The Paul Ballard Story: From Injury To Inspiration
Source: Cleveland City Stars
For City Stars defender Paul Ballard, soccer has become more than just a game. The former college standout has evolved into a new breed of athlete, a charismatic player who has spent the last three years using sports as a vehicle for change and mission work across two continents. Faced with a potentially career-ending injury in 2006, the 26-year old has turned his life around and made the injury his salvation.
Ballard's college career was extremely successful. Playing for Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, Canada, he was a four-time Canada West Conference First Team All-Star. In 2005 and 2006 he was named All-Canadian, and was the Trinity Western University Athlete of the Year. He began training with the local USL First Division Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, and planned to sign with the Whitecaps after finishing at Trinity Western. At the beginning of his senior year the Trinity Western team was ranked in the top ten in the country, and Ballard was the second leading goal-scorer in the league.
It was during this time that Ballard began to suffer knee pain, but when the injury was not diagnosed as anything serious, he continued to play. After collapsing in several games, an MRI showed that Ballard had completely torn his ACL and had suffered a second-degree sprain of the MCL and a tear in his meniscus. The devastating news meant that the team captain could only sit and watch as his squad won the conference and placed third in the nation. Despite only playing half the season, Ballard was named a Canada West First Team All-Star and was First Team All-Canadian, but the commendations were bitter sweet.
Due to his injury and subsequent surgery, it was clear that Ballard's plan of playing for the Whitecaps was no longer an immediate possibility. In the year of rehabilitation that followed, Ballard was forced to reevaluate his life, a life that up until this point had revolved completely about soccer.
"When I tore my knee, I thought it's a long road back," said Ballard. "Getting injured forced me to take a step back from the sport and made me realize there was more to life than playing soccer. I learned some hard character lessons, and decided that I could no longer just live my life for me, and I needed to use my God-given abilities and passions for a reason. I wanted to use my ability as a soccer player to change the world."
It was with this in mind that Ballard pushed through his rehab and focused on getting back to soccer at a professional level. His newfound faith and philanthropic motivation powered him towards his goal and when one of his mentors challenged him to play soccer abroad while working in sports ministry, Ballard jumped on the opportunity.
He got involved with Athletes in Action (AIA), a sports ministry organization that combines sports and faith to spread a mission of Christianity. Newlyweds, Ballard and his bride Roslynn were excited by the idea of possibly traveling to Scotland to further the ministry, but AIA had other plans. The pair was sent to South Africa, with absolutely no idea what to expect.
In South Africa, Ballard signed with FCAK which was the only first division team in the area around the AIA headquarters. Although it was not an ideal soccer situation, Ballard looked at it as a challenge he had to overcome in order to serve the ministry and change people's lives. He and Roslynn faced many difficult cultural issues, but the relationships they built were life-changing.
"In the year and a half we were there I set up several youth camps and worked with a lot of the players on life skills," said Ballard. "Things like financial planning, signing contracts, looking towards the future in terms of alcohol abuse and marital problems, these were all big issues. I tried to help with things off the field."
Coming to Cleveland, Ballard looked to further his outreach work. He signed with the Cleveland City Stars and became active in the Rising Stars Youth Program, reaching out to youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods and teaching soccer and life skills. Ballard took pride in being a role model and in spending time with kids who had never met professional athletes before.
"It's challenging to go out there after a two hour practice and do a clinic, but it's worth it when you see the joy on a kid's face," said Ballard. "You don't know what they're going home to, if they only have one parent or any parents, so I think our support goes far. The reward is so everlasting."
On the field, Ballard has pushed hard despite a frustrating season in which the City Stars have been unable to climb out of the bottom of the table. He's no longer a top-scorer or a team captain as he was in college, but it hasn't deterred him from giving his personal best. Though his play time has been limited, his presence on the team is powerful. He looks to be a role model for his teammates, bringing his message of faith and Christianity to the team.
"I'm not the best player on the team or the guy who scores lots of goals or gets lots of minutes," says Ballard. "But I'm serving my role as a player and a team-mate and as a friend to these guys. That's the most inspiring thing, a constantly inspiring thing."
Ballard's teammates find him an inspiration as well.
"Paul is the spiritual leader of this team," said City Stars goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap. "I think it's a difficult position to be in, and Paul fills it with grace. He makes an effort to develop relationship with every player on the team. It's very clear that Paul's life is having a positive influence on many of the members of this team and the staff."
Ballard has taken personal interest in bridging the gaps amongst the City Stars players who hail from all around the globe. The City Stars team is made up of players from different skill levels, cultural backgrounds and world views, and Paul was moved by them all.
"I think it's a cultural experience as much as a soccer experience and it's really amazing," says Ballard. "I enjoy hearing about their cultural and spiritual views, since they're all so different. Maybe some of these guys have never gone to church, or have gone but don't understand what it means, and I just hope I can be an example for them and learn from them as well."
Despite the hardships he has overcome, Ballard is upbeat about the path his career has taken.
"I never won the championship or played for the Whitecaps, but I'm still here and still pursuing my passion and I think that goes a long way," says a smiling Ballard. "People think that an injury would end things, but sometimes circumstances make you stronger. If someone asked if I would you trade it, I would say not a chance in the world because the things that I've learned and life experiences that I've gained have all been through overcoming that injury."
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