If there was ever any question as to how much Matt Ward has meant to the Starkville Academy football program, the answer came Thursday.
With dozens of supporters including family, friends and faculty members looking on, the Volunteers fullback/linebacker signed to play football at Mississippi College beginning this fall.
As the onlookers cheered the developments, it was a bittersweet moment for Ward.
"I hate leaving this school," said Ward. "They've definitely showed a lot of pride and support, especially the fans. It's a really good school, a great school to be at."
Odds are, SA would love to be able to keep Ward around a little longer. In his senior campaign for the Vols, Ward helped the team bounce back from a winless 2009 campaign to go 3-8. Along the way, Ward rushed for 507 yards and seven touchdowns on 91 carries from his fullback post and recorded 38 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles as a linebacker.
In his first year as SA's head coach, Jeff Terrill said Ward simply lived up to his billing.
"His reputation as I came in the door was that of leadership and a young man who really played with a great trigger and motor," said Terrill. "He just got better every week and especially the second half of the season."
In Terrill's mind, one game from last fall exemplifies just the kind of player Ward is.
Facing Clarksdale-Lee on the road, the Vols found themselves in a dubious position as quarterback Kyle Henson suffered a broken hand just before halftime. That's when Ward took over the contest.
"All we did was ride the ball up there and hand it to Mr. Ward and he literally just put the game away," said Terrill. "They could not stop him. He was broke down and wore out, but just would not go down. That's just a great tribute to the kind of player he finished up as."
Now, Ward takes those services to Clinton. Mississippi College brings in Ward on the heels of a 4-6 season in 2010.
Ward says he's excited to join the Choctaws.
"Mississippi College has a lot to offer," said Ward. "They have a good football program. The coach (Norman Joseph) is real nice and knows what he's talking about. Plus, the environment I noticed when I went to visit there seemed a lot higher up than any other campus that I went to. I felt at home."
While Mississippi College ultimately won Ward over, it wasn't without some competition from not far away.
"I went to Millsaps and toured there," said Ward. "At first, I thought I liked it pretty good but when I went to Mississippi College, I liked it a lot."
Though Ward has his experience on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, Terrill says that Joseph wanted Ward's services primarily as a fullback for the Choctaws' running-style, spread offense.
"Coach Joseph was really excited when he found (Ward) because that was one particular position on offense that they've been depleted," said Terrill. "It's a great opportunity for Matt to go in and, maybe even as a freshman, have a chance to play some."
Ward hopes that's the case, regardless of position.
"I'm ready to play anywhere (Joseph) wants me to," said Ward.
Whatever Ward ends up playing, whether fullback, linebacker or something else, the recent past indicates he'll be going all-out.
In helping begin the turnaround of SA's football program, Ward learned it was imperative to give maximum effort every play.
"Coming from a non-winning season with seniors that really didn't care, we really just had to show out," said Ward. "We had to be a leadership team, which we did. We led the whole way.
"As we kept playing, things just clicked."
One big reason for the bounce-back was Ward.
Even as he leaves SA, it appears his contributions won't soon be forgotten.
"Along with all the things we were going through (last season), confidence was something that the kids needed and they needed someone to lead the charge like in a military battle," said Terrill. "Matt was willing to step up and be that leader and lead the charge and just assure them that we could do it and there's no doubt it rubbed off on everyone."