Ryan Smith prefers to remember Demetrious Ward for how the Vacaville High School student lived instead of how the 18-year-old died in October 2014. Smith will judge Ward as the young man he knew as a teacher and coach instead of the one portrayed by media reports as a drug dealer who was shot for a small amount of marijuana.
Members of Ward’s family will defend him as a victim of being in a bad place at a bad time with bad people. There are those who will say he was asking for trouble by being out at 1:30 a.m. on a Monday, just six hours before he would have been going to school. And others will say Ward needed to learn a lesson and it is a shame the price of that lesson was his life.
Smith will not let those people decide how he remembers Ward. He will remember Ward for what he saw with his own eyes.
What Smith saw in 2012 was a freshman who skipped spring football workouts to stick with the track team even though he was just an alternate for the varsity boys 4×400-meter relay. Smith coached the relay runners at that time.
“A track meet is a long day, “Smith said, “and the 4×400 is one of the last events. For a kid like him, it’s got to be boring.”
Vacaville had a strong 4×400 team with seniors Tanner Mahoney and Imi Edopai, and sophomores Daniel and David Mewborn. The four qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters meet, and Ward tagged along as usual. Smith did not attend the meet because his wife had given birth a day earlier, but he did get phone calls with updates.
One call came after Mahoney fell and was injured during the 800-meter trials. He had to be scratched from the relay, Fortunately, Ward was ready to go. Vacaville won its heat in the trials, advanced to the finals and placed second.
That finish sent the four to the 2012 state championships, where they were overmatched and bowed out in the trials. None of that would have been possible, Smith said, had Ward turned his back on track to go to spring football.
Football was Ward’s game. His headstone at Vacaville-Elmira Cemetery is in the shape of a football jersey with his last name and No. 21 on the back. Football meant so much to Ward that he was making efforts to be a better student in the fall of 2014, Smith recalled.
“He really cared, He was getting good grades and was getting on track to graduate. He was turning around academically,” Smith said. “He was not getting into trouble at school. How could we know what was going on outside of school?”
Dulon Stevens, whose son Dulon Jr. was a football teammate of Ward’s, also noticed a change in Ward. “He was going through a lot of stuff, but he was making progress in life,” Stevens said. “There was some brightness in his future.”
One person who was well aware of Ward’s activities away from school is his father. Kevin Ward used tough love in an attempt to set his son straight, often reminding him that he alone would be accountable if he ran afoul of the law.
“He knew that if those were choices he was going to make, he would have to deal with it,” Kevin Ward said. “I told him if he was going to do the crime, he would have to do the time. Some kids just have to go out there and test the water.”
Kevin Ward prefers to remember his son in a positive light and has launched a youth football program, the Solano Hurricanes, in his memory. Kevin Ward is not concerned about competing with established programs for players. He is not concerned that any publicity for the program will rekindle talk of his son’s untimely and senseless death.
“This is in my son’s memory. It’s not about what people are saying. You can’t put yourself in his shoes,” Kevin Ward said bluntly. “You have to move forward and don’t look back. There’s plenty of room for one more (program). There’s plenty of kids. They need to stay off the streets and stay in the books. The streets are not your friend.”
The Hurricanes will hear that from a man who hopes to turn his loss into victories for youngsters who love football as much as his son did.
Sacrificing sleep for a trip to Disneyland was an easy call for CJ Toler. The Vacaville High School senior did not realize until returning that a fun night with his classmates would cost him more than a few winks.
Toler was dragging by the time he arrived in Elk Grove last Thursday to compete in the triple jump at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters meet. He entered with the sixth-best mark in the section at 44 feet, 7.25 inches. He departed after going 42-10.5 in his first turn, 43-3 in his second and fouling in the third.
Beating him to the exit was his shot of competing in two events at the state championships, which begin Thursday in Clovis. Toler will be traveling south again after finishing second in the high jump last Friday.
Earning his first ticket to the state meet put Toler in a much better mood after he was “devastated” Thursday. He could have used exhaustion as an excuse for falling short in the triple jump. He could have complained how he, track teammate Cody Cheatham and 10 seniors on the baseball team were not getting a fair shake because they had to decide between sports and pre-graduation festivities such as the trip to Disneyland.
Toler’s decision was easy. One way or another, he was going to Disneyland. His way turned out to be the same as Cheatham’s. They left their classmates on the way home in Fresno, where Chatham’s father was waiting with his truck. Toler got back to Vacaville in time for a 30-minute nap before going to Elk Grove.
“I’m still a kid. I still have to enjoy high school,” said Toler, who also played football and basketball for the Bulldogs. “I really wanted to make (the state meet) in two events, but I don’t regret Disneyland at all.”
Cheatham did not qualify in the shot put and discus at the section meet, leaving Toler as Vacaville’s sole survivor. Few folks gave Toler much of a chance of making the state meet in one event, much less two. The section seeds the field events based on an athlete’s best mark. Toler’s 6-1 put him in a pack of nine jumpers chasing seven with marks of 6-3 and higher.
“I wanted to make sure that everyone knew I was here,” Toler said. “I wanted everyone to know I belonged.”
Two of those seven did not clear the opening height of 6-0. Four went out at 6-2, which Toler cleared on his third and final attempt to join Lodi’s Damien Biegler and Yuba City’s KeRon Blackwell as the only jumpers remaining in contention. That clinched a trip to the state meet for Toler with the top three finishers in each running and field event qualifying.
Toler and Biegler both went out at 6-3. Blackwell won by clearing 6-5. The tentative opening height at the state meet will be 6-3, and 13 jumpers qualified with marks of 6-6 and higher. Toler will have his hands full, but he is not at all intimidated. Coach John Wilkerson is confident that Toler will hold his own against the best jumpers in the state.
“He was obviously disappointed (last Thursday), but he gets to press reset,” Wilkerson said. “The door is opening for him. He needs to take advantage of this opportunity and walk through it. He’s got a chance.”
A medal is within Toler’s reach. Just ask him. With a good night’s sleep, Toler plans to prove he is not content with just attending the state meet. “I want to get on the podium. That’s my goal,” he said. “I know I can compete with the best of them.”