November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

CHARLIE WARD, QUARTERBACK OF FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY’S No. 1-ranked football team, is at his best when everything is going to pieces. Take FSU’s game against Virginia last month. Just before halftime, Ward had his arm cocked to throw when a 6’8″ behemoth rose before him. “I had to throw it through him,” he says, “or fake him and run. I took off. Then I saw a guy out the corner of my eye. He was going after my leg. I thought, ‘Heck, I’d better do something.’ ” What Ward did, in effect, was change sports—lie hurdled I he guy like a track star and flew into the end zone. Says Ward, who led the Seminoles to a 40-14 win: “Il was nothing major.”

Maybe not. But couple that with the previous week’s heroics against the Miami Hurricanes—including a 72-yard touchdown pass thrown at full gallop—and you begin to understand why the folks at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City have all but inscribed Ward’s name on the Heisman Trophy—awarded annually to the country’s best college football player. So far this season, Ward, 23—who is also one of college basketball’s top point guards—has thrown for 16 TDs while FSU, which plays highly ranked Notre Dame in a key contest on Saturday, has won eight games without a loss.

“There’s nobody who can play the game the way he plays,” says Seminole coach Bobby Bowden. Added friend and former Super Bowl quarterback Doug Williams: “Right now, I doubt there are four NFL starting QBs better than he is.”

Strong praise. But it hardly makes Ward’s pulse race. The truth is, he’s so laid-back that one is tempted to make sure there is a pulse. Devoutly religious, Ward—who wears chains around his neck dangling a gold helmet and a crucifix—exudes an almost preternatural calm. Even his mother. Willard. 50. must interview him to learn essential things.

Take the matter of his roommate. “When I asked him who his roommate was going to be this year,” says Willard, “he said, ‘A freshman named Warrick Dunn.’ ” What he didn’t say was that Dunn’s mother, a Zachary, La., policewoman, had been shot and killed last January—and that Doug Williams had asked Charlie to look after Warrick, a tailback on the Seminole team. Charlie went a step further and invited the rookie to share his football-dorm apartment. “I didn’t know about that,” says Willard, “until I read it in the paper.”

Charlie is the third of seven children born to Willard and Charlie Ward Sr., 54. schoolteachers in Thomasville, Ga. When Charlie, called Junior, made his initial rush to daylight, his dad—who coached the local high school team—showed up at the hospital with a bouquet shaped like a football.

Growing up, Junior would attend practice with Charlie Sr. That early indoctrination paid off when Ward was named Georgia’s top prep quarterback in 1987. Tie went on to FSU but had to wait his turn while other quarterbacks played out their careers. Meanwhile, Ward excelled in basketball, helping lead the Seminoles to a 22-10 record in 1991-92 and 25-10 in 1992-93. When he did get his chance on the gridiron last season, he was not an instant success—throwing eight interceptions in his first two starts. “It took a while, but I had a pretty successful season,” says Ward. In fact, he set a school record for individual offense in a single season, with 3,151 yards.

As good as the 6’1″, 190-pound Ward is, there is some debate—because of his relatively small size—about whether he has a future in the NFL. Bowden thinks he does. Meanwhile, Ward’s basketball coach, Pal Kennedy, says, “There’s no question in my mind that he could play in the NBA.”

But which would Charlie prefer? “They’re both good,” he says. “I’m just happy to be playing a sport.”

At least for now. Bui Ward also can put sports in a larger perspective. Clint Purvis, minister to students at the First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., recalls that Charlie had a treasured jersey—a souvenir of a bowl game from his freshman year. Purvis tells how Ward, helping out at a youth retreat, came across a troubled teenager. “Charlie took off the jersey and gave it to him,” says Purvis. “He said, ‘When you wear it, remember, I believe in you. And so does the Lord.’ I asked him why he gave it away. He said, ‘Clint, it was just a jersey.’ ”

So if Charlie’s name is called as winner of the Heisman on Dec. 11, don’t expect him to lose his composure. After all, it’s just a trophy.

WILLIAM PLUMMER

DON SIDER in Tallahassee

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