‘Business as usual’: Mike Ballard and a story of rugby, paralysis and inspiring UAE return
April 4, 2014. Grand final day for the leading amateur rugby union players of the Middle East. Unbeaten Abu Dhabi Harlequins hosting defending champions Jebel Ali Dragons.
And the first day of the rest of Mike Ballard’s life.
“It was a big day, because I was playing for the first XV and we had gone 10 from 10 in the Gulf Top Six season,” the broad-shouldered American recalls.
“It was the West Asia cup final. Everybody was amped up and excited for it. I’m not one of the guys in the showcase, I’m one of the guys in the background, just making sure everybody else gets the ball and looks good.
“So I wouldn’t get nervous, just excited. The game was in the afternoon, so you have all day to get mentally ready for it.”
It was just like any other match, other than the fact it was a final. The Dragons were looking to complete a treble of domestic titles, but the home team at Zayed Sports City, Ballard’s Harlequins, were ahead.
“It was going well,” Ballard, 31, says. “We had the lead when I left the game. It was a really close game throughout. It was a grind, but we had just gone up by a try, and I was just trying to focus on getting from ruck to ruck, and scrum to scrum.
“About 30 minutes in, I made a tackle. There was one guy coming at me. One of our guys had him up high, and stopped his momentum a bit.
“I went low, went to grab his legs. Instead of him falling forward, and off to my side, he somehow fell on top of me. I ended up at the bottom of a pile.
“As I was on the ground with my butt on the ground, holding onto his legs, my head came down between my legs, with guys on top of me. At that point, I felt my back break.”
At that point, his life changed. The pile up of bodies, an occurrence that takes place numerous times during every rugby match, but seldom with such catastrophic effect, had broken his spine at the point where the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae meet.
“Within about the first 10 seconds, it dawned on me the situation.
“Initially I thought it was just a ‘stinger’,” he said, referring to the name players give to momentary numbness in their arms that follows a heavy tackle.
“After a couple of seconds, I realised it wasn’t my arm that went numb, it was my legs. From that point on, I went onto the stretcher, and that started my process of rehabilitation.”
A process that has reached the point where, just over two years on, he is back in Abu Dhabi. Back at work. Self-sufficient and independent.
He is wheelchair-bound, but his convalescence has reached the stage where he is more concerned with helping others than himself.
His name is attributed to a foundation that has great plans to help needy causes the world over through rugby, starting in Madagascar this week.
“Mike wanted to use those funds to help other causes, which is typical of the man,” says Ed Lewsey, the Harlequins scrum half, who was a driving force behind setting up the Mike Ballard Foundation.
Even if the man himself does all he can to deflect attention. It seems to be his default setting. He made it to the Harlequins first team, just over a year after first taking up a sport he had never even seen on television before moving to the UAE five years ago. He says it was thanks to the older guys in the front-row club taking him under his wing.
His role when he got to the first XV was to be in the background, rather than the showcase, as he puts it. To help get the ball to the guys who really could play.
What about his job teaching in a school for special needs? Not a natural calling for a person driven by a desire to help others, he claims. Rather, he just fell into it.
He lapses once, when recalling his youth spent in a small town in Michigan, when he says he was “something like a hometown hero”, who excelled in baseball, American football, and wrestling. Immediately, he catches himself, saying he was “jokingly” trying to convey a sense of his upbringing.
At university, he was “not big enough or fast enough” – his words, obviously – to make the football or wrestling teams, so pursued baseball instead. Naturally, his defence was “a liability”, but he could just about hold his own because of his batting skills.
Given his college won their conference while he was a sophomore and junior, and he was picked as captain in his senior year, clearly he is unwittingly indulging in yet more one-downmanship.
Amazingly, he was even thinking of others first when he suffered his accident. He says he realised the extent of the damage, that of the onset of paralysis, straight away, but his mind was already wandering sideline.
“My mom and sister-in-law were visiting, as it was spring break,” Ballard says. “They were at the game. It was the first rugby game they had ever seen.
