Big man’s big heart

Coach's criticism pushes Ballard to new heights

Karl Gehring/Journal-World Illustration High School Athletes of the Year

Free State tight end Christian Ballard eludes defenders. Ballard doubled as a defensive lineman during his Free State football career.

Free State High's Christian Ballard, the Journal-World's Male Athlete of the Year, competes in the boys 4x100-meter relay at the Class 6A state track and field meet last month in Wichita. Despite weighing in at 280 pounds, Ballard was an accomplished sprinter during his Free State career. I

If most people truly do judge a book by its cover, it stands to reason there aren’t many sports fans in Lawrence or throughout the northeastern Kansas cities that make up the Sunflower League who would have the nerve to call out Christian Ballard.

It’s not a healthy habit to cross a young man who stands 6-foot-5, weighs 280 pounds, has the physical strength to push around whomever he feels like and, perhaps most unfair of all, also has at his disposal more than enough blazing foot speed to chase down anyone who might think it’s smart to land a verbal dig and run for safety.

However, open the Christian Ballard cover, and the inside pages tell a different story – that of the proverbial oversized teddy bear with a heart of gold, a teenager’s conflicted sense of outward confidence clashing with inward questions of self-esteem, a young man who never quite figured out how to stoke the spirited fire necessary to make all his awe-inspiring physical manifestations find their ultimate fulfillment on the grand sports stage.

This was the Christian Ballard whom Free State High boys basketball coach Chuck Law knew so well, and, quite frankly, was tired of dealing with as the 2006-07 high school hoops season passed its midway point, the Firebirds limping along in the land of mediocrity.

“He said, the way I’m going right now, I probably won’t see that much playing time up in Iowa,” said Ballard, recalling a February chat between himself and Free State’s head coach.

Translation: Ballard was soft, perhaps the worst insult an athlete can ever hear, especially when it comes from his head coach. And Law wasn’t afraid to let him know if he didn’t fix it immediately, the University of Iowa football recruit shouldn’t expect big things out of himself at the next level.

Faced with such stinging criticism, Ballard didn’t sulk. There was no defiant stand that saw him turn his back on what many may have considered a silly side pursuit and immediately shift his thoughts to offseason gridiron work.

It was much more simple. Ballard got the message.

“I definitely needed that. I definitely needed someone to tell me,” Ballard admitted. “A lot of people went by me and paid it no mind. He saw that.

“It really showed after that talk that I wanted to play basketball, finish the season strong and do great things.”

Finally, the big man in the middle became the beast everyone expected him to be, and his teammates followed his lead, blatantly ignoring a lowly seventh seed in the Class 6A sub-state tournament.

Once Free State was finished, the school had its first two triumphs ever at the 6A state tournament in Emporia, and a third-place team trophy to add to its expanding trophy case.

Meanwhile, Ballard had the defining moment in a senior season that led to his being named the Journal-World’s city high school Male Athlete of the Year.

“I really took it to heart and started playing 100 percent,” said Ballard, who averaged 15.0 points in five postseason games as the Firebirds closed with a 4-1 stretch – the lone loss coming to eventual state champion Blue Valley West in the 6A state semifinals – after a lackluster 9-11 showing during the regular season.

“It’s something I didn’t do in football, and I’m bummed about that. I’m happy we had that talk and happy I played basketball because of it.”

That basketball, and most specifically, Free State’s victory against Olathe South in the 6A sub-state title game, would be the first thing to come to Ballard’s mind might seem surprising considering two key elements.

Start with the fact Ballard tapped into those hoop thoughts Monday night just mere hours after he and the remainder of Iowa’s incoming freshman football class finished off their first day of offseason workouts in Iowa City.

Then consider that, last summer and into the fall, an enormous lot of high school and college football fans in Kansas couldn’t talk pigskin without Ballard entering the conversation in some fashion.

First came his verbal commitment to play for Kansas University, followed in August by’s preseason nomination of the behemoth tight end/defensive end as the state’s top high school football player.

Soon after came word that several of the nation’s premier college football programs, including the likes of Florida State, Georgia and Iowa, suddenly had Ballard on speed dial, making final pushes to have him spurn the hometown Jayhawks in favor of their programs. Ultimately, Iowa won out, and Ballard eventually inked his letter of intent at a February signing ceremony to play for the Hawkeyes.

His final Free State football moment provided the capstone to a high school career colored by the overwhelming joy of the program’s first sustained playoff success last fall – highlighted by a run to the 6A state semifinals – interspersed with Ballard’s own personal longing for what might have been.

“I don’t think I came out with the intensity I wanted to. Looking back on the season, I didn’t play all out, and I’m bummed about it,” said Ballard, who arrived at that conclusion based largely on what he’d see on tape during the team’s weekly film studies. “Just playing the games, you don’t realize it sometimes. During films I noticed it, that I wouldn’t hold a block or make a play, and I was really bummed about it, that I didn’t do those things.”

He was also candid about how the publicity and the recruiting wars affected his game, most notably in his role as a pass catcher in the Firebirds’ explosive spread offense.

“People were expecting me to be an amazing player. I knew I wasn’t going to be the star player,” said Ballard, pointing to the Murphy twins, Ryan and Brian, who indeed provided the lion’s share of Free State’s offense last fall. “I felt kind of overwhelmed at the beginning of the season. It just kind of affected my game plan overall. … But it was a good learning experience.”

The lessons didn’t end with the football what-ifs and the basketball rebirths. Perhaps in no athletic arena did Ballard draw as much attention from fans and his fellow competitors as on the track, when the kid with the shot putter’s build would line up amongst a crowd of lithe sprinters – including the Murphy twins and a fourth Free State senior, Austin Winn – for his leg as part of the Firebirds’ 4×100-meter relay team.

“I got a lot of strange looks. People were just in awe when they saw me sprint down the track,” Ballard said. “But it was fun. I really liked it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Except for the final outcome. As a junior, Ballard and his fellow fleet-footed teammates couldn’t compete at the 6A state meet after they were disqualified for a rules violation immediately following their circuit at the regional meet. This spring, a new obstacle reared its ugly head, when Ballard’s tender left hamstring prevented him from completing the necessary handoff at the end of his leg during the event finals.

Another missed opportunity, another bit of adversity to shape his future.

“It was hard in a sense that we didn’t make a first-place finish, and that was my fault,” Ballard said. “But I knew we were the better team there, and that definitely picked me up a little bit.”

And so the Christian Ballard legacy at Free State ultimately reads much like his own personal book – a collection of memorable highlights and events juxtaposed with the knowledge that even greater things are possible.

As for his next chapter, Ballard already knows how he wants it to read.

“Up here, I’m not really worried about what people say. I’m just going to come out here and do what made me a great football player in the first place,” Ballard said.

“I want to make coach (Bob) Lisher proud, and my (Free State) teammates proud. I want my teammates to say, ‘I played with him.'”