SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the first four and a half seasons of his career, San Francisco 49ers safety Jimmie Ward managed to avoid at least one harsh reality of life in the NFL: the league's non-stop rumor mill. To that point, Ward had been through his share of adversity, mostly in the form of injuries and a constantly changing role, but managed to keep his feet planted on the only team he'd ever known.
That all looked like it was going to change just before Halloween 2018 when Ward, who had mostly resisted the urge to embrace various social media platforms, stood at a podium answering questions from reporters when he was asked about a rumor he was available in trade.
"I said, 'Really? No, I didn't know that," Ward said. "It was funny, but that's how I found out."
What was unpleasant at the time has become something of a turning point in his career, allowing Ward to see the game from a new angle. When Ward returns from a hamstring injury, either Sunday at the Carolina Panthers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) or in the very near future, he will step into the one role almost nobody could have envisioned for him early in his career: San Francisco's longest-tenured player.
Ward is beginning his ninth NFL season, all with the team which spent the No. 30 pick in the 2014 NFL draft on him. Should Ward make it through 2022 and, at minimum, sign another one-year deal with the Niners, he will land a spot on the 10-year club in the team's facility, a sacred space reserved for photos of those who play at least a full decade for the team. Joe Staley is the most recent addition to the wall, but it also includes all-time legends such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Ronnie Lott. Ward is tantalizingly close to joining that star-studded group.
"It would mean a lot," Ward said. "It's hard to get there, though. You know, it would be different if I had one more year on my contract, but I don't. I may make it, I may not, who knows? We'll see."
Over the past three years, Ward has finally gained recognition beyond the 49ers' facility, too. It shows up in the titles he's added to his resume: starting free safety, team captain and one of the NFL's top 100 players (No. 96 according to NFL Network), the latter two of which are new designations for him.
For a player who missed 31 games and bounced between outside corner, nickel corner and free safety under four different defensive coordinators in his first five seasons, Ward has finally found his best position, better injury luck (the recent hamstring issue notwithstanding) and the voice that's made him one of the team's most respected veterans and relentless trash talkers.
"When I first got here, Jimmie didn't say much on the field, but I can see him now being in more of that leadership role," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "He's going to be consistent. He's going to swarm to the ball. He's going to be relentless. He's going to compete every single day... He's one of the best safeties in this league.”
With the possible exceptions of linebacker Fred Warner and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, no voice rings out on the practice field like Ward's. Ward has even become a more prominent presence on social media, offering critiques and trash talk of the likes of Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf, free-agent wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, among others. In May, Ward even went so far as to say he's "not very likable" and that he can "talk my s--- because I'm gonna back it up."
Ward's teammates aren't immune to his verbal jabs. Throughout the offseason program and through training camp, Ward relentlessly badgered Niners quarterback Trey Lance, constantly reminding him of the dangers of throwing his direction. Mixed in with the trash talk is plenty of guidance for his younger teammates. Warner goes to Ward for tips and tricks on how to succeed in man coverage, second-year strong safety Talanoa Hufanga marvels at Ward's confidence and command of a huddle and safeties coach Daniel Bullocks believes Ward has the makings of a future coach.
"He set the standard in that safety room," Bullocks said.
In Ward's mind, that standard extends beyond the Bay Area.
"I feel like I'm one of the best safeties in the league, but I just gotta get turnovers," Ward said. "I consider myself top five in a lot of categories besides turnovers."
That Ward is even as close as he is to 49ers hallowed ground is a testament to his refusal to be cast aside like many of the players who cycled through before Shanahan and Lynch arrived in 2017. At the time, Ward was skeptical of another coaching change, as Shanahan was the Niners' fourth head coach in as many seasons and general manager Trent Baalke, the man who drafted him, left too.
Ward knew he had no equity with the new Niners regime, noting that he didn't think Shanahan or Lynch "believed in a lot of players" who were holdovers from 2016. But Ward got at least one significant vote of confidence before playing for Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh: The Niners picked up his fifth-year option, guaranteeing him more than $8.5 million for 2018. While Ward appreciated the gesture -- he later cited it as a reason for staying with the Niners for less money than other teams offered in 2019 and 2020 -- it was Saleh and Shanahan's decision to move him to free safety full time that resonated most.
Ward's hard-charging style made the Niners take notice but also led to injuries, including a fractured forearm and broken forearm in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Those injuries limited him to 16 games over those two seasons and sparked those pesky trade rumors. Because it was his first time hearing his name in trade talks, Ward wasn't sure who to believe. He felt like there was at least some truth to it, but Lynch went to Ward after the awkward press conference and quickly assured him he wasn't being traded. Ward hasn't forgotten the feeling.
"Every year, I never feel like I'm safe," Ward said. "You see all the injuries that happen every day. You never know when this could be your last play ... I don't let that affect me on the field and how I treat people."
Once healthy in 2019, Ward posted 60 tackles, a sack and eight pass breakups in 13 games. He headed to unrestricted free agency, where he turned down a more lucrative offer from the Las Vegas Raiders to stay with the Niners. For the first time in his career, Ward felt at home, signing the three-year, $28.5 million deal that expires after this season.
Shanahan's faith in Ward was rooted in the idea that most of his injuries were unfortunate accidents, not nagging issues. Since, Ward has grown to become a Shanahan favorite, saying multiple times if he could wear the jersey of any 49ers player it would be Ward's.
"He's been our best safety the whole time we've been here," Shanahan said. "And the only thing that's held him back is injuries ... When he stays healthy, everyone sees the type of player he is."
And what a fixture he's become.