Updated: March 25, 2014 at 9:50 pm
DENVER — The sound of a thump carries with it a unique effect. A healthy, proper thump is remembered as much as it's heard.
This is Mike Bellotti's football memory of T.J. Ward at the University of Oregon. In his early days as a walk-on, Ward was remembered as much as he was heard.
"I remember listening to practice. You would know when T.J. was on the field. The volume of the collisions was noticeable," said Bellotti, then the coach of the Ducks.
"You could hear him. Not him talking, but when he hit somebody."
That's a thump. It's like a pop, only with a deeper, lasting effect; the thumped remembers his encounter with the thumper. That's why Ward, a 27-year-old, 200-pound strong safety, ranks as the most important free agent signed by the Broncos.
DeMarcus Ware got the most headlines.
Aqib Talib got the most money.
Ward is the most important.
"He's an enforcer," Bellotti, now a college analyst for ESPN, said by phone from Eugene. "He will change the way the offense thinks about going across the middle."
When a football team experiences ambush in the form of a 43-8 Super Bowl loss, the knee-jerk is to focus on the bad. Truth is, the Broncos still have more good than bad.
What they didn't have — and what the Seahawks did, in droves and in decibels — was a boss in the back of the defense who specializes in thump. Ward's seem to have a lasting effect.
This was true at Oregon long before his four seasons with the Browns. The play that sticks with Bellotti is from the Holiday Bowl, six years and thousands of plays ago.
"Go back and look at it," Bellotti said. "That play tells you all you need to know."
On first-and-10 from his 25-yard-line, Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson sprints around the left end. Ward is nowhere in the picture. Then, suddenly, he is.
Like a 3-wood John Daly'd against a bass drum, the safety thumps the quarterback with such violent ferocity, the ESPN broadcast team follows with this exchange:
"Just listen, at the end of this play," the play-by-play man says.
"He (the quarterback) just got folded in half," says the color commentator.
The quarterback gamely hustles back to the huddle. Almost there, he stumbles to his right, visibly woozy from a collision remembered as much as it was heard.
"Now he's starting to feel it after the fact."
"Mark that play right there. Mark it."
Mark down March 12 as the day thump returned to a mile high.
"T.J.'s hit literally changed that bowl game," Bellotti recalled.
There was nothing at Ward's introductory press conference to suggest he is a particularly angry person. He's quite friendly. There was nothing, too, that suggested he is particularly flashy: no suit and tie, just a button-down buttoned all the way up to the Adam's apple, the image of a man more concerned with substance than fancy.
For what the Broncos need, that works. They don't need pretty. In their pinpoint, picture-perfect offense, they have pretty. In Ward, they signed gritty.
He laughed when I asked if he was assured a roster spot at Oregon.
"Oh, no. I definitely didn't have a spot," he said. "I had an opportunity to come and make the team."
Shoot, Ward barely had a position, much less a scholarship. After sustaining a knee injury, Ward moved from cornerback to safety. He redshirted. Then he started.
"I think they were surprised by what I did as a walk-on, coming in there and actually competing as a walk-on for a starting spot," Ward said.
"He earned it," Bellotti added.
"I couldn't tell you I'd be here," Ward said from inside Broncos headquarters at Dove Valley. "I really don't know how I got here."
It's a sound, a noise to remember, that got him here. It made Ward the free agent with a soundtrack.
"Offensive energy is great, touchdowns and getting the fans up," Ward said. "But there's something different about imposing your will on the other team, having that attitude when they come out to play you, they better get ready, because it's going to be long day."
Thump. Thump, thump.