“We could use you,” Jimmie Ward recalls saying.
Before long, Tartt and Ward were starting next to each other at safety for Davidson.
Next Sunday, Tartt and Ward will start at safety for the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
In the decade between, both were lightly recruited by Division I colleges, developed into early round NFL draft picks, landed with the same professional team and weathered injuries to stand on the cusp of their first Super Bowl.
“I’m going to make a movie about it,” Ward said at his locker in Santa Clara last week. “I don’t know if it’s going to be on Netflix or actually a movie. But it needs to be a movie.”
Consider: Ward’s wasn’t the only voice that influenced Tartt to finally go out for football.
“My granddad, before he died, he wanted me to play,” Tartt said. “So that was big, too.”
And the Davidson football coaches had also been after the 6-foot-1 basketball player — to play receiver.
“We just wanted to throw the ball to him,” former Davidson defensive coordinator P.J. Wright said, “because he could jump.”
When Tartt showed up for practice, though, he gravitated to the defense. And then Davidson’s starting safety opposite Ward injured his ankle, opening a spot.
“We put Jaquiski in there at safety and it was like Wally Pipp,” Wright said, referencing the Yankees first baseman who was hurt and replaced by Lou Gehrig. “He never gave the spot back.”
So began a productive pairing. Tartt now says that Ward “made sure I was up to par and knew everything.” Ward says Tartt “had a knack for the ball” and “just needed to learn the plays.”
Davidson, which reached the state quarterfinals in 2009, ran a base defense that asked safeties to line up at nine yards deep, read the offensive linemen and react.
“Jimmie had a knack for it; Jimmie could see the play before the play started,” said Wright, now head coach at Ardmore (Ala.) High School. “Physically Jaquiski was … a bigger and stronger kid. But he was very raw.
“They are different personalities. Jimmie’s natural talent kind of took over. I think Jaquiski had to work a lot harder to get to where he is.”
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Ward wore the decidedly unglamorous No. 46 as a senior at Davidson. Wright, with a chuckle, recalled the reason — Ward’s reluctance to show up for summer workouts.
“We’d have to go pick him up and he’d be sitting on his front porch,” Wright said. “So we gave him No. 46 for his punishment.”
Said Ward: “I was hot about that.”
But it was typically opponents who got burned. Ward, somewhat undersized at 5-foot-11, was fast and hard-hitting on defense — and also showed a flair at Davidson for blocking punts. (He would later block three punts as a college freshman at Northern Illinois.) Davidson’s coaches, Wright said, dedicated time each week specifically to drawing up punt-block designs for Ward.
And Ward could be a fast learner. Mary Claire Wright, the coach’s wife and a Davidson teacher who was the academic adviser for Ward and Tartt, recalled an impromptu lesson that occurred one Friday morning in her classroom.
P.J. and Jimmie “walked in and he picked up a marker and sketched out a punt block and said, ‘You got it?’” Mary Claire Wright said. “And Jimmie said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And they left.
“That night I think Jimmie blocked two punts and recovered one for a touchdown. I was like, ‘I can’t get you to go to class with a pencil — but in five seconds you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got that new punt block,” and then you just go do it?’”
Mary Claire Wright fondly recalled Ward and Tartt as “really good kids.” Shawn Smith, a former teacher and coach at Davidson, recalled Tartt as a “great student” in his world history class and a “difference-maker” in his lone football season.
In a game against Theodore High, a team that included future NFL linebacker C.J. Mosley, Tartt preserved a late lead with a tackle deep in Davidson territory and sealed the win one play later with an interception in the end zone. The next day’s newspaper headline read: “Sweet, Tartt.”
With little exposure, though, Tartt received one Division I football offer — from Samford University, a highly ranked private school in Birmingham, Ala. And Ward received offers from two Division I programs — Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, choosing the latter.
“A lot of people think we came out of the blue,” Ward said. “Normally, DBs like that don’t slip.”
Ward made first-team all-Mid-American Conference twice at Northern Illinois and was named a third-team All-American as a senior. Tartt redshirted his first year at Samford and concedes he considered giving up football and returning to basketball. But he stayed with football and became a two-time FCS All-America safety.
“A lot of people talked to me like, ‘You need to stay,’” Tartt said. “I feel like if I didn’t stick it out, I wouldn’t be here. So I’m glad a lot of people talked to me.”
At first, Ward and Tartt intended to both declare for the 2014 NFL draft, entertaining thoughts of going to the same team. Tartt, though, tore his labrum as a junior at Samford and opted to return for his senior year. Ward entered the draft and went 30th overall to the 49ers.
“When I saw he went first round, I was happy,” Tartt said. “My year, I’m thinking it’s possible I’ll go first round, but probably not to (the 49ers), because it’s 32 teams and all it takes is one team to fall in love with you.”
Tartt wound up being drafted in the second round in 2015 — by the 49ers, with the 46th overall pick. Both Ward and Tartt were the third safeties selected in their respective drafts.
“I’m just happy that San Fran fell in love with me,” Tartt said.
Both safeties have endured injuries in their early careers. Ward has missed 32 games in his first six NFL seasons. Tartt has missed 19 games over the past three seasons. Both, though, set career highs in starts in 2019. In the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, Tartt led the 49ers with eight tackles. Ward’s 65 tackles during the regular season were a career best.
And now, more than 10 years after playing their first game as a high school safety duo, they’re bound for a Super Bowl.
“With everything we’ve been through and just knowing he put in all the work to be here and be playing at the level he’s playing, it’s a wonderful feeling,” Tartt said.
“You don’t see this type of story,” Ward said.
Two weeks ago, after the 49ers’ divisional-round win over the Vikings, Shawn Smith, the former Davidson teacher and coach, texted P.J. Wright his own message of wonder:
“How about those Davidson boys?”
Matt Kawahara is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @matthewkawahara