Joel Ward on Jackie Robinson and ’42′


(Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

 

Ask a Caps player why he chose his jersey number, and the answer won’t always be thrilling.

“Why do I wear mine? Because that’s the one they gave me,” said Matt Hendricks, who wears 26.

“That’s just the number I got when I got up here,” said Steve Oleksy, who wears 61. “To be honest with you, once you get here, it doesn’t really matter what number you’re wearing — as long as you have one.”

“Eight’s my favorite number and I can’t have 8,” Wojtek Wolski said with a smile, standing not far from Alex Ovechkin’s stall. “So, 17.”

Joel Ward used to be similarly unconcerned about his jersey number; in Nashville, his last stop before Washington, he wore No. 29.

“That was the number I was slapped with in training camp,” the winger said on Thursday. “I wasn’t complaining — I was just happy to be there.”

Then a local blogger — Brandon Felder from HockeyBuzz.com – gave Ward a copy of a Jackie Robinson biography. The two men had talked about Robinson before, and despite not having been raised a baseball fan, Ward read the book.

“And right away, I was just intrigued about the whole story,” said Ward, the Caps’ only black player. “When I came to D.C., I got a chance to kind of change my number and pick a different number, and I definitely wanted to pay tribute. I thought it was a new chapter for me, and I wanted to pay tribute to a man that kind of paved the way for guys like me. And no better number than 42.”

Thus it was that Ward was asked to speak before an advanced screening of the new Robinson film, “42,” Wednesday night. A handful of teammates and staff members accompanied Ward to the theater; some, like Oleksy, hadn’t known why Ward wore 42 before this week.

“Picking the number for me was just a personal thing,” Ward said. “I don’t really go around and say ‘Hey, look at my number!’ ”

Ward said he was nervous for much of Wednesday – “it was so hot as it was, I was sweating even more,” he joked – and he practiced his speech while riding toward the theater. In his brief remarks he talked about how his father used to call him “chief,” and how after his father’s death he often thought about the leadership implications of that nickname.

“I just interpreted for myself that he maybe wanted me to be a leader and a difference maker,” Ward explained. “And that’s [how] I look at Jackie Robinson: being a leader and an icon.”

While Ward isn’t an experienced public speaker, his teammates said the moment worked.

“He was talking about leadership, the fact that he tries to kind of pattern his life after what his dad said and how he was brought up, and also after Jackie and all the things that he faced,” Wolski said. “I don’t think it was anything that I’ve seen [from a teammate] before.”

“He did a great job with it,” Oleksy said. “Anybody who was in the theater would tell you that it was definitely a speech that meant something….The meaning behind it is unbelievable, and I think he does a great job representing the number.”

Ward lost the original Robinson biography; he bought a new one to send to Felder and is already reading it himself. He has referenced the meaning of his jersey in the past – after the flood of racist Twitter messages following Ward’s series-clinching goal against Boston last spring, he wrote “#42 is in my thoughts more than ever!” And while he didn’t expect his jersey choice would one day land him in front of a packed movie crowd, he remains pleased with that selection.

“Having the number actually really means a lot to me,” he said. “I don’t really go about telling everybody about it, but I definitely do hold a lot of value to it. And a lot of people are pretty proud of it.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
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Lindsay Applebaum · April 11, 2013

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