Athlete allowed to keep scholarship after injuries

Abha Bhattarai

Weinberg senior Anthony Ward Jr. didn’t know if he would be able to afford to return to Northwestern this year.

Ward had walked on to NU’s football team his freshman year and had been depending on getting a scholarship for the first time this year.

A heart condition had prevented him from playing during most of his time at NU, and an injured hamstring at the beginning of this season threatened to keep him from practice as well.

“I couldn’t play as well as I normally did,” said Ward, who has been playing football since ninth grade.

“I’d been counting on a scholarship for my senior year, but it just didn’t seem like it would happen,” he said. “I’d just been behind the 8-ball for a long time.”

He pleaded his case to head coach Randy Walker, who asked a council of football players to vote on whether Ward should get a scholarship.

“I don’t know what happened, but I ended up with a scholarship,” Ward said. “I really felt accepted by the team for the first time since I’d been here.”

Chris Malleo, one of the players on the council, said the group considered Ward’s commitment to NU when deciding to grant him the scholarship.

“Anthony has been selfless for the four years he’s been a part of the team,” said Malleo, a Communication senior. “He’s a hard worker who has never complained about what his role was. He’s always been determined to play as well as he can.”

Ward first noticed something was wrong when his heart began skipping beats during football practice his freshman year.

“It felt like I had butterflies in my chest, but I kept pushing myself to work super hard,” Ward said. “As a walk-on, I always felt like I had to prove myself to each and every person, and I just couldn’t let anyone down. I’d never felt so vulnerable before.”

He continued going to practice for another couple of weeks. When he made it to the doctor, Ward said doctors found a hole between the upper chambers of his heart, and his left ventricle had become slightly enlarged.

He waited until the end of that January, when the season was over, to undergo the 90-minute surgery for atrial septal defect. A metal closure was placed across the hole between his ventricles.

Ward said he had to limit his physical activity for six months while the closure became encased within his heart.

“They said everything would be back to normal after six months, but my body just didn’t feel normal,” Ward said, adding that it took him half an hour to walk from his dorm in Kemper Hall to his classes in Swift Hall after the surgery.

“I was 15 pounds heavier and slower and just out of shape,” he said. “I couldn’t even sing as loud or as hard as I wanted to.”

Ward continued going to winter workouts after the surgery but walked around the gym while others lifted weights and ran drills. After a couple of months, he began bicycling, then swimming.

Ward played in two games, including the Sun Bowl, during his senior year but didn’t register statistics.

Ward said there are still times when his chest tightens up and he begins hyperventilating during practice.

“When that happens, I just sit down for a minute until it stops,” he said. “But then I’m up again, pushing myself even harder than before.”

Reach Abha Bhattarai at [email protected]