Archive for Tuesday, April 20, 2004

KU’s smiling warrior

Counselor overcomes paralysis to realize coaching dream

April 20, 2004


Scott Ward talks about May 1, 1986, as if it were any other day in his 37-year-old life.

Even the accident seems rather simple when Ward, an academic counselor for Kansas University's athletic department, tells his tragic story, while still showing a slight smile.

"Yeah, broken neck on a Slip 'N Slide. A little piece of plastic laying on the ground," Ward says matter-of-factly.

But the freak injury on a warm, spring afternoon when he was a freshman at Hutchinson Community College forever changed Ward's life.

Earlier that week, Ward, an all-league basketball guard from Kingman High, had been cleared to resume physical activity after blowing out his right knee during an all-star game the previous spring. He had spent a year rehabilitating the knee.

Ward knew his dream of playing for Kansas State -- where his two older brothers went to school -- probably had faded even before his knee injury. Still, Ward went to HCC to get started on his college course work and rehab his knee so he still would have a shot at college basketball.

Then came that fateful day, which was supposed to be a "fun day" signaling the end of the school year.

"I just landed on my chest like everybody else and kind of whiplashed my neck," Ward said of his dive across the popular children's toy.

The fifth and sixth vertebrae had slid off of each other, pinching his spinal cord -- leaving Ward with a broken neck.

He was immediately flown to Wichita, where Ward underwent emergency surgery. After spending 21 days in St. Francis Hospital, doctors told him he would "have no movement from the neck down the rest of his life."

Kansas University junior men's basketball player Wayne Simien,
left, laughs with academic counselor Scott Ward while going over
Simien's homework schedule at Wagnon Student Athletic Center. Ward,
who works with the men's basketball, volleyball and tennis squads
at KU, has overcome a paralyzing accident to realize his dream of

Kansas University junior men's basketball player Wayne Simien, left, laughs with academic counselor Scott Ward while going over Simien's homework schedule at Wagnon Student Athletic Center. Ward, who works with the men's basketball, volleyball and tennis squads at KU, has overcome a paralyzing accident to realize his dream of coaching.

At age 19, Ward was a quadriplegic.

New dreams

Despite the doctor's discouraging words that Ward would never walk again, Scott's parents -- Don and Karen Ward -- offered encouragement and hope.

Scott took care of the rest.

"I went from being very athletic with goals of playing college basketball to, 'What am I going to do now?'" said Ward, who spent the four months after his injury in rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver, where he regained limited use and strength in his arms and hands.

"Great family, great friends. I could have never gotten through this without them."

Ward followed his family's advice and agreed to attend business school at Wichita State so he could "have an office and a desk."

Age: 37.Title: Associate director of degree and career counseling/student support services.Teams he supervises: Men's basketball, volleyball, tennis.Hometown: Kingman.Marital status: Single.KU degrees: Bachelor's in education, 1991; master's education, 1993; Ph.D. in education with emphasis in sport psychology, 1996.

But then Ward met the head of KU's physical education department and decided a career in athletics better matched his earlier aspirations of becoming a basketball coach.

"Really, it was the academic program, the department and its reputation and the school of education that got me interested coming up here instead of K-State or somewhere else," Ward said.

"Once I got up here, the purple faded quite a bit."

But not Ward's dreams of a meaningful career in sports.

He began his undergraduate work in Lawrence in 1989, and by age 29 Ward had wrapped up his third degree from KU -- a doctorate in sports psychology and counseling.

Ward spent the next seven years teaching in the Health, Sport and Exercise Science department. Then came last spring's staff shakeup when former coach Roy Williams departed for North Carolina, and several Kansas members followed him.

Court knowledge

In addition to the assistants coaches that went with Williams to Chapel Hill was longtime director of degree and career counseling Wayne Walden.

Walden's departure opened a door for Ward, who quickly accepted Kansas coach Bill Self's request for him to become the academic counselor for the KU basketball team.

"It's just an awesome job," Ward said. "What makes it so great is the attention that coach Self gives to academics. It's very rewarding to be able to work with all the young athletes and members of the KU family."

Ward still teaches a sports psychology class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the rest of his time is spent monitoring and coordinating the academic progress of the basketball, volleyball and tennis teams.

"The highlight of the year was building relationships with the student athletes," said Ward, who said he was already eager for next year's challenges.

"You also get to meet a lot of great professors. I already knew there were a bunch of good professors in the Education department, but you meet so many great professors campus-wide."

Self said Ward's infectious smile was hard to miss at Allen Fieldhouse.

"He's so proud to be a part of the athletic program and the basketball program," Self said. "Scott has a disability that he doesn't want anybody to ever know that he has. But his attitude is always positive. He works his tail off. It's amazing, he doesn't have bad days.

"When you got to get up sometimes at 5 o'clock in the morning to get to work by 8, and you never have a bad day, that's a stud in my book."


Ward lives independently. He drives a car with hand controls and simply folds up his wheelchair and flicks it in the back seat.

When Ward needed an extra hand, like boarding the team bus or plane for KU road trips this past season, Kansas senior Brett Olson wasn't too far away.

"I'm probably a little sympathetic toward Scott, even though he doesn't want it," said Olson, whose older brother, Kevin, became a quadriplegic after breaking his neck in a diving accident 10 years ago.

"He's definitely an inspiration. Just the way he carries himself and how he overcomes little things like getting dressed and stuff. It's amazing how much courage it takes to live the way he lives."

For Ward, it's just been his way of life.

Even his one-time fear of returning to a basketball court faded easily. For the past 11 summer's under Williams, and now Self, Ward runs one of the gyms during KU's basketball camps.

"A part of me has always wanted to coach," said Ward, who is in charge of making sure the camp counselors and 80 youths perform basketball drills correctly. "But I usually get my fix in the summers. I've always wondered what a parent thinks when they bring their kids in there and see me in the chair."

Ward has handled the camps, and much more.

Time constraints

Now the only thing that worries Ward is whether Kansas athletes will have enough time to take care of their off-court responsibilities.

"It's unbelievable the amount of time that is taken away from these kids," Ward said. "Everybody wants something from them all the time. You see the guys playing on TV and walking around campus, and people think its so popular and glamorous.

"But no one ever sees them on the planes writing papers late at night on laptops after a game, or catching up on the assignments they missed that day in class. There's just not a lot of time for them to just be college kids."

Ward wondered if he would be "out on an island" with the new responsibilities his first season -- but quickly found out the athletic administration wouldn't let that happen.

"The administration, all the way up to (athletic director) Lew Perkins, take their top priority in the student-atheletes' well-being, and that all starts in the classroom," Ward said.

"They make up a super support group. But its really been fun to see some of the kids themselves turn on to academics, and realize that a degree from KU is an inside edge in the real world."

While the Jayhawks receive plenty of attention, the players say Ward is a real hero.

"That's a warrior right there," said KU senior Bryant Nash, who first met Ward in a psychology class. "Some people don't have that mentality where they would keep going. Some people just give up."

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