“I remember thinking that because they were out there, I had to try to fake it, and make it look like everything was alright. I knew they would be worried in that situation, so my immediate thoughts turned to them.”
Despite the ordeal they went through, in the hours and days that followed, Ballard was grateful to have mother Karen, who works in a hospital, so close by.
He had emergency surgery in Abu Dhabi that night, to realign his spine between the T12 and L1 vertebrae. He stayed in the capital until he was physically healthy enough for a 24-hour flight via Medivac back to Michigan.
“A Medivac is like a billionaire’s mini-jet, but 20 or 30 years old and has been basically turned into an ambulance,” Ballard says, of the aircraft which was just large enough for two pilots, a doctor, his mother, and him prone on a stretcher mounted to the wall.
“We didn’t talk about much. That was just an uncomfortable day. I was in too much pain to sleep. I couldn’t focus to read or watch movies. We were just sitting there wallowing in how rough the situation was. That was a long night.”
He says depressive thoughts only came later, but if he ever did wallow, it is not apparent now. He might have been forgiven for wishing never to return to the site of his accident, or for wanting to consign his time in the UAE to memory.
In fact, the complete opposite is the case. Ballard says the chance to move halfway around the world to work in Abu Dhabi in 2011 was a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that he never wanted to pass up.
Returning was always his ambition. In particular, returning to support his former teammates at the 2014 Dubai Rugby Sevens drove him during his rehabilitation. He made that trip. It was the first time he had travelled anywhere since the accident.
The next time he returned to the capital, 12 months later, it was for good, to return to the New England Centre for Children to work. To see his mates. To show them he was OK.
He returned to find a fund-raising apparatus in his name in such good working order that it could be rerouted elsewhere to make a genuine difference to other people’s lives.
The Conquistadors team, set up in time for the 2015 Sevens to promote the foundation, picked Madagascar as their first overseas, goodwill mission.
It fits the bill perfectly. Like the players, many Madagascan people are rugby-mad. And, given the poverty that pervades on the island, many could do with a little bit of help.
Ballard hopes the trip to Antananarivo, to deliver medical supplies, wheelchairs and provide rugby coaching, will be the first of many such ventures.
And, for the rest of the time he is just happy to be back in the old routine. Work routine, he says, helps with work-out routine. Whereas in the past it might have been wrestling, baseball or rugby, swimming is now his sport of choice.
What happens next, he is not quite sure, but he knows he is right where he should be for now.
“I just wanted to show everyone I was alright,” he says. “I left in a hurry. The last time everyone had seen me I was sewn up, and couldn’t even roll over in a hospital bed.
“I didn’t want that to be the last way everyone out here saw me and remembered me, so it was a big goal to get back out, and continue on, business as usual.
“I still haven’t figured out the plan. I wanted to come back here, first and foremost, to finish what I started. Work, Abu Dhabi, the Quins ... I didn’t just want to leave in the middle of the night and leave everything open ended.”
We come bearing gifts
The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors have taken a precious cargo with them for their tour to Madagascar.
As well as their own playing kit, the team of players assembled from eight clubs across the Arabian Gulf have some significant excess luggage.
In transit in the Seychelles on Wednesday, they donated 20 wheelchairs to a local hospital, while the following items carried on with them to their final destination.
For the Association Aide Manjakasoa Madagascar Rehabilitation Centre
20 cervical collars.
10 glucose meters and test strips.
10 aluminium crutches for children and adults.
4 tensiometers - for measuring blood pressure.
4 oximeters or saturometers.
2 digital otoscopes - used to perform examinations of the ear.
For seven rugby clubs and three schools in Antananarivo
700 training cones.
350 junior rugby jerseys, shorts and socks, in the colours of Arabian Gulf rugby clubs.
500 men’s jerseys and t-shirts, also donated by Arabian Gulf rugby clubs.
Junior rugby boots, courtesy of GoSport.
100 new rugby balls, courtesy of Doha RFC.
60 used rugby balls.
20 ball pumps.
28 suitcases/kit bags.
2 cubic metres of donated clothing and miscellaneous sports items.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport
Updated: June 29, 2016 04:00 AM