Denzel Ward wished he had one more person standing with him Wednesday at his interview podium a day after he was named the Browns' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.
Ward, a fourth-year cornerback veteran, was honored to receive the award, which recognizes one member from each of the NFL's 32 clubs for their exceptional performance on the field and their dedication to the community. It's one of the most prestigious nominations an NFL player can receive, but he didn't earn it alone.
His mom, Nicole, has been instrumental in teaching him how to be an outstanding human being in addition to a great football player. She's also been one of the most important contributors in Ward's Make Them Know Your Name Foundation, which strives to help others prevent heart-related fatalities with early detection and life-saving intervention. The foundation was created after Paul G. Ward Jr., Ward's father, unexpectedly passed away due to cardiac arrest in 2016, and both Ward and his mom have helped the foundation educate and impact the lives of many people in Northeast Ohio and around the country.
"(The award) is a big credit to my mom," Ward said. "She's the backbone of the foundation, and my brother as well and the rest of the family. She should be standing up here with me explaining and talking about this. She definitely deserves it."
Ward, who grew up in nearby Macedonia, has done a tremendous job representing his family and his foundation's cause since he was drafted fourth overall by the Browns in 2018. He's been a frequent donor for heart health awareness initiatives and has visited schools to provide them with AEDs, CPR kits and training to teach students and teachers about the potentially life-saving effects the devices offer. In 2019, he hosted more than 400 kids at a Make Them Know Your Name Football Camp, which was free to kids Grades 2-8, in Macedonia. He has also hosted other fundraisers for his foundation to help make a truly significant impact and will wear cleats dedicated to his foundation for the Browns' "My Cause My Cleats" campaign for Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Ward doesn't need an award or any recognition for him to continue his commitment toward a cause that strikes a personal chord to his family, but he's proud to see the progress of their work pay off to a degree worthy of the honor.
"I'm definitely honored to be able to represent Cleveland and the foundation for such a prestigious award," he said. "It's a great opportunity, and I'm looking forward to any opportunities to be able to give back to the community."
As part of the NFL's annual My Cause My Cleats campaign, more than 30 Browns players will share powerful stories and inspiration through custom cleat designs with signature meanings during pregame and/or throughout the team's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium
The award, however, not only recognizes honorees for their off-the-field work, but also for their contributions as a player, too. Ward meets that criteria and has become one of the cornerstones of the Browns defense, and his 2021 season has further solidified that status.
He's tied for the team lead with three interceptions, all of which were recorded in November, and leads the Browns with eight passes defensed. Cleveland has held opponents to 20 points or less in five of its last six games, and Ward's talents have been a big reason why.
"He does everything by the book," said safety Grant Delpit, who received an award of his own this week, too, with the Ed Block Courage Award. "He's a great teammate and a great guy off the field. He's a great overall guy, and I'm glad he won that award."
It's all well-earned for Ward, whose best moment about the award wasn't when he learned he won, but when his mom did. He said she laughed and smiled upon learning that he was the nominee, and her phone was filled with the same congratulatory texts and phone calls as his.
Together, they've created a foundation that would make his dad proud.
"I wish my foundation didn't have to start for the reason that it did," he said, "but I think he'd definitely be proud. I'm just looking forward to continuing to build on the foundation and be an impact in this community."