Matt Ganyard, a 34-year-old Marine veteran, is the kickoff specialist for the University of Virginia football team.

Matt Ganyard, a 34-year-old Marine veteran, is the kickoff specialist for the University of Virginia football team. (Twitter)

(Tribune News Service)  — Matt Ganyard has been an Islander, a Cavalier, a Marine, a graduate student, a dreamer and a visionary.

Now you can call the 34-year-old something else: a college football player.

Ganyard is the University of Virginia’s first-year kickoff specialist, owner of the unlikeliest backstory in college football.

Ganyard’s ride started as a high school senior in 2007, where he helped the Islanders to a CIF-San Diego Section Division III championship. From there, he spent four years at Virginia, earning an undergraduate degree in history in 2011.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Ganyard then followed his father, Stephen, a Marine Corps officer, who logged more than 4,200 career-flight hours in 12 tactical aircraft over a 26-year career as a fighter pilot.

Matt received a commission to the Marine Corps, flying Bell AH-1 two-seat Cobra attack helicopters for 10 years.

After being discharged, Ganyard returned to UVA, enrolling in the Darden School of Business, one of the top graduate business schools in the world and working toward an MBA.

Along the way, life happened, marrying Marie, his college sweetheart. The couple have two children, daughter Savannah, 3, and 10-month-old son Noah.

And Ganyard, finally, found football.

“It has been a wild ride,” Ganyard said.

The early years

Coronado finished 20-3-1 in Ganyyard’s final season, outscoring its opponents 66-18 with 12 shutouts.

“That was such a fun way to cap my senior year,” Ganyard said.

Before graduation, he got involved in Powder Puff, an annual event where Coronado’s boys help the girls play a flag football game.

“At the Powder Puff game, I dressed as a cheerleader, made a 50-yard field goal, but missed from 60,” Ganyard said.

Coronado’s football coach, Bud Mayfield, approached Ganyard.

“Where have you been?” Mayfield asked him.

“That kind of scratched my inch,” Ganyard say snow.

Off to Virginia

Ganyard considered himself a pretty good high school soccer player.

“But I wasn’t a Division I college guy,” he said. “I wanted to go to a bigger university with strong academics. With my dad in the military, we lived just about everywhere … DC, South Carolina. So I wasn’t afraid to get away.”

Ganyard played club soccer at Virginia, something he called “a blast.”

Football, however, was still on his mind. He twice tried out for the football team, doing well, but getting cut both times.

“I still have the email from 2009, saying I didn’t make the team,” Ganyard said. “There were some injuries in club soccer, so that was about the end of football.”

Up in the air

Ganyard received a commission after college, trained for two years in Florida, then chose to fly helicopters.

“I had my choice of venues and chose California … Camp Pendleton,” Ganyard said. “I built San Diego up to my wife as paradise.”

Ganyard had spent just two years at Coronado High, but considered the San Diego area home. The couple lived in Carlsbad, near the village, and in Oceanside, just north of the 78 freeway.

“I knew I wanted to serve,” he said. “I had an internship on Capitol Hill, (working for California congresswoman Susan Davis), but it wasn’t for me.

“I wanted a faster pace, so I went the aviation route.”

Ganyard spent the first four years on a fleet tour, never seeing combat. He was, however, part of a deployable unit.

“If the call came to be in Harm’s Way, we were ready,” Ganyard said. “We trained every day.”

There was a seven-month deployment on the USS San Diego.

“I brought a football, and kicked anytime we were in port,” Ganyard said. “There were a couple of opportunities, once in Thailand and once in Jordan where I met some Jordanian soldiers. We kicked the football and soccer balls.

“It was cool.”

Kicking with Nick

Back in San Diego, Ganyard hooked up with former NFL kicker Nick Novak, who now runs Novak Kicking and Consulting.

The University of Virginia logo is seen on the scoreboard before an NCAA college football game between Maryland and Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in College Park, Md.

The University of Virginia logo is seen on the scoreboard before an NCAA college football game between Maryland and Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in College Park, Md. (Nick Wass/AP)

“Nick saw a video of me kicking and reached out,” Ganyard said. “He has become a great teacher, mentor and friend, helping me fine-tune things.”

Novak went to high school in Charlottesville, not far from the UVA campus. He kicked 10 years in the NFL, playing in 118 games — 67 of them with the Chargers. Novak made 82 percent of his field-goal attempts, 97.3 percent of his PAT tries.

“When I saw Matt’s video, my first impression was he was an NFL free agent,” Novak said. “Then he told me his story, said he wanted to kick in college.

“Once I understood his situation, I said ‘let’s go.’ This is a guy who, as a college graduate and a veteran, went to high-school-ranking camps with 17-18-year-old kids just so he could get some film.

“I would have been honest with him if it wasn’t there, but he has NFL, XFL ability.”

Novak’s career had a few twists and turns.

He kicked in the NFL for Arizona and Washington in 2005 and Washington in 2006. He was out of the game in 2007, kicked for Kansas City in 2008, was out of pro football in 2009 and ‘10 before finding a home with the Chargers.

“I get chills talking about Matt because he reminds me of me,” said Novak, who was signed and waived 12 times in his career. “He has persevered. He’s an inspiration, and I’m happy to be in his corner.”

Finally, football

After enrolling in graduate school, Ganyard found he still had college eligibility.

The NCAA, with a few exceptions, allows athletes five years to play four seasons of sports.

Ganyard had used four years as an undergraduate, but the NCAA’s clock stops when an athlete is in military service.

In 2022, he tried out for the UVA football team, but his hardship waiver was denied by the NCAA.

University officials again applied for a waiver in 2023. Four days before the start of fall practice, it was granted.

So there he was in Week 1 of the college football season, kicking off against nationally ranked Tennessee on national TV.

“Until three weeks ago, I had never even put on a football helmet,” he said.

In two games for the Cavaliers, six of his 10 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.

“It’s such a Cinderella story,” Shannon McNatt, a classmate of Ganyard’s, told The Darden Report.

She created a T-shirt to wear at games this season with “I KNOW THE KICKER” written across the front. Ganyard’s name and jersey number are on the back.

Many of the players on the UVA team are closer to Ganyard’s daughter’s age than his. And he’s older that quarterback coach Taylor Lamb.

So his UVA teammates call him “Pop Pop,” “Uncle Matt” and “Grandpa.”

His Marine Corps call sign was “Puff”.

“I stupidly left a video online from that high school Powder Puff game where I dressed up as a cheerleader,” Ganyard said.

“So I became ‘Puff.’”

The future Stephen Ganyard commanded at both the Squadron and Air Group levels. He served in staff positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in the J-8 Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He currently serves as a military and aviation correspondent for ABC News.

So there is a bloodline of leadership.

After graduation, Matt Ganyard figures to go the consulting route.

“My military background allows me to see what I like and don’t like,” Ganyard said. “I’d like to get back into sports, but we’ll see over the next two-three years. I want a leadership role … on or off the field.”

As for a career in pro football?

“We’ll see what comes up,” Ganyard said. “My wife is an absolute rock star. She has hung in through every twist and turn. I don’t know how much more I can ask of her.

“Someday, though, we’ll be able to sit down and tell our children about my journey. I’m most proud of my persistence. There have been a lot of closed doors. A lot of dead ends.

“We’ll tell them that you can chase your wildest dreams. And maybe, you can thread the needle and make something happen.”

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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