At Virginia, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

Matt Ganyard is a 34-year-old MBA student at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business — and a kicker for the Virginia Cavaliers Division I football team. Photos by Virginia Cavaliers Media

On September 2, Matt Ganyard, a 34-year-old business student in his second year at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, stepped onto the field for his first Division I NCAA football game as a kicker for the Cavaliers.

It was also his first-ever organized football game, and the culmination of a dream he’d spent nearly 15 years chasing.

A lifelong soccer player, Ganyard tried kicking a football for fun one day not long before starting undergrad at the University of Virginia, back in 2008. “It was a terrible kick,” he says — but he immediately had the urge to try again.

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

THE DREAM LIVES DESPITE REJECTION

A year later, in his second year of undergrad, he tried out for the school’s football team as a walk-on and made all of his field goal attempts during tryouts.

But Ganyard soon received an email telling him he didn’t make the team.

He’d known it was a long shot, but the rejection still stung. Today, he feels that everything happened exactly how it was meant to — but, he says, “Unfortunately, I didn’t know that back then.”

He completed his bachelor’s degree in 2011. A few months later, he started basic officer training in the United States Marine Corps. He served as a helicopter pilot in the Marines for over a decade and spent months on end deployed around the Mediterranean Sea. During this time, he married his wife, Marie, with whom he’s now raising a 3-year-old daughter and an almost 11-month-old son.

Through it all, Ganyard never let go of his dream of kicking for a Division I team. “The itch to still try and play was always in the back of my mind.”

He set the rejection letter as the lock screen on his iPad, and it remained there for many years during his time in the Marines. It was a daily reminder of the goal he’d failed to achieve once before that helped motivate him to keep working to reach it.

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

‘A CRAZY DREAM’

Deployed at sea for months on end, Ganyard practiced kicking any chance he could. When his crew docked at various countries around the world, such as Jordan and Thailand, Ganyard would find the nearest field and kick footballs over soccer nets for hours; his squad mates would chase down the balls for him.

At the same time, he was working toward another goal: business school. He brought GMAT study books with him on his deployment and he and a fellow pilot studied for the exam together on the ship. “It’s very surreal to look back on those days, out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean studying for a GMAT that was still four years away.”

Ganyard returned from his deployment in 2018 and was stationed in California. He knew he’d need to fully commit himself to training if he ever wanted to make his football dream a reality. “I kind of flipped the switch and said, ‘Okay, now it’s go-time and it’s closer on the horizon. I need to start treating football more like a job than a hobby.’” He followed a strict training regimen and used his days off to attend kicking camps alongside high schoolers with the same college football aspirations as him.

Focusing on his goals for his post-Marines future helped Ganyard stay level-headed and deal with the ups and downs of a decade in the armed forces, he says. He’s quick to give most of the credit, however, to his wife. Her support got him through the toughest times and made it possible for him to follow his dreams, he says.

“A crazy dream that a lot of people didn’t think would happen and a journey that has taken me away from her and the kids more than I would have liked along the way — this certainly doesn’t happen without her full support,” he says.

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

FOOTBALL DREAMS NEARLY DIE

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

Matt Ganyard: “I kind of flipped the switch and said, ‘Okay, now it’s go-time and it’s closer on the horizon. I need to start treating football more like a job than a hobby'”

Ganyard knew kicking for a D1 football team in his 30s was an ambitious goal. He wasn’t even sure if he would be eligible to play. “I hadn’t seen anybody do this before,” he says. “So it was kind of a blind trust that I was reading the eligibility rules right and that it would work out.”

What’s more, Ganyard had no intention of choosing a business school based on the chances of him being able to play football there. The people in his life who’d seen how committed he’d been to his D1 kicker dream for so many years thought he was “a little crazy,” but he knew it was the right choice for him. “I’m never going to sacrifice the quality of education and what that could offer our family just to do football.”

He ultimately decided to return to his alma mater, UVA, to attend the prestigious Darden School of Business starting in the fall of 2022. He reached out to the Cavaliers coaches, who said they were interested in having Ganyard on the team. He was thrilled, but it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be possible to manage the intense practice schedule while also completing the notoriously demanding core curriculum required of all first-year Darden MBA students.

Once he completed a year at Darden, Ganyard would have used up his final year of NCAA eligibility and would no longer be eligible to play on a college team, according to the organization’s rules. He tried everything he could, even petitioning Darden’s school board to let him adjust his class schedule. Nothing worked. The rigor of the program was something that attracted Ganyard to Darden, but now it meant he wouldn’t be able to play football during his final year of NCAA eligibility.

“It seemed like the dream had kind of died last year,” he says. “Ten, fifteen years of trying to chase this dream had failed just due to an administrative hurdle.” He thought it was all over — all of his efforts had finally ended in disappointment.

NOT READY TO GIVE UP

But a few months later, halfway into his first year, he decided he wasn’t ready to give up. He reached out to the coaches again and they agreed to work with him to try to get him an extra year of NCAA eligibility. The process took months.

Four days before practices were set to begin for the 2023 season, Ganyard got a call telling him he would be able to play and to come to Charlottesville right away for the first day of practice. “It all came together at the perfect time,” he says.

Ganyard says people ask him if he feels like he’s sticking it to the coaches who rejected him back in 2009. “There’s no animosity towards how it turned out 15 years ago. This, to me, is how the story was meant to be written.”

Despite the age difference between him and his teammates, Ganyard says they’ve welcomed him with open arms. When he first met the rest of the team at fall camp in August and told them he was 34 with a wife and kids “their eyes got big,” he says, but it didn’t take long for the shock to wear off. “I’ve been able to build those bonds since fall camp, they realize I’m just another guy here to help them win.”

At Darden, MBA & Football Dreams Come True For This 34-Year-Old Former Marine

A JOB TO DO

As for his experience as a Darden student, “It’s been everything I could ask for and more,” Ganyard says. He talks about all the support he’s received at the school, including from the veteran community there. The rigorous core curriculum, which involves case discussions and team-driven projects, was exactly what Ganyard was looking for to set him up for success as he transitions from the military to the business world. “I wanted to find a school that I felt would really prepare me to step into a role on day one,” he says.

Ganyard says he plans to go into consulting and spent the past summer in Washington, D.C. interning at the global consulting firm Strategy& as part of the company’s deals team. As a veteran, he says, consulting is a great way to quickly be exposed to lots of different industries that he hasn’t had experience with, rather than picking one field right away. He says he’d love to work in the business side of sports one day.

While talking with Poets&Quants, Ganyard was preparing for a game the next day against The College of William & Mary, which would be the first time his 3-year-old daughter got to watch her dad play. “My daughter’s going to come and be rocking her little Virginia Cavaliers cheerleader outfit. So that’ll be a special moment to see her on the sideline,” he says.

She might be a good luck charm — it was UVA’s first win of the season.

Kicking for the Cavaliers has been a surreal experience for Ganyard. His Darden classmates have been some of his biggest fans: One of his friends from the program made custom shirts with his name and jersey number on the back and the words “I KNOW THE KICKER” splashed across the front, with “Darden School of Business” in smaller font below. Ganyard says more than 50 were sold before the first game of the season.

As Matt exited the tunnel to the field for that first game, he let himself take in all the emotions of a moment 15 years in the making. But he couldn’t linger on the feeling as he lined up for kickoff with his teammates: He had a job to do.

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