by Chuck Pool (cpool@edu) -
If Joe Ballard appears to be the calmest of 19 Rice Owls who participate in Senior Day activities before Saturday's season finale with North Texas, it's with good reason.
He's had plenty of practice at this particular ceremony.
The linebacker from Manhattan, Kansas (more on that later) has actually been through three previous ceremonies between high school and college and twice assumed his football career had reached a premature end.
"This past year has had a little déjà vu to it for sure," Ballard noted.
Owls Rally Falls Short in Second Overtime
Tyler Stehling threw for 232 yards and added 92 on the ground, but the Rice Owls saw their hopes for a comeback win thwarted on a fourth down stop in double overtime and North Texas took a 42-35 decision at Rice Stadium on Saturday night in front of a crowd of 20,792.
If you thumb through the Rice game programs from the 2016 season, you'll notice Ballard in the senior photo for the UTEP game. He had joined that year's seniors for the picture on photo day in August after deciding that after four years of football at Rice, he was ready to move on to the next phase of his life. "I had decided that after four years of playing it was time to call it a day," Ballard said.
"But right before our first game last year, I got hurt and found out I was going to be out for the season. For a couple weeks, I thought my career was going to end on the sidelines. That was frustrating, but then the coaches talked to me and asked me if I wanted to come back this year. It was a blessing to have the opportunity," he added.
It was the second time Ballard had resurrected a football career that seemed to have come to a sudden end.
After a standout junior year at Manhattan High School where he earned all-league honors, he tore his ACL prior to his senior year and had to watch as his teammates played out their senior year.
Any chance to strengthen his football resume to attract a college opportunity seemed gone until he decided to pursue a post-graduate year of study in Connecticut at the Hotchkiss School. He proved his knee was sound and was looking for a chance to combine his college education while continuing to play football. One option was to play at the D-III level at Johns Hopkins, but thanks to a connection between his high school linebacker coach and Adrian Mayes, who was a GA for the Owls at the time, he received an offer to journey to the Gulf Coast and walk on at Rice.
As a redshirt, he saw the Owls capture their first conference crown in 56 years and the following year he established himself as one of the team's top special teams players. He backed that up with a second solid season in 2015, which led him to decide to close out his career in 2016, but is glad that things played out as they did.
"It was nice to come back because I have three roommates (Cole Thomas, Nick Uretsky and Robby Wells III) who came in with me and this is also their senior year," he noted. "It would have been a completely different dynamic if I would have left early. It's been nice to go through my senior year--well, I guess it's my second senior year--with them."
It's an annual rite of passage for seniors to note the end of their last spring practice as well as their final day of grueling summer conditioning. Ballard found his biggest challenge in his return came in the form of resetting his mindset to prepare for another round of both.
"Having to go through another set of summer workouts was probably the biggest adjustment I had to make," Ballard said. "There is nothing that compares to them and I had already had the moment where I said `this is my last summer workout' but now I had another year of them. It was a little weird when I first went back into the weight room for the first time last summer. It was tough as always, but I also know it was better than the 9-5 work world," he added.
When Ballard walks into the locker room on Saturday to prepare for his final game as a player, he will find his face on a second consecutive senior day game program, hopefully without the commentary that greeted him one year earlier.
"When I walked into the locker room (before senior day last year), some of the guys gave me some grief about being in the senior picture last year," he recalled.
This year, there will be no such misunderstanding and Ballard will make the jog from the end zone for the final time, completing a winding journey from Manhattan, Kansas to Houston by way of Salisbury, Connecticut, a pair of senior day program covers to add to his degree from Rice as framed pieces in his future office.