D.J. Ward couldn't play football this past season.
He couldn't stay away from it either.
One of the state's best high school players, Ward had a senior season like no other. It started with a family move from Lawton last summer, but what came after was a strange series of events that ultimately left Ward ineligible to play.
But with a football scholarship at Oklahoma and a dream of one day playing in the NFL, Ward couldn't just forget football.
“He knows what his goal is,” his brother and mentor Lee Crain said. “He understands to get where he needs to be, there are certain things he has to do.”
Later this week, Ward will make his commitment to the Sooners official by signing a national letter of intent. But his signing day pledge is mere formality; Ward graduated from high school in December and enrolled at OU in January.
These past six months have been a rough and peculiar chapter in Ward's life.
A season without football.
Or was it?
* * *
Tre Edwards remembers the day D.J. Ward moved in next door.
The Southmoore High School quarterback never imagined it was the ballyhooed defensive end. He didn't even think the guy was his age. The dude had dreadlocks, a mustache and a beard. Surely he was in his 20s or maybe even 30s.
A few days later, Edwards heard rumors that Ward had moved into the school district, and his mind immediately went to the guy he'd seen next door.
“No way that's D.J. Ward,” Edwards thought.
But it was, all 6-foot-3, 245 pounds of him.
Ward's family had moved from Lawton to Moore. Ward's father, Demetrius, had landed a Junior ROTC position at Douglass High School, and the family had moved into temporary housing in Moore.
The place just happened to be next to Southmoore, so close that a rock thrown from the front yard would hit the school.
But Ward was headed to Douglass to play. That's where his dad was going to work, so that's where he was going to school. After filling out the proper paperwork with the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association — the family asked for a hardship waiver since it planned to permanently move into the Douglass district — he was cleared to be a Trojan.
On Aug. 24 and 25, he played for Douglass in the All-City Preview.
But something didn't feel right. Ward would later tell one of his coaches that Douglass wasn't for him.
“It's not really the atmosphere I want to be in,” the coach remembered the player saying.
Less than a week after wearing Douglass orange and black in the All-City Preview, he enrolled at Southmoore.
* * *
Southmoore coach Jeff Brickman knew when he first met Ward in the counselor's office that it would be a long shot if he ever played a down for his team.
“I assumed he probably wouldn't be able to play, to be honest,” he said.
As he listened to Ward's story on the day that the youngster enrolled at Southmoore, Brickman realized the hurdles with the OSSAA would be many.
“They don't ever see any gray areas,” the coach said of the state's governing body for high school sports. “It's always black and white.”
Southmoore officials helped Ward fill out another hardship waiver, sent it to the OSSAA and hoped for a good outcome.
In the meantime, Ward began practicing with Southmoore. He would do position and conditioning drills, but since no one knew if he'd be available when it came time for games, he rarely played when the starters would scrimmage each other during the end of practice.
Instead, he'd run scout team.
Jackson Stallings marvels at that.
“He ran scout team for a team that he was easily the best player for,” the Southmoore tight end/defensive end said.
That's how it went for the better part of three weeks — arguably the state's best player running scout team.
All the while, the rumors were flying about Ward's eligibility. The players heard something different every couple hours, it seemed.
“How he had to sit out 10 days but then he'd be able to play,” Stallings said, rattling off some of the rumors. “He'd be cleared right after the Westmoore game. He'd be cleared once we went to districts.
“We heard a bunch of rumors.”
And if they heard them, Ward heard them, too.
Finally during the third week of the season, the OSSAA made a ruling: Ward could return to Douglass and be eligible or he could stay at Southmoore and play junior varsity.
“Which I don't know if you've ever seen him play,” Brickman said, “but him playing jayvee football would be a little scary.”
Search for D.J. Ward on YouTube, and watch him blow by varsity offensive lineman and toss around varsity backs like rag dolls.
Then think about him against jayvee players.
Ward weighed his options for a couple days. Should he bite the bullet and return to Douglass? Could he even think about playing jayvee? Ultimately, he decided he couldn't do either.
On Sept. 12 — two days before Southmoore's third and final nondistrict game — Ward said on Twitter that his season was over.
“So ... I'm not playing football this year,” he wrote.
The tweets that followed told of a tormented teen.
“Second night of no sleep ... Too much crap going through my head.”
Then came a post in which Ward said he was fine, a post that would be indicative of the months to come.
“Still on track to do big things.”
* * *
Ward didn't turn away from football when he found out he couldn't play.
Quite the opposite.
He remained part of the team at Southmoore. Even though he eventually stopped practicing, he did everything else that the varsity players did. He'd be in the locker room before games and stand on the sideline during them. He'd go to Buffalo Wild Wings with the guys after games. He'd participate in the team functions, be it playing laser tag or going to the movies.
“He was definitely part of the team,” Edwards said
Ward did everything but play for Southmoore.
Those closest to him say that Ward desperately wanted to be on the field under the Friday night lights. And his Twitter feed had several references to games that he wished he could play in.
But neither Edwards nor Stallings saw Ward angry or bitter.
“He was pretty even-keeled,” Stallings said. “Going through the whole thing, he was really like a rock.”
Edwards said, “Of course he wanted to go out and play his senior year. Who doesn't?”
“You know, he had to do what he had to do.”
And what he had to do was continue to focus on his future in football.
Ward asked if he could use Southmoore's weight room, and Brickman was happy to oblige. Ward lifted with the team, then did his own individual workouts.
Edwards' phone would ring some days at 5 a.m.
It would be Ward.
“Tre,” he'd say, “let's go work out.”
Ward's father also got a gym membership so they could work out any time the Southmoore weight room wasn't available.
Ward was 245 pounds before the season.
Now, he's 255 pounds.
“I think he handled the adversity very maturely,” said his brother Lee. “Initially, it was somewhat frustrating just from the not-knowing aspect of it. Relatively quickly, he just accepted it — ‘All right, I can't change this. I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to continue to go work out and get ready.'”
* * *
D.J. Ward will return to the school where he never played later this week. He has decided to sign his national letter of intent during Southmoore's signing day ceremony.
It's another step forward.
Ward set his sights on this next phase of his career even while he was finishing up his high school classes as Southmoore. He spent as much time as possible in Norman last fall. He went on unofficial visits. He attended every game that he could.
Those days were reminders of what was to come.
He knew his career was not over, just paused.
Now, Ward has immersed himself in spring classes and offseason workouts. In the coming weeks, he'll start spring practice.
He'll be back in football.
Did he ever really leave it?