Father Figure

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People want to compare him to last season's No. 8, but he's not the next dodging, weaving, arm-tackle-defying Deltha O'Neal. People see a little bit of a certain star receiver of two years ago in him, but he's not the next record-breaking, trash-talking, Bob Toledo-baiting Dameane Douglas.

To best understand LaShaun Ward, it's best to look at who stands behind him rather than who came before him.

Ever since the Cal sophomore began playing Pop Warner football, his father has been there, encouraging, advising, criticizing, but never ignoring. Jayce Ward has missed very few of his son's games, whether they were played at the local park or Memorial Stadium.

"It goes all the way back to Pop Warner," Jayce recalls. "He started playing flag (football) and didn't like it. The way I got him wanting to play football was to take him to the park and look at the other kids in uniform."

Cal's kickoff return man and cornerback calls his father his "biggest fan," and there's little reason to doubt him. Jayce is a regular at games and practice, easy to pick out in his son's replica jersey. But the relationship goes beyond mere encouragement.

LaShaun transferred twice during high school - on his father's advice. LaShaun began school at Southern California prep powerhouse Bishop Amat, but he didn't make an easy transition to private school, so he played his sophomore season at Santa Fe High School. Jayce didn't care for Santa Fe's offensive philosophy, so off his son went again - this time to Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., where he graduated in 1998.

It doesn't take much imagination to recall other overbearing sports parents, anywhere from the ubiquitous controlling little league father to quasi-celebrities like Richard Williams and Earl Woods.

But what's important is whether the athlete welcomes it, and LaShaun undoubtedly does.

"He shows up to every game, he's in contact with the coaches," LaShaun says. "Anything he's able to do to help out, he's pretty much there. He's always there whenever I need him."

Jayce's involvement in his son's career stems from his personal experience. He was never a football star like his son, and neither did he have the support that LaShaun enjoys. The elder Ward's father died when Jayce was in junior high school.

"I didn't really have the parental support," Jayce says. "He's going to have a lot of backing from me. I knew it would take a lot of support to get him to where he is now."

Jayce definitely had a positive influence during the recruiting process, when a number of upper-tier schools courted his son. LaShaun was the starting quarterback at Muir High. His teammates included a number of prep standouts who had college careers in store for them, including USC tailback Sultan McCullough.

But as the option quarterback on a running team, LaShaun was a star in his own right. According to his father, Oklahoma told him he would start at quarterback right away.

The final choice came down to USC and Cal, though. Both schools recruited the prep slinger as a defensive back, since a fleet cornerback is more valuable to a passing team than a running quarterback. Jayce would have liked to see his son stay under the center - in a moment of excessive parental pride, he compared his son's quarterback skills Michael Vick's - but LaShaun elected to play corner because it gave him the best chance to play in the NFL.

College football recruiting is an exhausting process, and it can be downright shady. But with Jayce's support, LaShaun chose the school he thought would best complement his talents.

"At 'SC he would have just been a number," Jayce says. "At Cal he could have been LaShaun. That was the deciding factor."

Being LaShaun is something the younger Ward has not had a problem doing since he arrived in Berkeley in the fall of '98. He is one of the more vocal players on the team and has drawn comparisons to Dameane Douglas, who was the emotional leader of the 1998 squad.

"Sekou (Sanyika, the top senior on last year's defense) was a great player, but he wasn't as vocal as he could have been," Jayce says. "Dameane Douglas was very vocal. I think LaShaun patterns himself more after Dameane Douglas than Sekou."

But Douglas did take it too far at times, as he did during his sparring match in the media with UCLA coach Bob Toledo.

"I don't really talk as much as he did," LaShaun concedes. "He kind of used talking trash as a way of getting himself psyched up. Me, if we make a good play, I'll jump up and down, hoorah a little bit or whatever. Other than that, I'm just doing my job.

"I'm not here to talk trash, (but) there are some trash-talkers that go around. That's all fun and part of the game, man, that's what makes the game fun."

Cal head coach Tom Holmoe points out that even if LaShaun were as naturally vocal as Douglas, he has not earned the right to be. The younger Ward is locked in a battle to start at corner with Harold Pearson, while Douglas broke a Pac-10 record with 100 catches in a single season.

"It's different because Dameane was the man," Holmoe says. "LaShaun still needs to do some more stuff before he becomes a vocal leader. He's still vocal.

"We don't really encourage him to talk. That's part of him. I don't really throttle him back because he's a very emotional player and guys like (LaShaun and) Dameane do really well when they get their emotions cranked up."

Holmoe says LaShaun has matured greatly since he arrived at Cal, but he has had his moments. In last season's UCLA game, he and Bruins receiver Freddie Mitchell were tagged with offsetting personal foul penalties after they took a few swings at each other in the end zone.

Of course, the comparisons don't stop at Douglas. LaShaun plays the same position as the recently departed O'Neal, the 1999 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. To top it off, O'Neal wears LaShaun's old No. 24 for the Denver Broncos, and LaShaun inherited O'Neal's No. 8.

In reality, the comparison is not a good one. LaShaun is faster than O'Neal - and Cal's fastest player this season. Ward is perhaps even a better athlete than O'Neal. But he doesn't possess the breathtaking moves O'Neal routinely made.

"He's faster than Deltha, but he doesn't have that-" Holmoe pauses, making a whistling noise and whipping his hand sideways to simulate O'Neal's elusive running style. "Deltha's vision was excellent. It remains to be seen how LaShaun will do with that."

LaShaun appreciates the comparisons to O'Neal, but he doesn't embrace them. He wants to be his own player. He appears to be on his way to reconciling that with being a team player, and when that happens, he will complete the maturing process.

But he won't do it alone.

"When I see him do things on the field that have a negative impact, I tell him that he's got to think about the team concept, not just LaShaun," Jayce says. "In those situations (like his tussle with Freddie Mitchell), he's got to think more as 'we' than 'I.' That's where I can help him in a big way."


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