LANDISVILE- Representatives from the U.S. Army, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and former Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Jerome Bettis all gathered in front of a full auditorium at Hempfield High School on Friday to honor senior Zach Ward as a finalist for the U.S. Army-Pro Football Hall of Fame Award for Excellence.

Ward was named as one of 20 nationwide finalists for the award that recognizes the country's top sophomore, junior and senior high school male and female athletes who excel academically, athletically and are active in their communities.

"I think it's important that we celebrate the student-athlete, not just the athlete. That's why this award is really important, because you're not only celebrating the academic prowess and the athletic prowess but also his ability to share himself with his community," Bettis said. "I think that's a very important piece of the puzzle. When you look at all the pieces, it's a complete young man that we're celebrating today."

Bettis, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, explained how Ward's actions not only directly affect his community but indirectly inspire more people to take action.

"If we can try to help the people in our community, our community will get stronger. If the community is stronger, then our area is stronger and if our area is stronger, then the region is stronger. The faster our student-athletes see that, the more beneficial it is because we have these leaders that understand it's about uplifting and supporting the community."

Athletically, Ward is a four-time L-L League and District all-star and a two-time High School Lacrosse All-American.

Ward's high school lacrosse career came to an end last week after the Black Knights fell to Hershey in a state tournament qualifier game.

Ward will attend Cornell University next fall and be part of the lacrosse team.

"What really hit me the most is that my lacrosse career at Hempfield is over. When we lost last Thursday, it was tough seeing the teammates that I have been playing with since fourth grade," Ward said. "I know we're all going on to bigger and better things and this is just the start of our careers. I'm just trying to get my body ready and my mind ready for next year."

While his athletic accomplishments are admirable, Ward also excels academically with a 3.79 GPA. He said he's made sacrifices in order to maintain his performance in the classroom and on the lacrosse field.

"I put in the work in the classroom as much as I could while trying to stay on top of my game athletically," Ward said. "I had to drop playing golf my junior year because I wanted to focus on playing lacrosse in college and going to the best university that I could. It was tough but I was able to do it."

As a Notre Dame alum, Bettis emphasized the importance of being a student first and athlete second, despite the flashiness of superstar athletes.

"I think sometimes it flies under the radar because it's not celebrated enough," Bettis said. "Unfortunately, we don't celebrate our student-athletes the way we should in terms of what they've accomplished. So many times it's only an athletic standard that we look at and not an academic or social standard. I think we should look at the complete student athlete and not just the outstanding athletic player that is the superstar football or basketball player."

Perhaps Ward's greatest achievement is his foundation, "FootSouls," which collects and donates shoes and lacrosse equipment to the children of Sierra Leone, West Africa.

"Everyone says that we should just give them food. What I saw in those seven-to-10 days was that food is only going to get them so far. Having hope is the mindset they really need to get out of where they are. They need to have a vision of what they want to do and food isn't really going to do that. Maybe a sport or faith or anything along those lines can get them to a better place."

Ward spent some time in Sierra Leone during his junior year to help teach children about lacrosse while giving them an outlet to generate happiness and faith.

"We weren't really there to teach them lacrosse as much as we were to give them hope and give them an extra boost to maybe get out of their current situation," Ward said.

The winner of the award will be announced during Enshrinement weekend (August 8-9) at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

"If we focus on the student-athlete as a whole, I think we will get better results in terms of the people we put on pedestals and celebrate," Bettis added.

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