Three years removed from a season-ending injury in his final year at Manhattan High, Joe Ballard is finally getting his chance to play college football.
After a year of post-graduate school and a redshirt year at Rice University, Ballard will make the trip with his teammates to South Bend, Ind., this weekend to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, where he will line up on special teams.
Ballard’s family, including parents Steve and Becky, will convene in Indianapolis with other relatives before heading to South Bend.
For the Catholic family, pairing the chance to watch Ballard play with the backdrop of the famed South Bend campus was too good a chance to pass up.
“My dad was a huge Notre Dame fan growing up, so I’m sure it’s really exciting for him,” Ballard said. “And if you’d have told me I’d be playing at Notre Dame three years ago, I would have told you you were crazy. So it’s funny how it all worked out.”
While no one could say for certain, both former Manhattan High football coach Lew Lane and current head coach Joe Schartz couldn’t think of another Manhattan High grad to ever take the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one,” Lane said. “I don’t even remember anyone being recruited by Notre Dame.”
Schartz agreed, while also commending Ballard’s work ethic to stay the course and make his dream of playing college football come true.
“It was a huge loss for the team when Joe suffered his season ending knee injury,” Schartz said. “He was a senior captain and had worked very hard to have a successful senior year. Unfortunately, that opportunity was taken from Joe.
“The effort and perseverance Joe has exhibited after his injury is a tribute to the quality of young man he is. I’m very happy for him and he has earned his opportunity.”
After solid sophomore and junior campaigns for the Indians, Ballard tore his ACL at the Pittsburg State football camp and missed his senior season of football before moving to Lakeville, Conn., to attend The Hotchkiss School.
Ballard said Schartz and assistant coach Jason Kazar helped him through his time spent on the sidelines.
“The two guys that helped me the most were coach Kazar and coach Schartz,” he said. “They kept me involved with the team even though I couldn’t do much physically to help. So I helped out with film and stuff, and that really helped me out a lot.”
Ballard landed at Rice after making a connection with former Manhattan High grad and University of Kansas offensive lineman Adrian Mayes, who took a graduate assistant job at Rice in 2011 and still kept in touch with Kazar.
Ballard said he kept playing football because he didn’t want to have any regrets.
“I didn’t really want to think ‘what if’ at all,” he said. “What if I would have kept playing? Where would I have been if I would have quit after my senior season? So I thought I would give it a shot and see where it goes, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.
“Jason Kazar really helped me out a lot and influenced me to do what I did. He was a big part of my decision and helped me with all my decision-making. He’s been there from Day 1.”
Whether he is the first Manhattan player to take the field in South Bend or not, Ballard is relishing the chance to get back on the field and finally play some college football.
“I might be,” Ballard said of his place in Manhattan High history, “but I don’t know if that’s historically correct. It’ll be exciting to see my family up there, and I know my dad is really excited.”