MIAMI — A close friend sent Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward the book during training camp, when he needed it most.
“You Are a Badass,” reads the title by Jen Sincero. Its subtitle: “How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.”
Ward doubted more than just his greatness in August during his first training camp with Kansas City. The second-year pro was struggling to cover speedy players and doubting whether he could make it on an NFL roster, much less become a starter.
He’d begun taking prescription medication for social anxiety and depression the night before training camp, he said. The side effects consumed Ward.
Three naps a day and he was still tired.
“I was crying at night,” Ward told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday ahead of the Super Bowl. “It reached the point where I was feeling so bad at nighttime, I thought about hurting myself.”
Ward reassessed how to quiet the voice in his head that “messed with my mentals” and left him questioning whether he wanted to get up in the mornings.
Reading (and re-reading) “You are a Badass,” he found answers.
He’s since started all 18 games, playoffs included, for a defense that ascended from 31st in 2018 to 17th in 2019 and from 24th in points allowed to seventh. Ward has contributed 79 tackles, four takeaways and 11 pass deflections to the Chiefs’ strong season. Now, he and his battle with anxiety will face the 49ers on football’s biggest and brightest stage.
“When I’m feeling good about myself, feeling confident, I’ve got an extra pep in my step,” Ward said. “But if I’m struggling with my mental—I’m not going to play as well. … We’ve all got a voice in our head talking to us, trying to doubt us.
“You just have to learn how to control the voice in your head.”
An introvert defensive back?
That doubting voice has found kindred spirits along Ward’s journey to Super Bowl starter.
The McComb, Mississippi, native played for Hinds (Miss.) Community College before two seasons at Middle Tennessee State. Seventy-four tackles, two interceptions and 21 pass deflections weren’t enough to earn him a spot as a draft selection. The Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018, then dealt him to Kansas City for an offensive lineman three months later. Ward’s demeanor surprised his new Chiefs coaches when he arrived at preseason’s end.
“Being an introvert as a defensive back doesn’t really coincide,” defensive backs coach Dave Merritt told USA TODAY Sports. “These guys are flamboyant.”
So Merritt and cornerbacks coach Sam Madison began asking themselves: Which buttons should we push in order to motivate Ward without him shutting down? Which physical gifts should we best leverage as he develops? Ward’s length was great, they decided. His quick twitch wasn’t. He thrived when pressing, man to man, at the line of scrimmage. Coaches drilled principles on how to jam receivers even more effectively.
They watched in 2019 as he ruined pass playsand consistently created turnovers for the first time in his career.
An Oct. 13 theft against DeAndre Hopkins emboldened him.
The Texans faced third-and-goal from the 12, nine seconds left in the third quarter, trailing 24-23. Quarterback Deshaun Watson dropped back and lobbed a ball to Hopkins, a three-time All Pro receiver, in the left corner of the end zone. Ward, in charge of presenting to his teammates about third-and-11-plus each Thursday, had studied this. He clung to Hopkins while backpedaling toward the end zone, the receiver so handsy Ward felt like “he’s trying to tackle me.” Ward extended his left arm to nab a one-handed interception.
The interception did more than just kill Houston’s drive.
Ward watched as his Instagram followers count ticked up, his inbox filling with direct messages.
“I got a lot of clout after that game,” Ward said. “I feel like that play solidified my status in the NFL as one of the good young corners in the league.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo agrees.
“I just think early in the season, it felt like people were throwing over there because they thought they had a weakness in our defense,” Spagnuolo said. “But he never gave up. He kind of started to make a couple plays. And when he did gain that confidence? You really saw the player he could be.”
Anxiety on biggest stage
Teammates have noticed.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes says the cornerback’s understanding of route concepts has deepened. Safety Tyrann Mathieu says Ward’s technique and on-field communication have improved “leaps and bounds.”
“You can tell he’s relaxing himself,” Mathieu said. “He’s figuring this thing out in his head, to channel what he needs to channel to put himself in the best position to be the best that he can be that given day.”
Ward is figuring out in his head, as his favorite book says, how to be a badass.
That high-level functioning requires proactive mental health care. Ward prays, reads and writes down his feelings regularly. He meets with a Chiefs psychologist rather than risk his bottled-up emotions spiraling; he’s in constant communication, too, with his mom. Still, Ward knows: On Super Bowl Sunday, “our blood’s going to be rushing. Our heart’s going to be pumping.” So Ward has developed a plan.
Tactically, he will be extra attentive to the run game that the Niners have favored more than four times as frequently, and for twice as many yards, as their pass game this postseason.
“We’re going to have to tackle from the cornerback position,” Merritt told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s one of the things I saw on film: They’ve made corners tackle more than any other team I’ve ever been around.”
Psychologically, Ward will channel a meditative deep-breathing exercise that Merritt taught defensive backs during the season and then made each repeat during halftime of their AFC championship game win over Tennessee.
“Let the first half go, everybody refocus,” Merritt told them, asking each to close their eyes for 15 seconds and count each deep breath. “Whatever quiet place you need to go to.”
Ward knows reconnecting with that quiet place is his key to “embrace your inner badass,” as one section of his favorite book details. And then he plans to “get over your B.S. already” and “kick some ass,” as two more implore.
Ward won’t stop chasing those goals after the Super Bowl.
“I’m going to continue to grow once I deal with my anxiety issues,” Ward said. “I’ve just got to control my emotions and control myself on the inside.
“Once I settle my emotions down, I can be a great player in the NFL.”
And a “badass.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein