Son Always on His Mind
Another football season is about to start, and Morehead State Coach Matt Ballard is making a point to savor every moment of the experience -- if only for the distraction, and the comfort, it might provide.
“It’s got to help. It’s got to,” Ballard said as players trickled into the Eagles’ football office, preparing for the start of preseason practice. “It’s like a breath of fresh air. Can we do this 24 hours a day? The down time, the quiet time, is kind of tough. It’s hard to go to sleep at night.”
Ballard is entering his 12th season as head coach at Morehead State, an NCAA Division I-AA member that plays in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League and boasts former New York Giant quarterback Phil Simms -- who played there when the school offered football scholarships -- as its most famous gridiron alum.
From a football perspective, the Eagles have much to celebrate -- they’ve won three straight division titles, and their next win will be the 100th of Ballard’s coaching career.
But as the Eagles prepare for their season opener Sept. 3 at St. Francis (Pa.), Ballard is struggling with a much more challenging opponent.
Not just any kind of grief, but the kind known only by a parent who has lost a child. Ballard’s only child, 21-year-old Matthew, died instantly July 12 when his motorcycle and a pickup truck collided just outside the small northeast Kentucky community of Olive Hill.
“We’re going to miss the daylights out of him,” Ballard said. “It hurts like crazy. I can’t even explain the hurt and the heartache. But the Good Lord didn’t promise us it was going to be easy. He did promise that, ‘I’m going to be with you.’ ”
So Matt Ballard, using his Christian faith as an anchor, delivered 45-minute eulogies at two services for his son, one in Kentucky, the other in the coach’s native state of North Carolina. During visitation before the Kentucky service, Ballard and his wife, Brenda, greeted people -- some who had stood in line for more than four hours -- from 3:30 in the afternoon until almost midnight.
“It was tremendous, the outpouring,” said Ron Gruber, the athletic director at Rowan County High School, where Brenda teaches English and Matthew was a graduate. “They took the time to talk to everyone who came through. It was amazing how strong they were to be able to carry on the conversation. It’s amazing he had his wits about him.
“It is a real credit to carry on, because that is what Matthew would have wanted.”
Morehead, a mountain town of about 7,500 people 65 miles east of Lexington, rallied around the family, as did other coaches and Ballard’s former players. One coach drove from Louisiana to the visitation. T.C. McLish, who played for Ballard at Union College, an NAIA school in southeast Kentucky, is now a soldier serving in Afghanistan, but called Ballard on a satellite phone.
On Aug. 9 -- almost a month after the accident -- a gift basket full of fruit and candy arrived at the Morehead State football office, leaving Ballard misty-eyed as he read the attached card.
“They knew it was the day players were reporting and that we could use something like this,” he said.
When the Ballards created memorial scholarship funds at the university and the high school to honor their son’s memory, enough money initially was contributed so that four Morehead State students could receive $500 scholarships this year.
Ballard said he hopes to be able to endow the scholarships, which at the university would require $20,000 each in donations, to make them permanent.
“It’s pretty inspiring to see how they have dealt with it,” Morehead State athletic director Brian Hutchinson said. “You feel good when you walk out of his office.”
Matthew grew up around Morehead State and its football program, and pictures from his childhood adorn his father’s office. Matthew, a senior sports management major, spent the last three years attending the university and working with the football team as a player and coach -- time his father calls “the three greatest years of my coaching career.”
Matthew had a catch phrase, one his father said helps him through the tough times.
“He was constantly in my ear, saying, ‘Dad, it’s going to be OK.’ I wish I had a dollar for every time that rascal said that,” Ballard said. “If we had a bad practice, I’d hear, ‘Dad, it’s going to be OK.’ Or, if it was a tough ballgame, those were just always his words: ‘Dad, it’s going to be OK. Dad, it’s going to be OK.’ ”
That attitude was, and is, contagious, said Morehead State senior cornerback Kwesi Williams.
“He’s a really special coach,” Williams said. “Even after everything happened, he’s trying the best he can. I think the whole team, they hurt about his son, and that will give us extra motivation to try harder. I pretty much dedicate the season to his son. His son is pretty much with us all the time, helping us out, doing the best he can do.”
Matt Ballard said when he walks onto the football field at Jayne Stadium, he does so with a smile on his face, in honor of his son.
“He wants me to coach as hard as I humanly, possibly can and have the time of my life,” Ballard said. “Matthew wants this to be the best year I’ve ever had in my life coaching.”