Vaulting Upward Toward Christ

Former pole vaulter, now a track coach, helping disciples go the distance

David Ward was intrigued as the Olympic High School pole vaulters practiced their jumps. He was already playing defensive back for the school’s football team and wrestling. That looks like fun, he thought.

Ward traipsed over to the pit and asked, “Can I try that?” Pole in hand, he raced down the runway at the Charlotte, North Carolina, school. He planted the pole in the box, hoisted his legs upward, then turned, passing over the bar before cascading down. The junior stuck 9’6”—surpassing the height of the more experienced vaulters.

One of the assistant track coaches, who coached Ward in football, witnessed the vault. Racing over, he exclaimed, “You’re going to be on the track team now.”

“Those were the days when you did what coaches asked you to do,” Ward said. “So I was on the track team.”

By the time he graduated from Olympic High School in 1974, he held the North Carolina high school record of 15 feet. He also excelled in college. “I would’ve liked to have played college football, but I pursued what God blessed me best in, and that was pole vaulting,” he said.

Growing up at Southside Baptist Church in Charlotte, Ward’s family was heavily involved in church, and he knew early on about God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ. But at age 10, it became personal, and he publicly professed his faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.

Telling others about Jesus became a way of life for Ward, and he naturally wanted to witness to his high school buddies. Several friends that he invited to church came and accepted Christ and today are serving in church leadership and music ministry.

Ward spent most of his collegiate years at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina, where he was a six-time All-Southern Conference performer. As the team’s captain, he held two records: 15’6” for indoor and 16’2” outdoor. He also spent a year at Santa Fe Junior College in Gainesville, Florida, in 1976, becoming a national finalist in the indoor and outdoor junior college national championships and learning from some of the nation’s best coaches.

But his records in the pole vault can’t compare to other seminal moments in his life. On his birthday in 1978, he met Dawn Poss, a nursing student from Maryland who would become his wife. Dawn and her roommate Valerie had traveled to Apex, North Carolina—near Raleigh—on that Nov. 3 to watch a high school football game. One of Dawn’s brothers, Bobby Poss, a two-time All-American football player, was head coach, and David was student teaching at the school.

“It was love at first sight,” David boasted during an interview with the couple, drawing a smile from Dawn.

“We stayed in touch, and I went to some of his track meets in Boone,” Dawn said. “We kept talking, not only about marriage, but he also shared about his faith. I knew he was a man of God.”

Dawn’s Maryland family attended the Catholic Church.

“I believed in God and in Jesus Christ, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Him,” she said.

After David and Dawn married on June 3, 1979—the same year he graduated from App State with his master’s degree—they crisscrossed North Carolina, as Dawn practiced nursing and David taught physical education and coached track and cross country. Dawn did give her heart to the Lord, and her faith especially deepened as she and David spent time each morning reading their Bible together and praying about what God was teaching them.

“We also grew as God gave us three daughters,” Dawn said. “Joy, Jenny and Julie.”

After 11 years, God opened the door for David to return to his alma mater. This year marks the 16th season as an assistant track coach at App State, overseeing the pole vaulters.

“On my best day, I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace,” he said. “I’m thankful I worship a God who forgives me, no matter what I’ve done. Dawn and I are simple people who want to be obedient to the Lord and bring all glory to His Name.”

The Wards’ desire to find a place where their three daughters and other young people in the Boone area could grow spiritually led them to launch the Son’s Light Coffee House on May 11, 2002. As more and more middle school, high school and college students came every two weeks, the location shifted to a bigger facility, and High Country youth festivals were added to challenge and equip students in outreach.

Evangelism and discipleship were emphasized, and local college students helped spearhead the charge, including one Rance Shuler.

In 2005, Rance, a junior, was a walk-on in the 800-meter run for the Mountaineers. Ward welcomed Shuler to the team and spoke words of encouragement. “I made a lot of bad decisions in my first year at college, and God had done a big work in my life,” Shuler said. “I was a new babe in Christ when I walked on. Coach Ward helped me a lot.”

Shuler became part of the distance medley relay team that captured the Southern Conference championship in 2007. But he cherished even more the times he had to teach at the Coffee House and to spend with the Wards.

“I came from a broken home, and I noticed their love for each other, and that had a profound impact on me,” he said.

Today, Shuler and his wife, Jennifer, have three young sons and are on staff with Eternal Truth Ministries in Robbinsville, N.C.

Ward has coached many state and regional champions at the high school and college levels, but that doesn’t compare to the joy of helping some of them come to know Christ and then go on to make Him known to others.

Students weren’t the only ones whose lives were touched at the Coffee House. One year a fellow coach showed up. He had noticed Ward reading his Bible when they were together at away track meets. That led to several soul-searching talks between the two, and before long that coach prayed to receive Christ.

Maintaining the Coffee House eventually became cost prohibitive. But Son’s Light Ministries carries on as a recognized App State club that provides opportunities for students to participate in Christian-service activities and projects—including working with the local homeless population and collecting shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Child.

“Over the years I could not even begin to count the number of people who stayed or lived at our home,” said the Wards’ daughter Julie, herself a teacher and track coach in coastal North Carolina. “And Mom always set the tone for making them feel like part of the family. She’s a quiet, humble servant.”

Ward coached Julie when she was at App State.

“My dad is a David,” she said. “Not just because of his name, but like David in the Bible, he is truly a man after God’s own heart. He has a heart for reaching and leading youth. He loves his students and athletes the way that God loves us.”

 

Richard Greene is a former Decision assistant editor. He recently retired as a senior editor at
Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C.

Photo: Courtesy of David Ward