Jim Gazzolo column: Journey of an NIL began in Lake Charles

Published 11:00 am Thursday, December 14, 2023

On the morning of Feb. 27, 2021, Cameron Ward was an unknown college football player at Incarnate Word University in San Antonio.

He was in Lake Charles to start against McNeese State in a game to kick off the shortened spring season.

The Football Championship Subdivision campaign had been moved from the fall due to COVID.

Email newsletter signup

Because of hurricane damage to Cowboy Stadium six months earlier, the game was played at noon and interest was low considering all that was going on with storm recovery. Also, UIW wasn’t a household name in FCS, and Ward was just a freshman with little hype.

Since that day less than three years ago, so much has changed in college football that nothing looks the same. And Ward, he has become the perfect example of this fact.

On that day, Ward torched the Cowboys for 305 yards and four touchdowns as the Cardinals pulled off a 48-20 victory. It was the start of his quick rise through the college football quarterback rankings.

After a couple seasons at UIW, Ward spent the last two years playing for Washington State in the quarterback-rich Pac-12, where he battled the likes of the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams from Southern Cal and two award finalists from this year, Michael Penix (Washington) and Bo Nix (Oregon).

Now the 21-year-old Ward is back in the NCAA transfer portal looking for a new home. But it is much different this time around. Now he’s doing it in the world of name, image and likeness.

And Ward is ready to really cash in.

He could go to the NFL, where he is projected to be a likely Day 3 pick, meaning he won’t go in the first three rounds. So the money might be better staying in college.

Some rumors have the bidding on Ward starting at maybe as high as $2 million. He has also been linked to openings from Los Angeles to Miami with reports he is on Ohio State’s wish list.

‘Tis the season for college quarterbacks to leap from one big program to the next in hopes of finding their dream landing spot which will likely come with a sack full of cash.

No more under the table money mind you, college football’s cash wars are now clearly out in the open.

And Ward, he is just one of the many looking to find their pot of gold on their way to the end zone.

Ward’s numbers are up there. In his two seasons at Washington State he completed 643 passes in 983 attempts for 6,968 yards. He threw for 48 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while running for another 13 scores.

Ask any McNeese fan, they know Ward is electric.

That makes him a brand big schools want and are willing to pay for. He is living the dream of every kid who now wears an FCS uniform, as he is making the most of his chances.

He is maybe the best success story of any quarterback to ever jump from FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

With all the sad tales we hear about the transfer portal and kids who lost their way when moving up, Ward is a positive one.

And to think, the first chapter of his tale began in Lake Charles.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at