MIAMI — Unlike his celebrated teammate on the other side of the ball, San Francisco 49ers safety Jimmie Ward isn’t really a Chicago area kid.
He was born in Racine, Wisconsin, before moving to Mobile, Ala., where James Neko Suave Ward had a very good but not great high school career at Davidson high school, making him a 2-star recruit.
That’s how he ended up in the Chicago area at Northern Illinois University in 2010, the same year the Garoppolo kid from Arlington Heights ended up at Eastern Illinois.
However, Ward would go on to an outstanding career in DeKalb, becoming only the second player in school history to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
In the 2014 draft — in which Garoppolo went 62nd to the Patriots — Ward went 30th to the 49ers.
Larry English was the other Huskie first-round pick, going to the Chargers 16th overall in 2009.
Today, Ward is basking in the glow of his first Super Bowl, and I asked him Tuesday morning what he remembers about his time at Northern that prepared him for this moment?
“Ah just, man, just everything that I had to do” Ward said.
“Like I had to do a lot.
“When you come from a smaller conference, you really have to do a lot to get drafted in the first round or even for somebody to consider you one of the top players.
"Just because you’re at the smaller school, they may feel like you’re not playing against the best competition.
“We didn’t even have an indoor facility at NIU when I was there my first three years, so I had to practice in the cold, just getting my body through that was a very tough situation.
“But I ended up playing great in the cold and it’s just some adversity that I had to persevere through.”
Remember, the winters in Mobile are nothing like Chicago, and the folks at Northern had never seen anything quite like the Husky team Ward helped lead to the Orange Bowl his junior year.
Ward says one of the things he’s proudest of in his football career is what his class did for his school and his part in getting the facilities they have now.
“Oh yeah, I know my senior year we ended up building the indoor, and they’re still building on the whole college. So it’s nice.
“Now we’re getting more recruits now, and that’s cool that I was one of the people that was on that team that helped change things around.”
Ward's early years in San Francisco weren’t as rewarding until Garoppolo arrived, with the club going 15-33 from 2014-16.
But according to Ward, he knew what Jimmy G. could do for his team.
“He’s had a very big impact and the crazy thing about it is, like after my first year of having to lose the season I was saying like man, ‘cause I used to see Jimmy Garoppolo sitting behind Tom Brady, I was like ‘Man ‘if we could get Jimmy Garoppolo, somebody could just get Jimmy Garoppolo over here we’d have a quarterback.
“I used to think that the whole time.
“Then I know Kyle (Shanahan) came over here with a bunch of stuff about Kirk Cousins and this and that, but I just always knew who Jimmy Garoppolo was because I played against him when I was at NIU and he was at EIU so I knew what type of quarterback he was.”
Do Ward and Garoppolo still relive their glory days in college?
“I talk crap about him and he talks crap back to me, and I tell him, 'I picked you off and this and that.'
“... I picked him off one time, he was throwing like a seam route and I ended up ... I think I had a broken hand so I had a cast on it. I actually had a lot of picks that year with the cast on.”
There is one other thing Bears fans may be interested to know about this quasi Chicago-area kid: following the Super Bowl, Ward is slated to become a free agent, and last I checked the Bears only have one starter at that position under contract.