A blessing: Jihad Ward’s journey to Illinois

By Sean Neumann

Sitting down on the ground after practice, Jihad Ward may not seem so big.

But when the 6-foot-6, 295 pound defensive lineman gets to his feet, his shadow blankets over you. And when he greets you, his gigantic grin eliminates all prospects of intimidation.

A few years ago, it may have been hard to imagine him here, standing in the middle of Memorial Stadium. Just a few weeks ago, it would have been hard to imagine him making his third start for the Illini this Saturday when they visit Washington.

Ward puts it simply: “It’s a blessing.”

The Philadelphia native didn’t meet academic qualifications after high school and had to spend his first two years of eligibility at Globe Institute of Technology — a junior college in the middle of Times Square in New York.

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“It looked like a welfare office to be honest with you,” Ward remembered. “When I wasn’t eligible coming out of high school, I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of high school? What am I going to be not having a degree and barely having a high school diploma?’ I took the JUCO route to set an example. I started early, because you don’t want to wait until the last minute. You either grind now or you struggle later.”

Ward chose to “grind now” when he arrived in Champaign this summer, combining hard work with opportunity to land himself in a starting spot at defensive end when the season began. He was one of the first newcomers to be “de-striped” and accepted by his teammates during training camp, and stepped into a first-string role when junior Kenny Nelson was injured just before the season began.

“That height is great at (defensive) end,” defensive line coach Greg Colby said. “He’s going to get those hands up in the eyes of the quarterback, but the big thing about him is that he’s just so athletic for such a big kid.”

The lineman has already proved his agility on defense, recording 10 tackles, half a sack and forcing a fumble late in the fourth quarter against Western Kentucky to help notch a 42-34 win.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Ward already knows the fast tempo college football is played at and is an “all-in guy” — one of his most important traits that helps play into a new outlook from Illinois’ defensive line. For Ward, those lessons in character started at home.

“My mom was my dad,” Ward said. “She had to teach me what a man does.”

Ward’s mother, Kareema, had him when she was 17 years old (the same number he wears to honor her) and raised him in a single-parent home with four siblings — all younger than Jihad.

“I’m the man of the house,” Ward said. “They don’t have anybody to look up to. Their father’s never around, so they look up to me. I give them a call and make sure everybody’s OK.

“I connect with everybody through FaceTime,” he said.

The junior’s positivity and constructive attitude help contribute to an Illini defensive line which already finds itself more relaxed since ranking last in rushing defense among the Big Ten in 2013, allowing 238.6 yards per game.

“We have a better bond as a defensive line and it transfers well on the field,” senior lineman DeJazz Woods said. “Jihad is definitely a guy who loves to work. He’s one of those guys who’s not going to let the team down.”

Ward said his goal is clear: help the defense get better. A large part of that is helping his teammates stay positive about their improvements so far this season, which now have the Illini ranked in the middle of the Big Ten defensively and tied for fifth in sacks. 

“If there’s struggles, you’ve just got to fix it,” Ward said. “We all have problems, you’ve just got to figure out the solution, you know? And I think that’s what’s wrong with society now, because people don’t want to fix their problems. You’ve got to fix it, you’ve got to want it, you’ve got to fight.”

The junior transfer is new to the Illini, but he came with experience. He recorded 10 sacks in his two seasons with Globe and was responsible for helping his teammates get to and from class through an array of New York City transportation — including trains, buses, boats and on foot. Ward also motivated his teammates to join him at the gym in order to improve on the field.

“In order to win, you’ve got stand together,” he said. “One person can’t affect the whole team, one person can’t make the team win. It has to be all of us. There ain’t no such thing as one, you’ve got to be all.”

Ward said that’s the key difference in playing for Illinois: players are less selfish and more willing to play together as a team.

As for his current adjustments off the field, Ward said he often finds himself homesick, living away from his mom who still reminds him to “keep going and don’t stop,” because as he’s learned: “There’s no such thing as making it, because you can’t stop learning.”

But Ward’s made it pretty far, now standing in the middle of a 60,000 seat stadium. And he’s adapted well to his new home, his new team and his new life. 

The Bally Total Fitness card he was given by his junior college team doesn’t stack up to Illinois’ weight room facilities. 

Waking up at 4 a.m. and taking a ferry and a train to school isn’t as appealing as being able to walk to class every morning. 

And dealing with “selfish” attitudes from junior college players trying to impress Division I teams isn’t as welcoming as playing with the Illini — a “family who helps each other out,” according to Ward. A family he’ll play alongside for the third time Saturday in Washington.

“This team is the real deal and you don’t really get a lot of teammates like this,” Ward said. “These are my brothers and I will die for them at any cost.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter: @neumannthehuman.