CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last year, Jihad Ward traveled more than two hours on public transportation to football practice. Now he's just across campus.
Last year, Ward applied for welfare assistance to afford food and lessen the burden on his mother. Now he receives unlimited meals as a Division I scholarship athlete.
Last year, Ward was mostly anonymous to college football fans while competing at a junior college in New York. Now he's expected to have an immediate impact at defensive end for Illinois.
But Ward won't say he has it easy now."I made it here, but I'm not celebrating," he said. "I still look out the window and think about everything. I'm happy. I can't believe it myself. But I still have to get to class on time. I still have to go hard in school. Life isn't easy. You have to go 100 percent every day. I have to take it to the next level."
Getting to the next level has been Ward's dream.
"He just wanted to make it. Period," his mother, Kareema Ward, said.
A 6-foot-6, 295-pound junior, Ward appears to be on the brink of that. He brings a mix of athleticism and power to the Illini defensive line.
Ward recorded 10 sacks in two seasons at Globe Institute of Technology in Manhattan and was ranked the second-best junior-college defensive tackle by 247Sports.com.
He was a wide receiver and safety in high school in Philadelphia before a late-blooming weight gain forced him to switch positions in junior college.
At Illinois, he is expected to help shore up a defense that allowed a Big Ten-worst 238.6 rushing yards per game.
"He is pretty, isn't he?" Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said with a smile. "He's an extremely good athlete. The thing I'm excited about is that he's coachable. As long as he continues to get better, we think he will definitely be someone we can count on this year."
For most of his life, Ward said he has counted on one person: his mother. She said she has worked to get him to count on another: himself.
He wears No. 17 -- an unusual number for a defensive lineman -- to honor his mother, who gave birth to him at that age. A single mother to five children, she has struggled to make ends meet but said she was always firm with her standards for his behavior.
"He could be trusted," she said. "My son is very disciplined when it comes to what he wants to do. He was always at the park playing ball or practicing. I am blessed not to have a child you have to strangle to do the right thing."
Ward said he became more self-reliant at junior college. He cut out trips to Philadelphia, at his mother's urging, so he could focus on academics and football and avoid a dangerous neighborhood. He applied for public assistance and found a job at a sporting goods store.
This was in addition to often waking at 5 a.m. and taking a train to football practice and classes. Some nights he returned home as late as 11:30.
"It was a struggle for me because the rest of the kids [my mom] had to feed," said Ward, who has an estranged relationship with his father. "I told her: 'I'm a man. I can find a way to eat.'
"It's been rough for me. There have been times I've cried about it. When I'm on that ferry [in New York], I look into the sky and think, 'I need to do this.' "
Like his jersey number, he said, his play is dedicated to his mother.
"When I make a play or just wear that number, [it's because] I'm thankful for her," he said. "She was the only one telling me right from wrong. I always go to her. I'm proud of her. I thank God I'm her son."
Kareema Ward would rather her son play for someone else.
"I want it to be his dream," she said. "It's his life, his goals."