The Miraculous Journey of Matt Ganyard, U.Va.’s 34-Year-Old Kicker

“You’re going for a thud,” Ganyard later tells me. “A nice sound. You want that sweet spot, the big bone on the top of your foot. And it’s one of those things that when you feel it, you don’t even have to look up. You just know. You know where it’s going.”

The sound is thud and the sound is nice and that ball is going to be good from 55 yards. Ganyard really nailed it. Seconds later, Bettridge sends one in from 45 yards—another crisp shot through the heart of the goalposts.

Georgia Tech is the opponent on this Parents Weekend, and in section 120 Row O, Ganyard’s wife, Marie (U.Va. ’11), has found her seat with their daughter, Savannah (age 3), as Noah (age 1) naps at home with a sitter. Ganyard is set to graduate from U.Va.’s Darden School of Business this spring, a decade and a half after they met here as undergrads, back when Ganyard was a history major with a long leg and longer memory.

When he first tried out as a sophomore walk-on, in 2009, he was cut via email. He screenshotted the message, set it as the background to his iPad, and after graduating, spent ten years as an officer in the Marine Corps as a Cobra Attack Helicopter pilot. He watched YouTube kicking tutorials and started working out and kicking on bases and ships and ports. He kicked toward palm trees in Thailand and over soccer goals in Jordan and between light poles at empty soccer complexes.

When his deployment ended in 2018, Ganyard trained pilots at Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego, and kept kicking. He kicked and lifted for fast-twitch muscle. He kicked and listened to sports psychology books. He kicked at camps across the country against prep phenoms like Will Bettridge, a five-star recruit from Miami. Sometimes parents at these camps asked Marie which kicker was her son.

Ganyard’s unlikely journey is a part of the larger story of Virginia football. On November 13, 2022, while getting off the bus after a Sunday field trip, three players were shot and killed by a Virginia student who’d been on the 2018 football team. Devin Chandler. Lavel Davis Jr. D’Sean Perry. Running back Mike Hollins, who was also shot, survived. Since then, head coach Tony Elliott has sought to navigate a team’s trauma without precedent or playbook. Now, as Ganyard and Bettridge practice field goals before the game, the running backs warm up on the goal line with 11-year-old Deuce Hollins, Mike’s kid brother.

Each ball Ganyard and Bettridge send to the south end zone reaches toward the numbers 1-15-41. #41 is the number Will Bettridge wears now. When Coach Elliott offered it to Bettridge, he first called Happy Perry, D’Sean’s mother, to ask for her blessing. Bettridge grew up with D’Sean in Miami playing Pee Wee Football for the Palmetto Bay Broncos and attending Gulliver Prep. D’Sean was Bettridge’s mentor, his reason to attend U.Va. At the memorial service honoring all three victims, Bettridge told the crowd, “A piece of my life was taken from me.” Everything I do now, Will Bettridge said, is for you. I promise that I will make you proud.

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