Home The story of the 34-year-old UVA placekicker that should motivate us all

The story of the 34-year-old UVA placekicker that should motivate us all

Chris Graham
Matt Ganyard
Photo: UVA Athletics/Mike Dominick

The first UVA guy to touch a football in anger this season could be the guy who was a training-camp cut a generation ago, way back when Al Groh was still roaming the sidelines as the coach of the ‘Hoos, back in 2009.

Matt Ganyard, a 34-year-old father of two, Marine Corps veteran and second-year Darden MBA student, is, as improbably as anything you can imagine, the frontrunner to be the kickoff specialist for Virginia’s Sept. 2 season opener in Nashville against #10 Tennessee.

Ganyard, who has never played in a football game, at any level, and had never put on a helmet and pads until the start of training camp three weeks ago, is also pushing the incumbent placekicker, Will Bettridge, to be on the field-goal unit, according to Keith Gaither, the special-teams coordinator on the UVA football staff.

“It’s a heated competition in the placekicking as of right now between Will and Matt, and we’ll see the best man win. They both are competing for kickoff and field goal, so, that’s been a heated competition. It should go into next week,” Gaither said.

Ganyard, “Pop,” “Uncle Matt” or “Grandpa,” to his teammates, played high-school soccer in California, and we’re talking, it’s been a minute – he graduated from high school in 2007.

Like any of a number of the rest of us, he decided to mess around kicking a football, figuring, how hard could it be, going to YouTube to find instructional videos, and decided ahead of his second year at UVA, maybe he was good enough to try to walk on to the football team.

“I’ve still got the email, that email from the whoever was working back in 2009, saying, Hey, we regret to inform you that you didn’t make the team. That was my iPad background for many years,” said Ganyard, who would go on to graduate from UVA with a degree in history in 2011, then join the Marine Corps, becoming a Cobra Attack Helicopter pilot.

All the while, he made sure to carve out some time for his placekicking, working on his mechanics, once seeking out the aid of former NFL placekicker Nick Novak, when Ganyard was stationed in San Diego.

Along the way, he’d found a loophole in the NCAA rulebook that he thought could benefit him once his military career was over.

“There is a weird rule that essentially your eligibility clock freezes when you go active service, very similar to a religious obligation that many students use,” Ganyard said. “So my five-year clock, I used four as an undergrad, even though I didn’t play, which is another misconception, most folks don’t understand that. Four of my years were burned. The fifth year essentially got paused when I went active duty with the Marine Corps after graduation. And from there, it was frozen, essentially until I went off active duty a year ago. So, in that time, I just kept thinking, OK, maybe I could thread this needle and make this happen.”

Meaning, yes, the Marine helicopter pilot kicking rubber footballs in his spare time was seriously thinking, I’m going to play college football.

He was already thinking about working toward an MBA, and that would lead him back to his alma mater, and the Darden School.

Ganyard reached out to Drew Meyer, the special-teams analyst on Tony Elliott’s staff, to get Meyer’s thoughts on what he was trying to do, which is when it first became apparent how difficult it was going to be.

“I didn’t have any high school film,” Ganyard said. “Until about three weeks ago, I’d never put on a helmet or pads before. So, I didn’t have anything to really go off of besides, Hey, I’ve been to some of these high school recruiting camps, which, you know, the old guy showing up to camps with 16-, 17-year-olds, they would look at me and go, are you a JUCO transfer? I was like, maybe back in 2008, I was. But you know, I would go to these camps just to get exposure and trying to simulate some of the pressure that I wasn’t able to get because I never had that in-game experience.”

If you didn’t know already how this story ends up, you’d be thinking now, Yeah, this guy is bonkers, but wait, it gets better.

“Due to the scheduling at Darden, the business school I’m at, it essentially wasn’t possible with the academic structure,” Ganyard said.

The first year of the Darden program has everybody taking classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., which conflicts with the time frame for football practice.

Game over, right?

“At that point, I looked at it and said, you know, what, is this done?” Ganyard said. “It’s pretty unfortunate that I had everything seemingly lined up only to kind of be shut down at the last minute.”

But you know already how this ends up, and you know from reading this far into the story that this guy who taught himself how to kick a football, had the gumption to try to walk on as a second-year UVA student, then kept at it during his years in the Marines, wasn’t going to just throw in the towel.

He reached out to Meyer after the season and asked him if he would be willing to help him apply for a waiver from the NCAA that would give him an extra year of eligibility.

Keep in mind, this is a guy who started college in 2007, graduated in 2011, served in the Marines, was in grad school with two kids, and has never played in a football game.

Of course they helped him apply for the waiver, and for an appeal – because, obviously, the NCAA, being the NCAA, initially denied the request for the extra year.

Ganyard found out four days before the start of training camp that the appeal was successful, “and next thing you know, I’m finishing my summer internship and getting a physical with an NCAA football team, and here we are.”

Where we are, again, is Gaither, the special-teams coach, says Ganyard is the favorite to be the kickoff guy for next week’s season opener.

Seems a good time to do a hypothetical: UVA wins the coin flip, decides to defer, meaning the ‘Hoos are kicking off to UT to start the game.

The guy kicking the ball has been in organized football for all of four weeks by that point.

What a story, right?

“I don’t know that it’s fully hit me that I get to be part of that gameday environment,” Ganyard said. “I think the practice environment and the game, being part of the team, has finally set in. It took a while to realize how cool and not be, not shellshocked, but just not taking the awe of it all. But it’s, I think, that’s finally set in. But I think once we step onto the grass, out in Titan Stadium, I think it’ll hit, and I’ll enjoy every second of it.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].