CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WFXR) — You might have heard of him before the season started. A kicker for the University of Virginia bringing a decade of military experience to the football field. But how exactly did a 34-year-old father of two go from flying helicopters for the Marines to kicking footballs for the Cavaliers?
Matt Ganyard looks just like any of his other UVA teammates.
“I think we’ve built some great bonds with the guys over the time I’ve been here,” Ganyard said. “For so many years, I thought about what it would be like to join the team and to get to play in the games.”
The Cavaliers’ kickoff specialist is in his first year playing college football. But he’s also in his last season with the team.
“I think they realize you know, I’m just another guy who just happens to be twice their age,” Ganyard said. “I think it clicks with them when they seem out at dinners with my kids and wife, they remember that it’s not quite the same. But in a good way.”
At 34, Ganyard is in his only year of eligibility with UVA. And before representing the orange and navy blue of the Wahoos, he was serving the United States with the Marines flying COBRA helicopters.
“It’s an incredible feeling. People ask me ‘do you miss flying?’ Certainly there’s aspects of flying that I miss but what I really miss is flying 10, 15 feet off the ground over open desert with a fully loaded war fighting attack machine,” Ganyard said.
His ten years in the military took him all over the world, from Vietnam and Thailand to Crete and Jordan. And throughout that time, the former high school soccer player maintained a burning desire to play football, practicing his kicks wherever he could.
“I think it was a good stress reliever,” Ganyard said. “If I had a long day, I could swing by the field on base for 20-30 minutes, have some kicks, get out some aggression, do some kickoffs and go about my day.”
After serving in the Marines, Ganyard returned to Charlottesville to enroll in the Darden School of Business. By then, he had already reached out to Drew Meyer, a former Wisconsin punter who is now the special teams analyst at UVA. Ganyard’s hope was to make a dream born over a decade earlier as an undergrad come true as a graduate student.
“Essentially slid into his DMs and said, ‘hey crazy story, here’s me. This is what I’m looking to do.’,” Ganyard said. “When I sent it to him, I really tried to emphasize, ‘Yes, I understand this is going to be a unique story and a good story but that’s not why I’m doing it.’ I want to be an asset and be able to contribute to the team.”
It took a waiver from the NCAA, one that was originally denied before getting approved on an appeal, to turn Ganyard’s dream into a reality. He contributes both on the field and on the sidelines, with the wisdom that only a 34-year-old with military experience can have.
“I try and be a positive role model. Positive reinforcement on the sideline you know. I think I have some years of perspective maybe on the guys. Good and bad,” Ganyard said. “I see the guys. They’re in their own head on the sidelines and I try and delicately find a way to re-motivate them.”
The sixth-year student is now making the most of his full circle moment, 16 years after he was rejected from joining the Cavaliers as an undergrad.
“Even during the down moments, I try and kinda pinch myself and remind myself that I shouldn’t be here,” Ganyard said. “This is an incredibly unique situation and I get this opportunity and it’s a privilege to be on this team.”
On the football field, Ganyard looks just like any of his other UVA teammates.
But his journey of perseverance makes him stand out from the rest.
“This is exactly how I think my story was supposed to be written with the opportunities and setbacks I’ve had along the way. The military has allowed me to gain some great leadership opportunities that I’ve been able to bring to the locker room and on and off the field,” Ganyard said. “But I wouldn’t have changed a thing looking back from that first denial as a second-year to making it as a sixth year at 34.”