Greg Ward Jr. dragged the throwing net onto the empty football field at John Tyler High School and began to work on his drops and rollouts, rifling pass after pass into the net. He was all alone. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 45 minutes.
This was long before he became a star quarterback at the University of Houston, long before he ping-ponged back and forth on and off the Eagles’ roster and long before he became the star of the 2019 playoff run.
Ward was a freshman in high school. He was 14 years old.
And he was out there on the field after practice every day by himself.
“Greg is a guy that’s going to do whatever he needs to do to be successful,” his high school football coach Ricklan Holmes said to NBC Sports Philadelphia this week. “If that’s staying an extra 30, 45 minutes a day working on whatever he needs to, he’s gonna do it.”
Holmes noticed that a few days later, three or four of Ward’s receivers showed up after practice. A few days after that, there were 10 on the field. By the time Ward was a sophomore, it became ritual. His work ethic was contagious.
In many ways, Ward is still that 14-year-old kid. Chip on his shoulder, striving for seemingly unattainable highs and willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
The fact that he seems to be in a different position with the Eagles in this training camp doesn’t mean much to him. To the outside observer, Ward has a roster spot locked up; he’s likely going to be the Eagles’ starting slot receiver. He earned that role by being their most reliable receiver down the stretch last season while also earning the respect and trust of his coaching staff and quarterback.
Ward, 25, isn’t thinking like that.
He’s still thinking like the guy who was released six times by the team he finally helped get into the playoffs.
“My whole mindset is that I don’t have a starting spot right now,” Ward said. “I’m still fighting every single day. My mindset will never change. I have to outwork everybody, not only here but around the league. I just have to make sure I’m on top of my game.”
So that means doing whatever it takes. Often, that means doing what he’s done since he was a freshman in high school. If something happens at practice that he doesn’t like, Ward will be back on that field after the final whistle, working on it until he feels comfortable.
The time doesn’t matter to him.
“Just having that edge, I always talk about an edge, I feel like if I don’t work hard enough, then I won’t be good enough,” Ward said. “I always have to continue to sharpen iron and just continue to get better.”
That feeling that he has to outwork everyone has been with Ward since he was a child. He said it was instilled in him by his father and his older brothers. Holmes, who has known Ward since he was very young, still remembers an undersized Ward getting upset when the bigger boys wouldn’t let him play with them.
That chip on his shoulder has been growing ever since. It grew when college programs didn’t have interest in him as a quarterback. It grew when he went undrafted in 2017. It grew when people thought he couldn’t make the switch to an NFL receiver. And it grew all six times the Eagles told him he wasn’t good enough.
Holmes watched Ward’s success in the 2019 season proudly.
“I told people,” Holmes said, “now that Greg is actually out there playing, you’re going to see what kind of football player he is.”
Everyone saw. Ward, despite beginning the season on the Eagles’ practice squad, was their best receiver in the last six games of the season. He 28 catches for 254 yards and a touchdown. If he were to keep that pace for an entire season, he’d have a 75/677/3 year. And it certainly seems like Ward is going to have the opportunity for a big 2020 season, especially given the talent around him.
But he’s still thinking like that 14-year-old kid. It’s worked for him so far.
“I’m going to always feel like I’m clawing, regardless,” Ward said. “Just have to keep that edge about me, have to keep that fire lit.”