The ‘Cinderella Story’ Behind UVA’s 34-Year-Old Kicker

August 31, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

From the time he pressed “send” on a social media post on Aug. 2, Matt Ganyard’s story went from being known among only his closest friends to being spread through the University of Virginia community and beyond.

By now, you might have heard about the 34-year-old UVA Darden School of Business student – and father of two – who has made the Cavalier football team as a kicker. Ganyard also is a veteran who, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in history from the University in 2011, served in the United States Marine Corps for more than a decade as a Cobra helicopter pilot before returning to Grounds to pursue his MBA.

It’s all followed a Hollywoodesque script, right down to the moment when Ganyard, seated at a table inside UVA’s indoor football facility last Thursday, looked out to a throng of reporters and quipped, “I feel like Ted Lasso in Season One.”

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But unlike Lasso, the main character in the hit AppleTV series who navigates the challenges of coaching an English professional soccer team despite no previous experience, Ganyard has kicked before – just not in a college football game, or any organized football game for that matter.

Ganyard’s Aug. 2 announcement that he was officially a member of the Virginia team revealed his age and how long it took him to reach this goal. “Sixteen years later, the dream lives on,” the post began.

The crowning declaration, which featured a photo of Ganyard in a No. 98 navy jersey while holding a matching helmet, is cause for celebration and reflection among those he’s included in a journey tailor-made for Disney.

“It’s such a Cinderella story,” said Shannon McNatt, a Darden classmate of Ganyard’s who is so excited about her friend that she’s created a T-shirt to wear at games this season.

“I KNOW THE KICKER” is written boldly across the front of the shirt with a smaller “Darden School of Business” underneath. Ganyard’s name and jersey number are on the back of the shirt.

McNatt said more than 50 shirts have already been sold ahead of the Wahoos’ season-opening game against the University of Tennessee on Saturday.

Matt Ganyard in a press conference
Ganyard holds court at a recent news conference inside UVA’s indoor football practice facility. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I know it’s caught fire not only in our class,” she said, “but some friends and family of Matt have bought them, too. Everyone’s just so proud of him.”

The admiration comes from a place of deep knowledge about the lengths Ganyard went to get here.

Ganyard arrived at UVA the first time as a lifelong soccer player who aspired to kick for the football team. In spring 2009, the second semester of his second year on Grounds, Ganyard tried out for the Wahoos – “I got nine [field goal attempts]. I went 9 for 9,” he said – but was told he didn’t make the team via an email. It’s a rejection letter that then traveled with Ganyard as far as the Middle East.

Matt Ganyard in front of a cobra helicopter

Ganyard served in the U.S. Marines for more than a decade as a Cobra helicopter pilot. (Contributed photo)

Shane Caffrey is a fellow Marine pilot who bunked with Ganyard during a seven-month deployment across the Mediterranean Sea, beginning in the summer of 2017. Caffrey’s ship bed was on top of Ganyard’s, and they’d often use the same outlets to charge their electronics.

“And any time I had to unplug his iPad, his screen would light up and you’d see it,” Caffrey said.

Ganyard’s iPad background is now of his 3-year-old daughter, Savannah, but, for a long while, it hosted a screenshot of the denial message he received from the UVA football team 16 years ago.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Matt Ganyard (@mattganyard)

“It was a little bit of motivation,” Ganyard said.

Aside from Ganyard’s wife, Marie, a UVA alumna, Caffrey may be chief among those who can attest to Ganyard’s passionate pursuit of his dream.

With each other through nearly every post in the Marines – from training at the Basic School to flight school to deployment – the duo’s bond is such that Caffrey was part of Ganyard’s customary sword arch at Ganyard’s wedding and vice-versa.

So when the USS San Diego, the ship that carried Ganyard, Caffrey and crew six years ago, docked in various locations, Caffrey was eager to execute the rarest of squadron mate duties: He shagged footballs.

Matt Ganyard finding time to play football

No matter the location while in the Marines, Ganyard found the time and space to practice kicking footballs. (Contributed photo)

“One time in Jordan,” Caffrey said of the Middle Eastern country, “Matt brought out his ball and tee, and he just started kicking on this turf soccer field. He kicked for like 30 minutes or so, to an hour, and he was hitting what seemed like 50-yard field goals.

“There were no uprights, but his target was over the soccer net. And a bunch of us were chasing the balls.”

A similar scene played out in Thailand. And even when the ship was moving, Ganyard would cater his weight training to strengthen his kicking skills.

Once the ship came back to the California coast in February 2018, Ganyard, while stationed at Camp Pendleton, would spend his weekends competing at kicking camps typically reserved for teenagers seeking college recruitment.

“His wife would go to some of the camps with him,” Caffrey said. “And Marie’s fantastic. They’d ask her, ‘Oh, is your son out here?’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, no, my husband’s right there. He’s kicking.’”

No matter how odd the circumstance, Ganyard’s made the best of it.

His departure from the Marines eventually led him – and his family – back to Charlottesville and Darden, where he enrolled last fall. An aspiring consultant, Ganyard balances the rigors of business school, fatherhood and now, football.

At UVA’s appeal, the NCAA granted Ganyard a year of eligibility just four days before the start of the Cavaliers’ fall training camp.

Front and back of a t-shirt created to support Matt Ganyard
Word of Ganyard’s football breakthrough has spread to Darden, where his classmates have created this shirt to wear to games this season. (Contributed image)

“I am so in awe of what he’s been able to do,” said Darden classmate McNatt, a former gymnast at the University of Utah. “I definitely understand all the blood, sweat and tears that got him to this point. And how many sacrifices he’s had to make along the way to get there.

“Not only him, but his wife and his kids and their family – that’s a whole other dynamic that I never had to deal with going through it. It’s hard enough juggling athletics and academics, both being very rigorous, very time-intensive, very all-encompassing,” she said. “And to throw the family dynamic on top of that is just ... I don’t know how he juggles it all. It’s incredible. I have such respect for him.”

Matt Ganyard on Grounds at UVA

Ganyard routinely balances his football duties, family time and his studies at Darden, where he’s a second-year student in pursuit of his MBA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Ganyard is very much in the mix to be UVA’s kickoff specialist.

In other words, with Saturday’s game being broadcast nationally by ABC, soon everyone might get their chance to know the kicker.

“There’s a lot of little points that make me proud about this story,” Ganyard said. “Having never played and now making it as the old guy is great. But for me, I’m just most proud of the persistence. ... I have no hard feelings that I didn’t make [the team] before, because it’s exactly how my story was supposed to be written.”

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