On January 1, 2016 it was Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s Jaylon Smith.
On December 30, 2016, it was Michigan Wolverines’ Jake Butt.
The former, Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Ward saw in person, the latter took place in the Orange Bowl, a game that many around the country saw on television.
Why are those two injuries significant, you ask? The moment Smith tore his ACL and LCL in his left knee while subsequently experiencing nerve damage in that same leg in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, it changed the outlook on non-College Football Playoff bowl games forever.
Expected to be a top-5 pick, Smith ended up falling to the 34th-overall selection simply due to many teams not exactly knowing how he would recover from his devastating knee injury. That fall in the draft cost Smith millions of dollars. Imagine if he would have just sat out the game, which would have caused him to not get hurt in an injury that affected the rest of his life. Smith started six (and played in all 16) games for the Cowboys this fall, but it still doesn’t take away the fact that the former Notre Dame linebacker missed out on millions of dollars due to the injury he suffered in the final game of his college career. No telling to how it has affected his athleticism and ability to garner a second contract either.
Butt, on the other hand, was expected to be one of the top tight ends taken and many thought that he would either be selected in Round 1 or Rounds 2 or 3 at the latest. Instead, following his torn ACL he suffered in Michigan’s bowl game, the tight end fell all the way to the fifth round and was forced to miss his entire rookie season. Like Smith, Butt missed out on millions of dollars solely due to an injury he suffered during his team’s bowl game, the final game of his college career.
Smith’s injury began to set a precedent of players beginning to sit out bowl games to preserve their draft stock, Butt’s injury just reaffirmed that. It’s one biggest reasons why Ward decided to sit out the Buckeyes’ Cotton Bowl game against the USC Trojans last Friday, a game that Ohio State ultimately won.
Throughout the week leading up to bowl game, Ohio State head coach continued to reiterate that no Buckeyes, whether draft-bound or not, would not sit out the game. Then, Friday night happened.
Prior to the game, reporters who were in attendance noticed that Ward was not taking part in pregame warmups. While many seemed to think that meant the cornerback was going to sit out the game, others thought something else was going on because of what Meyer said in the days leading up to the game. Then, just minutes before kickoff, Ward decided to let the world know about his decision to sit out the game, while simultaneously declaring for the NFL Draft as well.
Go bucks! pic.twitter.com/DfBOKYQzhO
— Denzel Ward (@Flash_Ward12) December 30, 2017
For those questioning if it was a game-time decision or not, Ward did in fact make the decision to not play on Friday afternoon, just hours before the Cotton Bowl was set to kickoff.
FWIW, per a release from Ohio State, Denzel Ward didn’t make the final decision to sit out the Cotton Bowl until today. pic.twitter.com/m1nxPIYU0q
— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) December 30, 2017
He didn’t have to take to Twitter to explain his decision, he could have just sat out, and left it at that. But the moment the tweet was sent, some members of the social media platform—both media and fans alike—decided to state their opinions on the matter. While some supported and/or understood Ward’s decision, others weren’t happy with the Buckeye. Whether it was calling him selfish, saying that it’s embarrassing that he didn’t finish out the season, or even “what are the chances that he would even get hurt”-type comments, Ward’s decision was perceived one that was all about him, not his team.
Expected to be one of (if not the) top cornerback taken in the upcoming NFL Draft, he is all but guaranteed to be a first-round pick this April. With that said, he is guaranteed millions of dollars come late April as well. While there’s a chance that Ward would not have gotten hurt if he took part in last Friday’s Cotton Bowl, can you blame a kid for not taking the chance and guaranteeing a moment that will be life-changing in just a few months?
For a little background on Ward, the Nordonia, Ohio native has had quite a year in 2016. During his first two seasons in Columbus, he was able to watch Eli Apple (2015) and Gareon Conley (2016), both of which were first-round selections. Prior to his junior season, when he would be a full-time starter and Ohio State’s top cornerback in 2017, Ward suffered a major tragedy, one that would affect his family forever. On May 2, 2016, Denzel’s father, Paul, passed away unexpectedly of cardiac arrest at the young age of 46. An only child, it was now just Denzel and his mom. A junior in college, he was the man of his family.
After being named an All-American in his first season as a starter, Ward’s draft stock continued to rise as the season went on. With the Buckeyes not making the College Football Playoff, Ohio State’s bowl game wasn’t pointless, but it carried a lot less weight. The team’s top cornerback, Ward’s decision to sit out gave the Buckeyes an opportunity to play their young guys, especially true freshman cornerback Jeffery Okudah.
While some argued that the decision was selfish, others said that they understood the decision, but that if Ward knew he wasn’t going to take part in the Cotton Bowl, he shouldn’t have been able to travel with the team—or he at least should have been forced to pack his own bags and buy his own flight back to Columbus following the game.
Ohio State’s mantre in the latter part of the season was “Long Live The Brotherhood”. While some said that Ward isn’t fulfilling that brotherhood by sitting out and not playing for his brothers, it can be argued that, after making his decision in the hours leading up to the game, Ward fulfilled the brotherhood by being their for his teammates. Standing on the sidelines, there’s a good chance that he was not only giving encouragement throughout the game, but even could have been helping out other cornerbacks, especially Okudah, and giving them advice as well.
With that said, it also guaranteed millions of dollars for Ward in late April, a moment that will change his and his mom’s life forever—and simply, a moment that will allow him to provide for his mom, who is now without her husband.
Many players—both who are draft-eligible or seniors—take part in their team’s bowl game even though they know their next step in terms of football will be to prepare for the NFL Draft. While many of those players do not get hurt while playing in their bowl games, deciding not to take part in a non-Playoff bowl game to assure that said player remains healthy is completely fine, too.
You can say Ward’s decision was selfish, but after the year he had and seeing sure-fire first-round picks suffer devastating injuries that saw each of their draft stocks greatly fall, being able to guarantee a life-changing moment in late April, when he will be able to bring millions of dollars to both he and his single mother. Being able to provide for his family will be life-changing in and of itself, let alone the fact that he will be able to fulfill his dream and play in the NFL.