CANTON: More than 70 boys, clad in orange and white T-shirts, summoned their hero by chanting his name.
“T.J. Ward. T.J. Ward. T.J. Ward,” they yelled in unison.
Ward jogged onto the field Wednesday afternoon at Malone University, gave the group a pep talk and then proceeded to catch, pass and chase for the next couple of hours, albeit with spontaneous breaks for signing autographs and posing for photographs sprinkled in. Although Ward might have cemented his status as an idol in the minds of those who attended his first youth football camp, he isn’t quite ready to praise himself.
Ward, who’s on the verge of entering his third NFL season, said Browns fans have yet to see him play his best football.
“Not by a long shot,” he said.
That must change if Ward wants to meet the expectations placed upon him as a second-round draft pick. And he has challenged himself to make it happen.
“So just get ready,” Ward said. “I came into my first year in the league just trying to have a good rookie season, and I prepared that way.
“Last year with the lockout and everything, the preparation wasn’t right. Then it was just a bad year for me, period. From the very start of camp until when I got hurt, it just didn’t go well for me.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ward started the first 24 games of his professional career at strong safety, but the streak snapped last season after he sprained his right foot in Week 9 against the Houston Texans. Ward tried to return for Week 15, though his foot did not respond well, and he ended the season on injured reserve.
Other injuries, however, mounted before then. Ward said he suffered a strained hamstring in training camp that lingered, sprained his right wrist at some point during the regular season and got stitches at halftime against the Texans because a bone in his left index finger broke through the skin.
“My hamstring was messed up,” said Ward, who compiled a team-high 105 tackles in 2010 and 38 last season. “I had that and I missed all the preseason games except the first one. I never really bounced back. The first three games I was dealing with it, then when it finally kind of started going away — it was just a tough year for me — I hurt my wrist. No one knows about it, but I had a hurt wrist coming into the Texans game. In warm-ups, I had a cast on, but it was so [restrictive] I had to take it off. Then I got in the game and hurt my finger. I came back the second half of that game and hurt my foot.”
One of the main messages Ward said he delivered to the boys who participated in his camp Monday through Wednesday is “just don’t quit.” He hopes to become an example of perseverance during the upcoming season.
“I expect to have a big year,” Ward said. “I’ve been working really hard. I’m looking to bounce back from my injury from last year and just have a really good, productive, successful season.
“I’m so hungry. I’m more determined not only to be one of the best safeties in the NFL, but one of the best players at any position. That’s my mindset. So I’m very excited about this season. I’m very excited to test myself.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.