The highest-rated recruit on Davidson High School’s 2009 football team was safety Chris Hughes, who went on to have a solid SEC career at Mississippi State.
The next two safeties on that Warriors team will be starting alongside each other Sunday in the Super Bowl.
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt of the San Francisco 49ers constitute one of the most interesting storylines in this year’s Super Bowl.
Ward was an undersized superstar at Davidson who was incredibly productive despite battling several injuries.
Tartt was a basketball player who played only one year of high school football.
How they went from Mobile to San Francisco (2,393 miles away) to reach the pinnacle of professional football is an American sports fairytale.
“What are the odds of two guys from the same high school team playing the same position in the Super Bowl for the same team,” said Fred Riley, who coached the pair at Davidson and now coaches Fairhope Storm of the Independent American Football League, which begins play on Feb. 22. “That’s a real stretch. And it’s not like they came from IMG Academy or Mater Dei. They came from a neighborhood public school in Mobile.”
It wasn’t like Ward and Tartt weren’t accomplished players at the high school level. Despite an injury that required him to wear a cast on his wrist for a while, Ward was the best player on a team that won 33 games over a three-year period.
As seniors in 2009, Ward and Tartt led the Warriors to 10 wins before falling to Prattville in the 10-7 defensive struggle in the state quarterfinals.
Ward, whose full name is the ultra-cool James Neko Suave Ward, led the team with 101 tackles as a senior. He had six interceptions over his final two seasons. But when it came time for college, he had only one offer.
“He played hurt quite a bit because he was just so reckless with his body,” Riley said. “He was a 5-foot-10, 155-pound kid who probably shouldn’t have been hurling it around like he did. He wasn’t physically developed, but he made plays from the time he set foot on the field. He understood naturally what all 11 players on offense were going to do. He had great anticipation as a player, which meant he played faster than he was.”
Jerry Kill was the only college coach to recognize Ward’s talents. When Kill left Southern Illinois for Northern Illinois, his offer to Ward still stood.
“I told anyone who would listen that Jimmie was going to make somebody famous for being the person who signed Jimmie Ward,” Riley said. “He impacted recruiting down here for many years because teams were looking for the next Jimmie Ward.”
At Northern Illinois, Ward became an immediate contributor, setting a school record with three blocked punts as a freshman. As a senior in 2013, he led the team with 101 tackles, including 14 against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Ward was drafted in the first round by the 49ers (No. 30 overall), signing a four-year, $7.11 million contract. He has since signed two extensions for an additional $13 million.
Tartt entered the league one year after Ward because he spent five years developing at Samford.
“He was a basketball player who could play above the rim,” Riley said. “The players were recruiting him to play football. He’s the only player I can recall we allowed to come out in summer without going through spring practice. He did everything we asked him to do. Once he played more football, the light came on.”
Riley remembers one particular highlight that showcased Tartt’s ability.
“We won the region championship against Theodore when they had C.J. Mosley,” Riley said. “We were up 14-12 late in the game. We flushed quarterback, but the receiver got behind Jaquiski on a post pattern. They threw it over his head, but you could see him react to the play. He takes off and makes the tackle at the 3. The next play we get a turnover and win the game. That was the holy cow moment when you saw the burst he had.”
After redshirting, Tartt was a four-year star at Samford. He was chosen in the second round (No. 46 overall) a year after Ward.
He signed a four-year contract worth $5.03 million. In 2008, he signed a two-year extension for $13 million.
Now that they have both found success, it’s time for Ward and Tartt to have their moment in the spotlight at the biggest sporting event in America every year.
“It was always a pleasure to coach both of them,” Riley said. “I know I hope they’re both smiling at the end of the game Sunday night.”
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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