DENVER — T.J. Ward arrived in Denver with a purpose. He had never played a national TV game with the Cleveland Browns, never reached the postseason.
“I want a ring,” he told me years ago. “I want a championship.”
With Ward helping anchor the No Fly Zone secondary, the Broncos trampled the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
On Wednesday, Ward’s journey came full circle as he announced his retirement from his Colorado-area home to Denver7, ending a terrific eight-year career that featured two Pro Bowl berths and a battery of jaw-dropping hits.
Ward joins fellow safety Darian Stewart and cornerback Aqib Talib in retirement. Ward last played in 2017 with Tampa Bay, but refused to close the door until recently. Even as he became a father, pursued other interests to help his foundation, Ward remained in shape, landing a practice squad spot with the Cardinals for three weeks last October.
Ward's legacy will always be traced to his time with the Broncos. Denver had a terrific offense, led by record-setting Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. But they needed a snarl, they needed a defense that was more fury than finesse after the Seahawks embarrassed them in the Super Bowl.
Joining the team as a free agent in March of 2014, Ward provided “the boom,” as star outside linebacker Von Miller put it on multiple occasions.
A hybrid safety and linebacker, Ward feared no one. Despite weighing a little more than 205 pounds, he was physical enough to stop running backs in the box, and fast enough in pass coverage to create turnovers and light up receivers like the Las Vegas Strip.
Watching Ward play, Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, a former Bronco, stated bluntly, “There are certain things you have to be to be a dominant defender. You have to have that absolute dog in you. You can’t fake the dog. And he has it. You hear people say all the time that a player is tough, and most of the time it isn’t true. It is with him. He’s fierce.”
Ward played with a scalding white-hot intensity, rarely smiling. Football was business. And business was personal. Ward and Talib provided the soundtrack on game day, always communicating coverages and talking trash to opponents. In 2015, the Broncos yielded the fewest yards, passing yards and yards per rushing attempt. The defense scored six touchdowns.
Ward earned Pro Bowl honors in his first season in Denver, but felt empty. The Colts upset the Broncos in the playoffs, a loss that led to Gary Kubiak taking over as coach and left players motivated to achieve greatness.
“Usually when you bring in new coach, a new system, it’s like a big pot of gumbo that has to mix well. It takes time,” Ward said. “But it clicked instantly.”
Everything about the secondary was different, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and position coach Joe Woods finding the ability to challenge the group, while letting their personalities blossom. Ward, Stewart, Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby became brothers. They argued, they fought, but they protected and pushed each other.
“Those guys were meeting at 6 a.m.,” standout outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. “They were always going back and forth. They would get into it at practice, and Kubes would wonder what they were doing. I would say, 'Leave them alone. They know what they are doing.'^”
Perhaps at no other time in Broncos history has a pass rush complemented a secondary better. The Broncos’ gravitational pull was strong in coverage. This was a group that lined up and played man defense, daring opponents to attack them. Ward and Stewart played the role of enforcers as Ware, Von Miller, Shaq Barrett, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson terrorized quarterbacks.
For Ward, everything about this model of play fit, linking with his intelligence and work ethic.
Football found him at age 8 in the East Bay area of San Francisco. He began working out with cousin Maurice Jones-Drew, a future NFL star.
“I was a pro before I was a pro,” he joked.
After household chores, Ward did sit-ups and push-ups. The shove came from his father, Terrell Ward, a former Philadelphia Eagles safety who was nicknamed “Dirty Ward” for his smashing hits that began at San Diego State when Broncos coach John Fox was a graduate assistant on the staff there.
The passion for the game fueled T.J.. He advanced from an undersized youth player to a star at legendary De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. After walking on at Oregon, he carved out a career of havoc in the NFL as one of the game’s most feared hitters.
The apex of his career came in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos grew tired of hearing all week that they would never stop league MVP Cam Newton.
“The question should have been how are they going to stop us?” Ward said.
Denver assaulted the senses with its performance. Ward made a bid for game MVP honors, posting a team-best seven tackles, an interception and fumble recovery. When Von registered a strip of quarterback Newton early in the first quarter, the credits started to roll.
“Oh, we were getting after it early. They were in trouble,” Ward said. “After that, it was a wrap.”
Ward can look back at his career with pride. He left it all on the field, and will always be remembered as a champion in Denver.
“That was our mission to become legends, to become staples in this organization,” Ward said. “When you speak of the Denver Broncos, you can’t speak about it without talking about that team.”
Click here to read Ward's full retirement announcement.