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A winner either way

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Updated: Sunday October 22, 2000 8:07 PM

  Charlie Ward Charlie Ward became the first Heisman and national championship winner since Tony Dorsett in 1976. Jim Gund/Allsport

Growing up in Thomasville, Ga., Charlie Ward was the quintessential coach's son who loved both football and basketball. So Florida State's Bobby Bowden offered him a deal. Charlie, the legendary football coach said, earn good grades, and someday you can quarterback the Seminoles and play hoops, too.

Ward was up to the challenge. After spending 1988-89 at nearby Tallahassee Community College, he hit the books at FSU and joined the football team at the bottom of the depth chart. And that's where he stayed, even while becoming the basketball team's starting point guard. But he still had his dreams of Saturdays in the fall. "I was going to be a quarterback," Ward says, "and Coach Bowden was true to me in everything he said." In 1991-92 Ward led the basketball team to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, and that September, Bowden made the 6'2", 190- pound athletic prodigy his starting quarterback.

In both sports Ward displayed unshakable confidence, scrambling speed and unselfishness. It all culminated in 1993 when he directed the Seminoles to their first football national title and won the Heisman Trophy.

A devout Christian who spent evenings reading the Bible, Ward was cool ice surrounded by flamboyant fire. On a team of yappers, he led by quiet example. "I pick and choose when I want to talk," he says. "Guys respect you for that. Go out and do your job, and people will follow you."

Florida State tweaked its pro-style offense around its leader's hardcourt-tested mobility. The "Fast Break," as it was known, employed a no-huddle shotgun that let Ward either use his receivers or streak from the pocket if he saw a hole. "There's nothing more frustrating for a defense than covering everything perfectly," Bowden said, "except Charlie sidesteps a tackler and runs 30 yards."

Though the Seminoles' schedule included seven eventual bowl teams, they won their first five games by an average score of 46-3. Those routs were mere warmups for an Oct. 9 showdown with No. 3 Miami. The Hurricanes had won seven of the teams' previous eight contests, including the past two on missed 'Nole field goals-the infamous Wide Right I and II games. Both losses had derailed FSU national title hopes.

The rivalry's ferocity never seemed to touch Ward. In the first half, he lofted a 72-yard TD pass and rushed for a two-yard score as FSU built a 21-7 lead en route to a 28-10 win. "He's everything they said he is," Miami coach Dennis Erickson said afterward. "He made the plays, and he's the difference in the football game."

Even when the Seminoles hit the season's only rut, a 31-24 loss at Notre Dame, Ward's steady hand nearly brought them back from a two-touchdown deficit. He drove the team 45 yards in 99 seconds for a late score, then reached the Irish 14 with three seconds left, before his final pass was batted away in the end zone.

Ward shrugged off what he considered a minor setback and two weeks later commandeered a 33-21 victory at Florida to close the regular season. "It's just a matter of refocusing for the next challenge," the imperturbable Ward says.

His four TD passes against the Gators ended their 23-game home winning streak, leaving No. 2 Florida State 11-1 with an Orange Bowl date against No. 1 Nebraska. Ward had set school records with 27 touchdown passes and 3,371 yards of total offense, and he averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

Those numbers precluded any Heisman voting drama. Ward beat Tennessee's Heath Shuler by 1,622 points, the second-biggest margin ever, and brought the trophy home to Thomasville's public library, where it still rests. With the Seminoles' Orange Bowl win, Ward became the first Heisman and national championship winner since Tony Dorsett in 1976.

He told NFL scouts he would play if drafted in the first round, but they questioned his size and passed him over. Ward instead became a first-round NBA pick for the Knicks. He's now their starting point guard-an unlikely ending to a Heisman winner's story. "It's part of God's plan and part of life," says Ward, 29. It's probably the one scenario Bowden didn't foresee.

-- Alec Morrison

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