Ward's happiness at home leading to production on field for 49ers originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
Ward spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area about the shift in his life as a father to his 1-year-old daughter, Amani Joi, who has Down syndrome.
"The past month, my daughter has started smiling when she sees me and coming to me more," Ward said. "At first, she used to love on her mama so much, I couldn’t really get close to her. Now since she turned 1, she has started to smile every time she sees me."
It hasn't been an easy road for Ward and his girlfriend, Monique, who spent weeks uncertain of Amani’s health immediately after she was born. Then in April, at 4 months old, Amani underwent successful open heart surgery.
Not being able to bond with his first-born heavily weighed on Ward.
"It was on my conscience," Ward said. "Why can't I connect to my daughter? This is my seed. I couldn't connect with her at all, and it was hurting my feelings. It was on my mind a lot. I’m not trying to make excuses, but ever since we got closer, I've been balling. Shout-out to God and my daughter for making that relationship good."
The turnaround at home coincided with the turnaround on the field. Ward has 10 pass breakups over the past four games, and he leads the NFL with 19 on the season. Still, the work isn't done.
"I want to catch interceptions," said Ward, who has two this season and seven in his six-year NFL career. "The PBUs are cool -- I'm making plays, even early in the season when I was getting a lot of penalties. I was still making plays even when it seemed like I was playing bad. It just goes to show I can cover man-to-man, Cover 3, Cover 2. I'm going to always be in position to make a play."
Ward also credits the chemistry he's built with 49ers teammates Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas for his recent uptick in production. The three have improved their on-field communication as the season progressed.
Sometimes, like being able to connect with his daughter, Ward believes relationships on the football field can take time. The veteran cornerback will rely on that chemistry this Sunday when shadowing Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf.
In their first meeting of the season on Thanksgiving, Ward shut down the sizable receiver, allowing only one catch on six targets for 14 yards, forcing one drop and making two pass breakups in the 49ers' 31-13 win.
Ward knows the second matchup will not be easy.
"It's hard to lock up a guy back-to-back like that, especially when it's a great receiver," Ward said. "I've got to be prepared for something new because I had a lot of success the last game. so something new is going to come this game. I need to be prepared."
Ward has enjoyed the 49ers secondary's success, but he hasn't forgotten the outside noise that the group was the "weakest part of the defense." He recognizes the star power on the 49ers' defensive front but believes the defensive backs also are worthy of attention.
"They be hating on us," Ward said. "They’ve been saying all season that we need to trade for a corner. We don't have the star names that everybody always wants and craves for, but we are underdogs. We are blue-chip guys, and we got better as every game went on."
While Ward doesn't need outside approval, his daughter's love has made a world of difference. She's such an important part of Ward's life that Football Camp for the Stars, a program in which NFL players teach football fundamentals, was the cause he championed last week in the NFL's My Cause My Cleats campaign. He wore the special cleats during the 49ers’ huge Week 13 win over the Eagles in Philadelphia.
"When you're not stressed at home, when everything is at peace and at ease on the outside, it will be easier in here," Ward said. "It definitely helped me out. When I'm clear and focused, I'm the best in the league, but when you get here and you have other stuff on your mind, it's a hard job going against great All-Pro players.
"Now I play with her and crawl around with her every time I get home. Ever since we've had that relationship, I swear I've been playing a whole lot better."