By Shane Hoffmann | Photos by Michele Bunch
On the 50-yard line, a few rows up in the heart of Sheldon High School’s Ludwig Stadium, there’s a plaque with her name inscribed.
“Laura Shepard” it reads — the maiden name the late Laura Harward held back when she attended Sheldon, before she married Kaly Harward and gave birth to five children, including a couple of future Sheldon Irish football players: Brad and Carl.
Laura succumbed to a multi-year battle with breast cancer on May 19, 2020. Before passing, she watched her oldest, Brad, 20, star as a two-way lineman for the Irish and Carl, 18, begin his high school career as a freshman center in 2019.
Carl is a senior now, and Kaly is an assistant coach for head coach Josh Line. That’s his title, at least. He considers himself more of a glorified fan. It’s a position he’s held since Brad was a junior.
“I’m the get-back, towel-waiver hype guy,” he said.
So, on Friday nights during home games, both Carl and Kaly take the field with Laura at their backs. Her plaque serves as a reminder of what she meant to them and to Sheldon, the community that played the biggest role in helping them move past their grief.
When Line, a former University of Oregon football player, moved to Eugene and took the helm of Sheldon’s football program in 2017, he, his wife Tiffany, Laura and Kaly became fast friends.
Line was intent on building the foundation for his Sheldon program, and the Harwards had a lifetime of institutional knowledge to lend.
Things came together for the Irish in 2022. After losing 40-7 to Lakeridge in the second round of the 6A playoffs last year, Sheldon is 11-0 entering this week's state semifinal against Tualatin.
The Irish have a dual-threat star at quarterback in Brock Thomas, weapons on the outside and a returning all-league running back. They have playmakers on defense, too, led by defensive tackle Josh Merriman and the Tuioti brothers, Mana and Teitum, whose father, Tony, is the defensive line coach for the Ducks. Teitum, an edge rusher, is the top recruit in the state.
Star power aside, Line is quick to credit his lesser-publicized players.
“We also depend on a lot of young men that are not necessarily the most talented football players, who just really buy into what we do and have a desire to help the team in any way they can,” Line said. “And those are the kids that we're getting the most out of right now.”
Carl Harward is one of those kids.
At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Harward isn’t the biggest center. What he is: rugged and, at a position that rarely values it, speedy. While he’s been able to hold his own against larger nose tackles, he’s perhaps at his best when able to take advantage of odd defensive fronts and make down blocks at the second level. He’s used technical and intellectual savvy to carve a niche at a position far more synonymous with physicality.
“Would we like him to be 6-foot-5, 315 pounds with great feet?” Line said. “Sure, but that's not what he is. And he gets absolutely everything out of himself that he possibly can.”
Harward is the glue along Sheldon’s offensive line and a bodyguard for one of the state’s most productive quarterbacks.
“He's always there for me. I know he's got my back, and in a lot of games, if I get hit late or something, he'll get up and into the guy,” said the signal-caller Thomas, who’s been going to school with Harward since fourth grade. “I trust him with my whole life, really.”
Kaly added: “Carl has a little bit of bark in him.”
Harward personifies the role of protector. He’s played center for his entire football career, after all — since starting tackle football in fifth grade. But personality-wise, little else about the lineman has remained the same as he’s grown past, and trudged through, the loss of his mother.
It’s left indelible marks on him.
“I matured,” he said. “I don't like to talk as much. I understand people's problems more. I feel for people more. I was kind of stubborn before, but when something like that happens, you start to understand you’re not the only one going through stuff like this. I started wanting to do more thinking and less talking.”
Line added: “You would never know he's in a room.”
Harward’s not known to be a hype-it-up, towel-waiver like his father, and Kaly noticed it, too. He, in part, feels responsible for the change his second-oldest child has undertaken.
“I've not always responded in a great way to him or helped him in the best way,” Kaly said. “He's grown a lot with not just the situation with his mom, but also dealing with a dad who's been dealing with grief and not always responding in the greatest way. … He's a much better kid than the parenting he's received.”
It all came tumbling down around Harward in March 2020.
He tore an ACL in the final match of his freshman wrestling season and had it surgically repaired just days after schools shut down as COVID-19 spread. He and the Harward family were trapped at home with a rapidly deteriorating mother and wife. By then, they’d known the final outcome was an inevitability. Laura wasn’t the same, and it was compounded by the agony that quarantine brought.
“Laura was somebody who was so full of life and always active and always involved and always doing something, always cheering, always participating,” Kaly said. “Those last two months of somebody who couldn't even go up and down the stairs and couldn't form sentences, it wasn't her.”
They said goodbye late that May.
A bittersweet tinge of relief accompanied her passing, Kaly said. By that point, the Laura they knew had been gone for months. But with the entrapment the pandemic had forced them into, coping outlets were amiss. Harward had lost continuity with his family and favorite sport simultaneously. His go-to escape was no longer available.
So began Harward’s growth. The painful, enduring growth.
“(I was) just trying to find myself, trying to fix what was going on,” he said. “There wasn't much help, but coming out on top just proved a lot to myself. It proved what I was capable of.”
In the years since, Harward has truly come out on top. He’s become an all-conference center and, after his grades took a nosedive during online schooling, he’s rebuilt his GPA.
“I couldn't imagine going through that,” Thomas said. “For him to keep going and fighting through it, getting through that year and now just watching him as a player, I couldn't be more proud of him.”
With help from those around him — including Line, the coach who told him things he might not have wanted to hear, but needed to; Merriman, the defensive lineman who became the rock for the player many considered their rock; and Thomas, the quarterback who’s been a familiar face on his teams for as long as he’s played the sport — Harward is coming into his own.
And even if that looks, and feels, a little different than before, he knows the woman who used to take up the spot at midfield, where the plaque now sits, would be proud.