Everything you need to know about Broncos strong safety Terrell Ray "T.J." Ward you can learn from the real "Boss Ward" in the family - his mom.
T.J.'s penchant for hitting someone on the field comes from the strong, competitive spirit that LaNeita - along with her husband Terrell - fostered early on with all three of their kids - T.J., Tierra and Terron.
And his soft, sensitive side - which she insists is the real T.J. - no doubt comes from a deep respect for the woman who has watched him play just about every football game since he was 8 years old, the woman who has comforted him when life was tough, and of course the woman who has set him right when he occasionally veered off the straight and narrow.
"My mom is super caring, super loving, and she's not just a mom to me and my brother and sister but to my friends, my brother's friends, my sister's friends, even her friend's kids," T.J. said. "She's just an all-around caring person to everybody."
That love for everyone around her has occasionally gotten "Mama Ward" in trouble with her oldest son who wishes she weren't always so understanding of those who do her wrong.
But ultimately, it's exactly what he loves best about her.
"Just how caring and how supportive she is," T.J. said. "Anything we needed, if she had the power to help us, she would do it. Just the love she gives us - gives everyone."
While the mother-son bond is instinctual and powerful, it is not a given, and LaNeita knows that better than anyone.
"You have to earn the respect of your kids by talking the talk and walking the walk," she says in a no-nonsense way that only a mother can properly deliver. "We live by example and we support our kids. When they did good, we rewarded them; when they were bad, they suffered the consequences."
From day one, it has been important to LaNeita that her kids stay humble and well-grounded, no matter what success or failure they had.
With athletically gifted kids often in the limelight, that's not always easy.
"When T.J. starts feeding his ego, I have to bring him back," says Mama Ward with a chuckle. And how does she usually do that? "I call him Terrell."
"You know," she adds, "he doesn't always know how to keep a low profile, and sometimes he'll say to me, ‘mom you're not letting me have any fun.' But I just remind him to be responsible and be a man of integrity."
LaNeita understands the pressures these pro athletes have and often at a very young age, which is why she believes a strong foundation in faith and family are the keys to raising kids. For the Wards, that has meant doing everything together.
When Tierra was six, the speedster was asked to be on a track team and do a 100-yard dash tryout.
"I thought, 100 yards? That's pretty far," LaNeita said. "So I stood at one end and my husband at the other. She took off and beat everybody."
From that day on, all the Ward kids did track - which meant mom and dad were at all the track meets too. And while Tierra couldn't join the football team with her brothers, she might as well be a player given how she knows the game inside and out. Tierra, who earned a partial track scholarship to UCLA, would tell her friends not to bother her during football season because she has games to watch and brothers to support.
And you can bet her big brother is looking out for her.
"Ohhh, that's an understatement," LaNeita says about T.J. being protective of his little sister. "I don't think she got to date until she was off in college because of him."
LaNeita and Terrell Sr. met in high school where he played football and she did cheerleading and track. After both graduated from San Diego State University and eventually settled down in San Francisco, the Wards always made education a priority in their kids' lives.
Education was so important in fact that Terrell and LaNeita moved out of San Francisco when T.J. was 8 to be in a better neighborhood. Both parents worked extra hard to put all three kids through private high school. For T.J. and Terron, that meant attending the football powerhouse De La Salle High School in Concord.
The De La Salle Spartans, depicted in the 2014 movie, "When the Game Stands Tall," owned the country's longest winning streak of 151 games, spanning from 1992-2004. Though he was out with an injury for most of his senior year, T.J. experienced De La Salle football during its last undefeated season before the streak ended in August 2004.
One of the things LaNeita always appreciated about De La Salle and its coach Bob Ladouceur was the emphasis on elements other than football - which was right in line with what she was trying to teach their kids.
"Coach taught a lot of lessons besides football - sportsmanship, loyalty, responsibility," LaNeita said, adding that the streak was never made a big deal within the program and certainly not by the coach. "That was not the motivating factor; it was more about winning the next game and being responsible to your teammates."
It was a Spartan tradition for every player to fill out a commitment card of what he was going to do the following week to help the team get better. A teammate would read the card aloud so everyone could hold him accountable.
While Terrell Sr., a former player-turned-coach was no doubt in awe of the dominant football program at De La Salle, this kind of team-oriented bonding was what appealed to LaNeita.
T.J. graduated in the spring of 2004 and made plans to follow his four closest friends - which included fellow Spartan standouts Cam Colvin, Willie Glasper, Jackie Bates and Terrance Kelly ("T.K.") - to the University of Oregon to play football.
Because T.J. had been sidelined with a broken patella most of his senior year, he did not get a scholarship and planned to walk on to Oregon in the spring of 2005 after a semester at a local junior college.
But tragedy struck this nucleus of friends late that summer when "T.K.," T.J.'s best friend and top De La Salle recruit, was shot and killed just days before they were to become Oregon Ducks.
LaNeita still remembers getting the call and realizing she had to tell her 17-year-old son that his best friend had been shot.
