Werner: Illini DL Jihad Ward's story keeps getting better

Illini defensive lineman's story truly is rags to riches following selection by Raiders in second round of 2016 NFL Draft

CHAMPAIGN - Former Illinois coach Bill Cubit said multiple times that Jihad Ward’s story could one day be made into a rags-to-riches, feel-good football movie.

Friday night provided the best feel-good moment yet -- at least to this point of the story.

The Raiders selected the Philly kid found by “Billy” -- what NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called Cubit, his Philadelphia friend -- with the 44th overall pick, the 13th selection of the second round.

"I feel like I gave my family a lot of hope, to come from nothing and turn it into something," Ward said.


Mayock called Ward “a better story than football player right now,” which is true. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound defensive lineman has only started to scratch the surface of his high ceiling. But he also probably never should have made it to this moment.

Ward, born to a 17-year-old single mother, grew up at 16th and LeHigh in Philadelphia, three blocks away from the old Connie Mack Stadium, the Phillies home until 1976. It was a neighborhood Cubit said his father had to pay a kid protection money for his car while watching a game.

“If you didn’t pay them a buck, your tires were going to get slit,” Cubit said. “When he told me where he was living, I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It’s not really pretty.”

One day, Ward walked down the street for Chinese food when someone started shooting. A bullet “barely missed him,” Cubit said.

During one recruiting trip, Ward’s grandmother urged Cubit to “be careful" when he was leaving.

“I told her, ‘Ma’am, my car’s parked right outside my house,’” Cubit said. “She said, ‘Coach. Be careful.’ I’m from Philly, but I’d get parked, get out to my car quick and go."

Once Ward graduated from Edward W. Bok Technical High School -- where he played wide receiver -- he attended Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in downtown Manhattan.

MMQB.com chronicled the difficulties of his journey there, including a killer commute from he and his teammate’s New Jersey apartment that included a bus ride, ferry ride, subway ride and a mile-long walk. And that was just to school. There was another long walk to the football fields. And another long walk to the Bally Total Fitness, the team’s “training facility.”

And then the long trip back to the Jersey apartment, furnished on the first floor with a sofa and lawn chairs.

He didn’t have much money to buy food since Globe Tech didn’t provide scholarship funds. Sometimes he’d go into a restaurant with a dollar and ask what he could get and he might be given some leftovers.

There and back again … and again, and again. Just for the chance to play Division I football.

Cubit discovered Ward on the website Hudl, a database of prospect highlight videos, taking special notice that Ward was from his hometown of Philadelphia. Cubit knew his high school coach, who played football with Cubit’s cousin in high school. The two immediately struck a bond on their Philly connection.

Illinois wasn’t the only power-five conference to take offer a scholarship on the massive, freakish athlete -- Tennessee, Washington, Texas Tech and West Virginia also offered -- but Ward took up the Illini on the opportunity to play for and go to school at the Big Ten University. After accepting the scholarship offer, he called or messaged Cubit  almost daily to thank him for the opportunity.

“That’s the type of kid that kid is,” Cubit said.

Ward started all 25 games in two seasons at Illinois. He totaled 104 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He improved the Illini, scared opponents but only scratched the surface of his potential.

He’s still learning to play defensive line, scary since he’ll make an immediate impact in the Raiders rotation as a versatile defensive linemen who can play inside and out in a 4-3 scheme and at the 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme.

In a few weeks, Ward will graduate with a University of Illinois degree -- the first of his family to earn a college degree.

On Friday, the Raiders deemed him one of the top-44 draft prospects and will pay him more than $5 million over the next few years. They won’t have to worry about Ward working to earn it. It took movie-worthy perseverance for Ward to get here. Relenting isn’t part of Jihad Ward’s story.

He says his story isn’t completely written yet.

"When I go to Oakland, I'm still going to have that mindset. I still have not made it,” Ward said.

"I'm happy about the draft. Don't get me wrong," Ward said. “But what's next? It's one of the best defenses in the country. My next goal is to become rookie of the year, be one of the best linemen up front, be up there with the veterans."

This movie's just getting good.

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