Catch Up with the Former Northern Iowa ReceiverJim Gehman
The Jets selected USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson No. 1 overall in the 1996 NFL Draft.
The following year, they chose University of Northern Iowa wide receiver Dedric Ward in the third round, 88th overall.
Both could catch the ball. One just happened to write a book about it.
Ironically, the non-author, Ward, a two-time NCAA Division I-AA All-American, left UNI with his name prominently noted in the school's and NCAA's record books after totaling 4,539 receiving yards and 50 touchdown receptions.
"I was excited coming from a smaller school just to hear your name called. Period," Ward said. "And knowing I was going to play for a Hall of Fame coach like Bill Parcells, knowing I was going to get the best coaching around, that was exciting.
"Obviously, it's s a tremendous amount of jump up in terms of the level of, not only football, but the size of the city. It was kind of getting ready to make a leap into real life world, I guess for lack of better word. So that was kind of exciting. But at the same time, there was some nervousness not knowing what to expect, and figuring out that you're going to the biggest city in our country to get a career started."
Ward got his career started with help from his new teammate, Johnson.
"My agent at the time was from L.A., so we had run into Keyshawn a couple of different times," Ward said. "He kind of took me under his wing. And even though he was only a second-year player at the time, he being a first-pick overall, was somebody that you could look up to and somebody that you could lean on. If you watched and did what he did, you were most likely going to be in a pretty good situation."
In his second season, Ward helped put New York in a good situation when he hauled in a 71-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde in Buffalo on December 19, and clinched the AFC East with the 17-10 victory.
"It was late in the game and one of the plays that I was asked to run quite a bit, that route down the left sideline," Ward said, "I remember the ball being thrown up and making a move, breaking the tackle, and running 71 yards to seal the AFC East Championship.
"It was a pretty exciting time as a young player not knowing exactly what to expect in a game of that magnitude. But it was obviously an important game for us."
Making the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and after getting past Jacksonville in the divisional round, the Jets traveled to Denver for the 1998 AFC Championship Game.
"The individual accolades are great, but obviously winning the Super Bowl Championship is the ultimate goal," said Ward, who had 5 catches for 61 yards. "So, for me making it to the AFC Championship Game as a second-year player, we were up, 10-0, and at that point, everybody kind of started thinking, 'Hey, this is real. We've got a shot now to make it to the Super Bowl.' Obviously, things went downhill from there."
With that 10-0 lead three minutes into the second half, the Jets became as cold as the 27-degree wind chill at Mile High Stadium would suggest, and lost to the Broncos, 27-10.
Parcells made a change in the wide receivers corps after the 1999 season when he traded Johnson to Tampa Bay.
"I don't know how it was for anybody else, but I was caught off guard. I didn't really expect it," Ward said. "I know there was some tension between him and Wayne (Chrebet) at the time. They obviously come from two different worlds and two different situations. And if you hadn't been in the locker room and not knowing, you would have thought they're best friends from a football perspective.
"I think that's kind of how Parcells wanted everybody to operate. You don't have to like each other when you leave the building, but when you come into this locker room or when you come into the stadium for a game, we've got to fight for each other. And I think they both did that."
Ward had a Green & White banner year in 2000 - starting every game, he had a career-high 54 receptions for 801 yards, scoring three touchdowns. And he did so without being told by first-year head coach Al Groh or Parcells, who was then solely the general manager, that he'd be elevated to first-team.
"All my experiences with Parcells, I don't think he's told anybody that they're going to be the man. It's an open competition," Ward said. "That was kind of his philosophy. And the way that he coached, he didn't care about egos, he didn't care about what your status was prior to you coming here.
"Being part of his team, he was interested in you going out there and competing. And the best guy, whoever that was, whether you're a first-round draft pick or whether you're a free agent, if you gave him the best chance to win, you had an opportunity to play.
"So I think it gave everybody an opportunity to kind of step up and say, 'Hey, it's game on.' The guys who could prove that he deserved those opportunities are going to get them. It opened the door for everybody."
Following four seasons with the Jets, Ward became a free agent and went on to play four more seasons with Miami, Baltimore, Dallas, and New England, where he helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVIII.
With those other experiences, did Ward notice anything that set Jet fans apart?
"I think the passion for the game," he said. "They knew exactly what was going on. It's not like some of the other casual fans that are there to support you, but don't necessarily know the ins and outs of football. The likings that they take into their athletes and their sports franchises are amazing."
Working for The Prull Group, a residential heating and cooling company, Ward is in the process of moving from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Houston, Texas.
"I'm doing AutoCAD computer stuff, building programs," Ward said. "I've been doing it for the last couple years. I was actually in the field doing the construction part of it, and I transitioned to a little more remote role so I could have a little more flexibility.
"(I enjoy what I'm doing because it's) the same thing I enjoyed about football, being around the guys, working with my hands, continuously learning and trying to get better each day. Obviously, I didn't have any experience coming into this like I did football, but just meeting new people, learning new things, and having an opportunity to progress and continue to further life, it has made for an enjoyable after-football career."
Ward has a wife, Brandy, a son, Mason, and three step-daughters from a previous marriage: Katelin, Mya, and Keara.
"I think that life has slowed down, obviously. You're not in the limelight like you once were, but you still have the knowledge and experience that I'm able to give back not only to my family and to my friends but to kids who I've worked with hosting a football camp (in Cedar Rapids) has kept me around it and available," Ward said.
"And having some good guys that I've stayed in contact with since my playing days has been the icing on the cake. Some of those are lifelong friends that I'll have to the end of my time on this earth. So it's nice to know that those guys have continued to support me as I support them and their families. And it's nice to know that I've been able to give back not only to my community, but to my family."