25th Anniversary Heisman Winner: Charlie Ward
When Charlie Ward arrived in Tallahassee in 1989, the Florida State Seminoles were about to start a dominant run that would eventually establish them as the nation’s premier program. However, some benchmark accomplishments were still missing. Namely, while FSU had already logged a couple of top three finishes under head coach Bobby Bowden, there had been no national championship and no Heisman Trophy winner. Ward changed all that—and did so with such flair—that it stands to reason, if anyone had the right to be dubbed “Mr. Seminole,” it was Charlie.
Ward’s athletic journey began 35 miles away from Tallahassee, in Thomasville, Georgia, where he was a multi-sport star at Thomasville County Central High during the late 1980s. Charlie was outstanding in football and basketball, and was widely recruited in both, but he was also an accomplished in several other sports. He was an excellent baseball player (good enough to be drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school), a tennis player, track athlete and golfer. He was an athlete in perpetual motion.
As a prep senior, Ward passed for 1,891 yards and rushed for 1,000 more, accumulating 25 touchdowns on his way to being selected the Atlanta Constitution`s State Offensive Player of the Year. He signed with Florida State as a quarterback in 1989, joining another future Heisman winner, Chris Weinke, in a star-studded recruiting class. But Ward also had his eye on the hardwood and committed to playing point guard for Pat Kennedy’s basketball team. Stuck deep down on the quarterback depth chart for his first few seasons, Charlie turned to basketball to make his name. He entered his junior season in football with just 14 career pass attempts to his credit, but had already led the Seminoles to the Sweet 16 as the team’s starting point guard.
It was his basketball play for the Seminoles, which convinced Bowden that Ward had the leadership qualities needed to be a successful quarterback. Charlie took over the starting quarterback job in 1992 and, after some early struggles, led FSU to an 11-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll. Guiding what became known as the “Fast Break” offense, he passed for 2,647 yards and 22 touchdowns, but also tossed 17 interceptions. The 1993 team would be a loaded one, with Ward as its leader, but the fifth-year senior needed to cut down on his mistakes and become more consistent if FSU was to finally fulfill its lofty potential.
In 1993, Charlie and FSU did just that. From the jump, he was the unquestioned star on the nation’s best team. The Seminoles whipped their first five opponents by a combined score of 228–14 as Ward threw 12 touchdowns against just one interception and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. Ward then led FSU to a huge 28–10 victory over archrival Miami, making him the clear Heisman frontrunner. Though he missed one game due to injury, Ward bounced back to finish strong with 11 touchdown passes in his final three outings. By the end of the regular season, his passing statistics were the paragon of efficiency: 69.4 percent of his throws completed for 3,032 yards with 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. At the time it was the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in Heisman history.
Not surprisingly, Ward was the runaway winner of the 1993 Heisman. He swept all six voting regions and secured the second most first-place votes in the trophy’s history with 740. He also garnered 83.79% of all possible voting points and his 1,662-point margin of victory over runner-up Heath Shuler of Tennessee was the second largest ever. But it wasn’t just the Heisman that honored him. Charlie also won the Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas Awards, was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year, and was the second college football player ever to win the Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s top amateur athlete. Ward also guided FSU to its first national championship, as he threw for 286 yards to help defeat Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl. He was the first Heisman winner to lead his team to a national title since Tony Dorsett did so in 1976.
A national championship, a Heisman, multiple collegiate awards, an Elite 8 appearance in basketball—these were the accomplishments Ward had under his belt as he prepared to move on to his post-college career. But it was his role as a team leader that left a lasting impression: “His leadership transcended offense, defense and special teams. It transcended the basketball court,” said Mark Richt, Ward’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at Florida State and the current head football coach at the University of Miami.
The question loomed: What sport would Charlie play after college?
At a generously listed 6-foot-2, and just 190 pounds, the prevailing wisdom in 1994 was that Ward lacked the physical stature to be an elite NFL quarterback. This was before the arrival of wide-open offensive systems that would change football dramatically by deviating from the very same pocket quarterback prototype that harmed Ward’s draft status in the first place. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how Ward would have fared in today’s spread offenses. But Charlie had other options in 1994 and the NBA was happy to help.
In the 1994 NBA draft, the New York Knicks selected Ward in the first round, 26th overall. It was the beginning of a 12-year NBA career with the Knicks, Spurs and Rockets, in which Ward stood out as a reliable ball distributor and shooter. A consummate professional, he participated in the 1998 NBA All-Star three-point competition, finishing fourth in the event. The following season he helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals. Charlie remains the only Heisman Trophy winner to play in the NBA.
Though his professional athletic career came to a close about 10 years ago, Charlie has remained active in sports. Starting in 2007, he served as an assistant basketball coach and later head football coach at Westbury Christian School in Houston. In 2014, he accepted the head coaching position at Booker T. Washington High in Pensacola and in 2018 became head coach at Florida High in Tallahassee.
As Mark Richt says of Charlie: “The way he goes about his life with such integrity. The way he’s remained grounded after all he’s accomplished. I’ve learned as much from him as he ever did from me.”