Tyler Ward remembers when pine trees and natural grass occupied the space that is now Mercer football’s home. It had been nearly 65 years since the sport had been played at Mercer.
Fast forward a few years, and the territory Ward looked out upon while attending a baseball camp would soon be engulfed by frenetic fans and artificial turf. And they would be there to watch Ward along with 105 other Mercer Bears in the program’s first game since re-establishment.
“I tell people all the time that I’ve watched this place change so much,” said Ward, a senior linebacker who was born and raised in Macon. “When I was younger, there was Mercer and then there was Macon. Now, Mercer is Macon.”
Ward said he now sees people wearing Mercer gear around town, something he never saw when he was younger. He also said elementary, middle and high schoolers have something to do on Friday and Saturday nights by attending Mercer events. It’s a product of a growing football program he helped build.
After a career at Tattnall Square Academy, Ward received some partial scholarships to FBS schools such as Georgia Tech.
But Mercer and Macon kept calling — literally.
“I was sold by Bobby [Lamb] when he kept calling me and just wanted to get me on campus,” Ward said. “I was sold on the hometown thing, on the chance to get to play right away and be a big impact for that 2013 team.”
Football was just one aspect of the college decision for Ward. The senior said he also stayed close to home because of Mercer’s size and academic standards. Coming from a small high school where everybody knew each other, Ward said Mercer was like a bigger version of Tattnall Square.
“I have friends who go to the bigger FBS schools, and they tell me they’re in classes with 100 [to] 150 kids and can’t get help on a single thing . . . obviously, it’s completely different here,” Ward said.
“College is going to end in four years. Football is going to end in four years. I’ve got to have something by my name that will help me get a job.”
While football will end after this season for Ward, he’s certainly left his mark on the field. Ward started the first 24 games of his collegiate career, leading the team in tackles in both 2013 with 101 and 2014 with 104.
His 104 tackles as a sophomore, which also ranked him fourth in the Southern Conference, earned him All-SoCon Second Team honors. Ward described himself as a “relentless” player, one who tries to learn as much about the game as possible.
“Talent, speed and strength are all very important to the game of football, but you have to be smart nowadays,” Ward said. “The thing I try to do most is learn about the game, study up the opponent better, be smarter than the guy I’m playing against so I can out-do him, because I’m not the most athletic guy on the field all the time.”
Ward said he remembers being turned down by another SoCon team, Wofford, and was told by recruiters that he should look into playing Division-II or Division-III football. He said his success at the Division-I FCS level is “big” for him.
But while the on-field success has been noticed, Ward said, after his Mercer career is over, he wants to have influenced younger players. He said he believes up-and-coming players in the Macon area can connect with him because of his Macon roots.
“[I want to] be the best player I can be for this school, for this community and represent not only Mercer but all of Macon,” Ward said. “It’s all about your mindset, your heart and how bad you want it — how hard you want to push when people tell you you can’t.”
The influence Ward can have on young kids in Macon today is the product of his helping build a program, one which traded out pine trees for support beams and grass for artificial turf.
“Seeing them succeed and go on to their little elementary scrimmages and talking to their parents, that’s the biggest reward of it all,” he said. “I can remember when I was that young and I wanted somebody to look up to, as well.”