 today, and it’s days like these that are the toughest. Days when we would normally go out to dinner together as a family, or have everybody over for a cookout and just celebrate. But we can’t. So I make sure I use these opportunities to remember him and all the things that he taught me.
If I could talk to him right now, I would just say … well, I’d say thank you. For everything. You did so much for me. You made me the man I am today. And I’m doing like you told me, Dad. I’m making them know my name. With everything I do on and off the field — everything I do in my life — I’m making them know.
Just like you did.
Happy birthday, Dad.
We still miss you every day.