She was suddenly thrust into the least enviable position as a mother - having to watch her son suffer heartache.
"They were really close," LaNeita said, noting that T.K. had taken T.J. under his wing while the eldest Ward recovered from his season-ending injury that year. "T.J. went into a deep depression for a long time. He had a hard time accepting that loss. He still hasn't accepted it."
LaNeita believes that tragedy is partially to blame for the De La Salle streak coming to end a few weeks later. The senseless violence crushed the soul of many of the players and coaches - including her son, who sports a "Tee-Kay" tattoo in honor of his best friend.
But if Mama Ward has shown her kids anything, it's that the way to handle adversity is to fight through it.
Having to fight back from her own injuries sustained in a car accident as well as battling a cancerous tumor, LaNeita Ward is not one who backs down from a challenge.
That has made a lasting impression on T.J.
"The impact my mom has had on me as a football player and a person is just the fight she has," T.J. said, recalling he was in college at the time and his mom would never let it be about her. It was always about her kids. "Her spirit was always positive, and she never focused on her. It was always on you and what you were doing."
That selfless spirit is what has compelled LaNeita to see as many games of all her kids as possible. She went to every Pee Wee, high school and college game of Terron and T.J.'s, and when T.J. was drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 2010, she began splitting her time between his pro games on Sundays and Terron's high school games on Friday that eventually became Oregon State games on Saturdays. She even made it to the UCLA track meets.
For the record, that's A LOT of football games in the past 20 years. That's ok. It's her kids.
"T.J. always says, ‘Mama, you scream so much,' but whether he's 10 or 20, I'll always be his biggest fan," said the former high school cheerleader.
Now that Terron is a running back for the Atlanta Falcons, the Wards have to negotiate their Sundays with two sons in the NFL.
But Mama Ward figured out a way.
"It's so important to have that presence at the game," she said. When T.J. was in Cleveland, she had a special corner by the tunnel where the players would run out off the field after warm-up. "They'd always say, ‘clear this area for T.J's mom!'"
For T.J., having his mom at the game is such a staple that he's never even considered the opposite. It's just the way it is - and the way it's supposed to be.
"I've never known how unimportant or important it could be because she's always been there," T.J. said.
And T.J. has loved having his mom at the game sometimes as much for her cheering as for knowing when enough is enough of football.
"My mom isn't into the game so much. She wants to know how I feel," T.J. said. "My dad's a coach so the first thing he wants to do is talk about how I played, watch film, you know, make improvements. My mom has always been the one who knew when we're done, we're done."
LaNeita acknowledges that she's not as concerned about that win-loss record; she just wants to see her boys walk off the field in one piece. She loves putting on her No. 43 jersey every week and watching T.J. do his thing, but she won't lie - it makes her nervous.
"When the offense is playing, I sit and watch the game. But when the defense is on the field, I'm just constantly pacing until they're off," LaNeita said, adding that any of her boys' injuries have always "hurt" her more than them. "I can't stop them from doing what they love, so I just keep them in prayer. And I just tell them to play safe and play smart. Always play safe and play smart."
Both Ward boys played offense and defense in high school, and T.J. used to say to Terron, "you're either going to hit or get hit."
T.J. chose to hit.
And it's worked out well for the two-time Pro Bowler who added Super Bowl champion to his resume this past season - which was made possible by the secondary, better known as the No Fly Zone.
Compassion for youth
But if there's one thing LaNeita would hope her influence would have on her kids, it would be compassion for those less fortunate. And T.J. has definitely gotten that message.
With his mom's help, the T.J. Ward Foundation was established almost the minute he turned pro. His foundation is active in all the communities he has lived - San Francisco, Cleveland and now Denver. Partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, the foundation has supported youth in a variety of ways, including taking underprivileged kids on a Christmas shopping spree and offering high school students a chance at big-time sports writing.
"My mom laid the foundation and instilled in us that we need to be hard-working and determined and always respect others," T.J. said, noting his mom is "absolutely" the reason he loves being involved in the community - especially with youth. "We are very blessed, and she always instilled giving back. She was always helping, always being a mother to a lot of people."
With all the success T.J. has had in pro football, that attitude is what makes LaNeita the most proud.
"T.J.'s passion is the youth. He really wants to give back to those kids and give them some structure they can build upon," LaNeita says. "That whole ‘Boss Ward' thing is his alter ego."
T.J. can talk tough and be a menace on the football field all he wants (and Broncos fans give a big thumbs up to that!), but Mama Ward knows the real T.J.
And that's the one who showed up on her doorstep a few years ago for Mother's Day as a surprise.
"He had called me that morning to say Happy Mother's Day, and a few hours later the doorbell rings, and there's a man standing there with a bunch of flowers in front of his face," LaNeita recalled. "It was T.J. behind those flowers. I just cried. That was probably my favorite Mother's Day ever."
Well T.J., looks like you better get on a plane. I think Mama Ward needs some flowers.