POQUOSON — As Nate Ward describes the denial, frustration and, finally, acceptance that the head trauma he suffered in a Poquoson High School football game in September ended his playing career, he sounds like someone lamenting the loss of a loved one.
And in a large sense he is. Without football, Ward is missing a piece of his identity and one of the things he’s loved the most — and longest.
He recovered a fumble on his first football play as a 6-year-old with the Poquoson Mighty Mites, wearing a white T-shirt with his name and number stenciled on it with a Sharpie because the team jersey hadn’t arrived.
His final football play was a 14-yard touchdown run in Poquoson’s 56-0 win over Jamestown on Sept. 17, minutes after his head slammed into the turf on a tackle at the end of a long run.
His best friends in their town of 12,000 played with him in those games, and many in between. Now, as buddies Trey Hicks, Matt Blaser, Kyle Poultney and Dylan Freeman lead the Islanders (10-2) to victory after victory in front of large crowds on the Poquoson Middle School field where playing football started and ended for Ward, he looks on with mixed emotions.
“I want them to go as far as possible and I hope they can make it to states,” Ward said days before the Islanders beat Lakeland 28-0 Friday to move to within one win of a state semifinal berth. “But as much as I love (football), I kind of want this season to end.
“I miss everything about football, especially the environment in Poquoson, which is ecstatic. I miss playing with my friends in my senior year, and I miss when someone would make a big hit and trash-talk at practice.
“I loved the excitement of the games. The roar of the crowd. The adrenaline after making a big play.
“Every Friday night, seeing all those guys out there is like a dagger. Each play is like a another little dagger.
“It sucks, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m finally getting past it.”
Paradoxically, football is helping lift his despair. Ward is serving as a volunteer assistant for the Islanders, doing everything from grunt work at practice to calling in the play signals from the sidelines at games.
“I always look forward to going to football practice,” he said. “I don’t know why I feel that way, I just like being around it, I guess.
“I’ve accepted that I can’t play, and I’m trying to help out as much as possible.”
Hicks, the Islanders’ quarterback, understands how difficult it is for Ward to live without football, so he is “impressed” that he’s handling that so well.
“Nate loves football as much as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Hicks said. “Some of us continued with our other sports when we got into high school, but Nate worked at football religiously.
“I missed not having him in the huddle when he was injured, so it’s great having him back on the sidelines so I can find out if he’s seeing what I’m seeing out on the field. He’s doing everything he can to help this team.”
That’s probably genetic. His grandfather, Don Ward, was one of Poquoson High’s most revered players and head coaches. His dad, Bill Ward, the Islanders’ offensive coordinator, has played or coached in the program for more than 30 years and helped lead it to the 2010 state championship.
Ward, a preseason All-Bay Rivers District pick at running back, was carrying on the legacy nicely before his injury. As Ward spun to gain extra yardage on his signature play, a counter sweep, one Jamestown tackler wrapped his ankles and another hit him cleanly in the chest with a force that knocked him head-first into the turf.
Ward stayed in the game despite the increasingly tingly feeling he felt throughout his body, running for the touchdown on the same counter play moments later. As he crossed the goal line, he felt a sharp pain run down his neck and back, along with pressure in his skull, and “knew something was seriously wrong.”
He ran to the sidelines and removed his helmet, then took off his pads and began to squirt his body with water because he felt “hot.” The team trainer knelt in front of him, but Ward, unfailingly polite, asked her to move because he was about to throw up.
He did and then passed out, not waking up again until the next afternoon in a hospital room full of family and friends. In the interim, Ward had undergone several hours of surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain from the broken blood vessel, while hundreds from Poquoson gathered in a waiting room until nearly 2 a.m.
Ward says the first person he saw when he awoke was his cousin, Poquoson defensive coordinator Darren Smith. His first instinct was to ask Smith, “Did we get the shutout?”
To those in the room, it was the first visible confirmation of the surgeon’s assurance that Ward, who did not suffer a concussion or brain bruising, had avoided brain damage. Ward’s first thoughts were, “Why am I here? It doesn’t hurt that bad.”
His condition has improved steadily since. He returned to school for half a day within two weeks, but, because of the exhaustion common following brain trauma, would go home and sleep five hours.
Being around his friends at school has lifted his spirits. His endurance is returning, too, and often he’ll go to football practice without napping at all.
Ward experienced no cognitive impairment and says academics are coming to him more easily every day. The only cloud he has been dealing with is that lost sense of identity football gave him.
“I didn’t think about it much at first, and when they played York (on Sept. 24), I was still in denial,” Ward said. “It wasn’t until the Warhill game (Oct. 8) that I felt I couldn’t help the team anymore.
“I hadn’t read the (Sept. 19 Daily Press) newspaper article (which noted that he would likely never play again) until a few weeks later. That made it really sink in.
“It was pretty devastating.”
The injury has been a challenging experience for his parents, Jennifer and Bill Ward, as well.
“I love football and respect the people who play it,” Bill Ward said, while emphasizing this is the only time in which he’s seen a serious football head injury at Poquoson High. “This does not turn me away from football whatsoever, but it does increase the awareness of what can happen.”
Jennifer said that when her nephew, eighth-grader Bailey Green, took a hard hit playing for the Poquoson junior varsity recently, it was upsetting. The next night, she said that when Trey Hicks injured his ankle in a varsity game, she became sick and could not watch the rest of the game.
But the clouds are lifting for everyone as Ward has increasingly accepted that he cannot play contact again and as his condition continues to improve. Jennifer says her son received a glowing report last week from the surgeon, who told him that everything in his brain was back in the right place and cleared him to lift weights and run track.
“The surgeon told us the night of the injury to expect that he’d be four months in the hospital, and he went home in four days,” Jennifer said. “He said Nate’s age and physical fitness were key to his recovery.
“Nate has taught me a lot by how well he’s handled this. We feel extremely lucky and blessed.”
Ward, who led the football team in weight-room attendance three years running, feels blessed to lift again. And, although he’s never run track before, he thinks “it will be fun” and scratch his competitive itch.
A history buff, Ward has scheduled a trip to the beaches of Normandy in France in March. Then he’ll make a spring-break trip to Cancun, Mexico, with his friends, where he might even surf for the first time since the injury — as long as he doesn’t attempt really large waves.
He’ll also focus now on where he’ll attend college, most likely East Carolina University or James Madison. After college graduation, Ward says he might return to Poquoson and coach football, first on the junior-varsity level and then with the varsity.
He won’t do that because he has to, though. Ward is learning that, while he’ll always love football, it’s not all that he is.
“I’ve learned that football isn’t everything,” Ward said. “There’s a whole other part of me.
“I haven’t found what I like yet, but I am going to discover who I am.”
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.