Howard Ward, Howard University's reliable punter and place-kicker, had to think back to his fourth-grade days in Winston-Salem, N.C., to explain how he got started kicking a football.
"We used to play kickball in a grassy lot near a stream," said the 21-year-old senior. "And one of the ways to get a home run was to kick the ball all the way across the stream onto the bank. This one girl and I were the only ones to kick it across. The girl is a college student in North Carolina now and I wound up here."
His Bison teammates are glad he did.
Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference observers have predicted for two years that his powerful right leg would make Ward the best punter in Division 1-AA. He made 23 of 25 point-after-touchdown attempts last year and was second in the nation in field goal accuracy before a three-game slump lowered his final field goal percentage to .500 (11 to 22). But the kicks he missed included attempts of 59, 54, 52, 50 and 49 yards twice.
"It was the Forida A&M game at RFK last year that the problem began," said Ward. "I had kicked two field goals in the second and third quarters, but I sliced off two to the right late in the game (which Howard lost, 21-13). In the next two to three games I missed five more in a row, which meant I had missed seven straight field goal attempts in all. It was puzzling."
Ward's relaxed nature kept him sane during the bad weeks, as he studied game and practice film and solicited advice from his coaches and friends.
"All I told him," said Bison Coach Floyd Keith, "was not to get down on himself during the slump because of all people, kickers have to have their confidence. I knew how good Howard was."
Ward discovered that the strides he was talking in his two-step, straight-up approach to the ball were too long and he simply wasn't concentrating.
"I stand with my kicking foot out in front," he said. "So my first step toward my holder is very important. If that first step is too short -- or in my case too long -- the whole process is messed up and your foot meets the ball at an improper angle. I was either slicing or hooking because I wasn't concentrating properly on my approach.
"This year, I shortened my approach distance between myself and my holder, which gives me a better chance of having a perfectly straight first step. I haven't lost any distance on my kicks but I'll move back to a longer approach on anything longer than 45 yards."
Ward even undertook a strenuous bowling schedule during the spring and summer to improve his foot preparation.
So far, it's working.
Saturday night against West Virginia State in Charleston, Ward booted field goals of 20 and 30 yards, and had a 38-yarder called wide right by an out-of-position official while another signaled it good. The first decision stood.
There was no question, however, about his soaring, deep punts of 41, 42, 36 and 45 yards that forced the Yellow Jackets to begin their offensive series as far back as their own eight-yard line.
"It's strange because until this season I had more confidence in my place-kicking ability than my punting and whenever one was going well, the other usually was not. Until this season, that is."
This season Ward is called "The Franchise" by his teammates because, as Keith said, "Howard does it all: kick-offs, punts and field goals. Maybe he is the franchise." Ward was all-MEAC kicker and second-team punter last year. He booted a 49-yard field goal his freshman year against North Carolina Central.
Scouts from the Seattle Seahawks and the New York Jets apparently think Ward is good enough to warrant phone calls and visits for future considerations after his graduation with a broadcast-production degree in May. c
"If it happens, it happens," Ward said about the possibility of playing professional football. "Right now I have to worry about Bethune-Cookman (the Bisons' home opponent Saturday) and the goal that Coach (Carl) Angelo set for me to kick 15 field goals and all of my extra points this season. To do that I'll have to have concentration and consistency."
He already seems to have that in his punting game; he averaged 37 yards per kick last season, and is over 40 after one game this year.
"Sometimes I worry about his leg getting tired doing the punting and placekicking," said Keith. "But I'd be pretty stupid not to use him. It'd be pretty hard to replace Howard Ward."