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Matt Ganyard, 34, a former Marine, is a walk-on for Virginia football and is living the college football dream

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the USS San Diego sailed across the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 2017, bound for the Middle East, a Marine helicopter pilot stood at the ship’s stern, measuring his steps and going through the motions of kicking field goals.

The 684-foot long steel amphibious transport dock vessel, and its crew of 800, were bound for the Mediterranean Sea on a three-ship, force-in-readiness deployment.

One of them, former high school soccer standout and 2011 Virginia graduate Matt Ganyard, had his plan set for when his Marine commitment concluded. He would go to graduate school and use his one year of NCAA eligibility to play college football — despite having never played the sport.

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“That was Matt, and nobody was going to talk him out of it,” said Shane Caffrey, Ganyard’s close friend, fellow Marine pilot, and bunkmate for the seven-month deployment. “He was getting ready.”

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When Virginia opens its football season Saturday against No. 12 Tennessee in Nashville, Ganyard, now 34, a married father of two and retired from the Marines, will be a member of the team and could very well be handling the kickoff duties for the Cavaliers. It’s the realization of a dream almost 16 years in the making, one that began when he tried out for the UVa team as a sophomore in 2008.

Matt Ganyard (by Mike Dominick-UVA).jpg

Matt Ganyard, seen attempting a field goal during a UVa practice, was a high school soccer star.

As Ganyard recalls it, he went 9 for 9 kicking field goals that day, though he said he was less impressive when he gave punting a try. Virginia had a number of kickers already on the roster, and Ganyard received an email not long after telling him he had not made the team.

“I think this is exactly how my story was supposed to be written,” Ganyard said.

Ganyard soccer

Matt Ganyard was the captain of his high school soccer team in California.

Mike Barber

He spent the rest of his undergraduate years playing on the school’s club soccer team and, in part because of injuries, never tried out for football again — but never entirely gave up that goal either.

The email notifying him he’d been cut became the screensaver on his iPad.

“He’s always had this dream,” said Ganyard’s older brother, Peter, a Clemson graduate. “And certainly there have been moments when my dad and I thought, ‘Hey, this might not work out.’ But he’s always stuck to the goal.”

Ganyard, the son of a 28-year Marine fighter jet pilot, had been a gifted athlete since his youth. Peter recalled the “Matt Rule,” where his youth soccer coach in Quantico would pull the then-five-year-old Ganyard out of games once he had scored too many goals.

Caffrey said Ganyard became an adept bowler while in the Marines, and also would frequently shoot low rounds on the golf course, playing with borrowed clubs.

In addition to starring on the soccer field for Coronado High School near San Diego, Ganyard played a season of lacrosse, “just for fun,” he said.

But until earlier this month, the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Ganyard had never put on a football helmet or shoulder pads, sneaking a peak at teammates near him in the locker room to make sure he did it right his first time. He laughed at the suggestion he could one day coach the sport, noting, “I don’t know that I know enough about football. I’m still learning.”

Ganyard may have never given up his dream of playing college football, but the path to this point certainly gave him ample opportunities to quit.

His seven-month deployment on the San Diego meant Ganyard was studying for the GMAT and lifting weights aboard the ship, supplementing his Marine-readiness workouts with specially designed ones for college kickers. Ganyard bought a rubber football at the first port-of-call the ship docked at and carried it with him, from Vietnam, to Thailand, to Jordan, and for the five months the San Diego spent off the coast of Libya.

On a base in Jordan, his squad played a game of pick-up football on a soccer field. After it, Ganyard spent another hour kicking, at one point, teaching a group of Jordanian soldiers how to kick a football.

“I don’t speak Arabic, and they don’t speak English,” Ganyard said. “They kind of looked at me and smiled, laughed, and pointed at the football. They saw me kicking, and they went and kicked it.”

When he returned to the states, and Camp Pendleton in San Diego, he used his free weekends to attend kicking camps, competing alongside 16 and 17-year-olds hoping to grab the attention of college scouts.

He enrolled in UVa’s Darden School of Business last year, but the program’s class schedule prevented him from playing football. In his second year in the school, he had more flexibility, but there was a new roadblock.

His NCAA eligibility — which froze during his active military service — had started as soon as he left the Marines. His final year had expired. Virginia sought a waiver from the NCAA to let Ganyard play this season, but that was initially denied. Ganyard and UVa appealed and the NCAA granted Ganyard eligibility four days before the start of fall camp.

Most of Ganyard’s communication with the football team had been with Drew Meyer, a special teams analyst. He met coach Tony Elliott just a few days before the start of fall camp.

“I think he said, ‘Oh, so you’re real,’” Ganyard said. “I think he had heard the story from Coach Meyer for the past two years that, ‘Hey, we’ve got this crazy idea.’”

Now, that crazy idea, Ganyard’s longtime dream, is a reality.

Through all of it, Ganyard said his wife, Marie, made it possible for him to keep going. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son, and Ganyard is beyond conscious of both the time he gives up with them to pursue his master’s degree and play football and the burden that leaves on his wife.

Ganyard has been measured in his approach with his new teammates. Especially in his first few weeks, he was careful not to push his knowledge and life experiences on them, while remaining open to answering their questions. And there were many.

“I want to know about all of his experiences, not just on the football field,” sophomore kicker Will Bettridge said. “He’s been helping me with life, any questions I have about whatever.”

Matt Puff Ganyard

Matt Ganyard stands in front of a Cobra helicopter during his time in the Marines.


Ganyard said Bettridge, the team’s incumbent kicker, has been like a little brother off the field.

“He talks about kids, occasionally. He talks about relationships. Military,” Ganyard said. “Everything you could imagine a 19-year-old guy would ask a 34-year-old with kids.”

Matt Ganyard

Matt Ganyard, former marine, traveled all over the world while serving his country before going back to Charlottesville.

Courtesy photo

His teammates call him Grandpa, Uncle Matt and Pop Pop, but they’re quickly learning Ganyard, for all his Marine intensity, is fun loving, outgoing and humorous.

His military call sign was Puff, after fellow Marines found a video online of him in a high school powder puff dance routine.

“I was there the night that was unveiled to the squadron, and it was a riot,” Caffrey said. “Matt was front and center of his team’s video.”

An avid Taylor Swift fan, Caffrey said Ganyard had a co-pilot download one of the pop star’s albums before a flight.

When it comes to his training, Ganyard takes things seriously. He’s worked hard to stay fit and be in tune with his body, eschewing his Marine tendency to push through aches and pains and being more honest with the training staff about any soreness he feels.

“I’m kicking more than I ever kicked before,” he said. “I joke that I need to be on a pitch count.”

Ganyard has waited so long for this opportunity and he’s determined to simultaneously soak it all in and make the most of it.

“I know I only get one shot at this,” Ganyard said. “There’s no next season.”

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