I first really started to pay attention and follow college football in 1993. I had been to games in State College years prior but my sports brain never truly developed until 1993, when my beloved Philadelphia Phillies sparked a new passion for me with sports. As I studied up on baseball over that wild summer, I picked up college football n the fall like never before by watching games more frequently with my dad on those fall Saturdays.
In 1993 I focused mostly on Penn State with my dad but I also paid attention to the headlines and polls more and became somewhat familiar with the national scene. That was the season that saw No. 2 Notre Dame host No. 1 Florida State, a game of such epic magnitude that it forced ESPN’s little College Game Day program to pack up their set and make a trip out of the Bristol, Connecticut studio and put together a live, on-scene show. It was never done before this game, and it would become a staple of one of ESPN’s top programs behind SportsCenter. It is somewhat fitting that I mention this game because it was also the particular moment when the beloved Beano Cook made his somewhat infamous prediction that Notre Dame would win at least two national championships and quarterback Ron Powlus would win two Heisman Trophies over the next four years. Beano Cook passed away in his sleep this week, which caused the entire college football world to mourn and recall favorite Beano stories.
Outside of Penn State making their Big Ten debut that season, I was drawn to the play of a special athlete at Florida State, quarterback Charlie Ward. His incredible skills were awe-inspiring with his touch and his ability to run with the football. As someone who had started learning about the sport of college football by watching Penn State, watching Charlie Ward at times was like watching a completely different sport. Kerry Collins was never one to tuck and run. Ward’s brilliance paralleled the success of the Seminoles in 1993 as well, because they were playing a different game at the time against most of their competition.
Florida State joined the ACC in 1992, abandoning independence at a time when joining a conference expansion was in full swing (Penn State to Big Ten, Arkansas to SEC, formation of Big East football etc.). The Seminoles, under the legendary Bobby Bowden entered the conference as though they were a varsity program playing in a league of JV teams. In 1993, Florida State was ranked number one in the country from nearly start to finish. It was easy to see why. Florida State blasted basketball powers Kansas and Duke to open the season and followed with four victories over ranked opponents Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia and highlighted by an 18-point win over rival and No. 3 Miami. In mid-November the stage was set for a Game of the Century match-up between the top two teams in the country, in South Bend against No. 2 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish dominated Florida State but Ward made things interesting late in the game. A 4th down and 20 to go pass to Kez McCorvey was god for a touchdown with 1:39 to play, and the Seminoles defense forced Notre Dame to a three-and-out. Ward then took Florida state to the Notre Dame 14-yard line in just three plays with three ticks on the clock remaining.
The storybook ending for the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner would have seen a completed touchdown pass on the game’s final play, followed by a two-point conversion to preserve the undefeated season. But instead Notre Dame batted down the final pass attempt, sealing a victory for the Fighting Irish. Still, it was hard not to be amazed by the play of Ward, who earlier in the game had run in to the hard wall at Notre Dame while running out-of-bounds.
As good as he was in football, many felt basketball was his true calling. And after essentially talking his way out of an NFL career, stating he would not consider playing in the NFL unless he went in the first round (draft gurus said he was a third-to-fifth round player), the decision appeared to have been made. He was later drafted in the first round, of the 1994 NBA Draft, by the New York Knicks, and thus a long career in the NBA was underway. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs explored the option of having Ward join their team as a back-up to Joe Montana, but Ward declined. He ended up playing in the NBA from 1994 through 2005 with New York, the San Antonio Spurs and finally with the Houston Rockets.
To this day I wonder how Ward would have played out in the NFL. Today is Ward’s 41st birthday, which is hard to believe.
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