Compete Magazine named Jeremy Ballard as its 2016 Mark Bingham Athlete of the Year (AOTY) at its Seventh Annual Sports Diversity Awards last month in Denver. Jeremy represents the best of what it means to carry the AOTY title – he is an athlete who isn’t afraid to step into a leadership position as part of his commitment to supporting gay sports in particular and the LGBT community in general.
Since he is a rugby player, Jeremy says the name of Mark Bingham as part of the title has deep meaning for him. For those who don’t know, Mark Bingham was the rugby player and activist who lost his life on 9/11 as one of the passengers on Flight 93 credited with storming the cockpit, thus preventing the terrorists from reaching their target. And since rugby was the sport of Compete’s founders, in 2013 the Athlete of the Year award was renamed to honor Mark and his life’s work both on and off the pitch.
Brian Patrick: Congratulations for being awarded Compete Magazine’s oldest honor, Jeremy! What drew you to rugby? Was it the first sport you ever played?
Jeremy Ballard: Thanks, Brian. I didn’t have a lot of direction when rugby found me in October of 2007. I had ideas of who I wanted to be but nothing ever seemed to pan out. I grew up playing sports both at school and with the neighborhood kids. But sports at school were tough. Those around me in my small New York town had a knack for harassing me. The harassment eventually pushed me out of sports. When I began to come out in the early 90s I didn’t know any gay athletes. In fact I thought gay people didn’t play sports. Over time, in my mid-twenties I started to discover gay sports leagues.
BP: Was that when you started to play rugby?
JB: No, I joined volleyball for a while and thought it was fun but it did not push me or tap into my competitive drive. When I was a kid I always wanted to be the fastest runner or the best tackler, even if I was smaller than my peers. When I spotted a friend I hadn’t seen in a while tossing a huge ball at Octoberfest in Phoenix, I had to inquire. I told him if he could pitch the concept of rugby to me I would check it out that Tuesday when the Phoenix Storm RFC practiced. That was on Sunday and Tuesday could not come soon enough. I attended that Tuesday training and never looked back. That was just over nine years ago. Since then I have had many successes and many adversities throughout my journey.
BP: So how has that first rugby experience shaped who you are today?
JB: Although I am not paid, I like to think of rugby as a career. I played with the Storm from 2007-2009. The RFC stands for rugby football club and those clubs are all part of the International Gay Rugby (IGR) organization. The Storm is a predominantly gay team or inclusive team as they have come to be known more recently.
For a short period in late 2009 to early 2010 I played with a predominantly heterosexual and Paciﬁc Islander team hoping to up my skill set. But in early 2010 I moved to Denver where I joined another IGR team at the time called the Denver Wildﬁre RFC. It was a newer club and had a joint relationship with the Denver Harlequins, so as the Wildﬁre was building its players, they were to get their playing experience first with the “Quins.”
At the ﬁrst Wildfire training I met Nicholas Miller who stood out as a super competitive athlete. We had many of the same beliefs and principles when it came to sports, and in October 2010 we decided to create our own IGR club that would be competitive in spirit. We founded the Colorado Rush RFC six years ago and to date, I have been a co- founder, club manager, captain, recruiter, a receiver of accolades, etc. The biggest thing though, is that I have been privy to personal growth both within me and my teammates
BP: What kind of growth is it that you see as a result of playing rugby that drives your commitment to the game, Jeremy?
JB: To see how rugby changes you and the people in your life is incredible. Rugby is my ﬁrst love and my longest love; my relationship with rugby goes beyond just me – I am constantly trying to educate and encourage others to get involved with the team. I always hope my passion is perceived as enthusiasm, drive and love for what I do.
Our season is broken into two parts. At the beginning of each season we have a rugby 101 training session. I always do my best to take rookies under my wing to groom them, to push and educate them so they are at the level of the rest of the returning players. I’ve seen many over the years with a wide range of athletic gifts, knowledge and talent but they don’t use those things to help others. In my mind our team is only as good as our weakest player so it is critical that those of us with experience bring those around us without that experience up to our level.
As a leader I also try to discover what drives individual players to help them unleash something inside them that they may have not realized was there. This goes for returning players, as well. We can sometimes become stagnant, so by reaching out to our peers and pushing one another, it only helps sharpen our years of experience. It pushes us to become better players, teammates, communicators and in the end, brothers.
BP: I hear that you’re working on a college degree. Does that have anything to do with sports?
JB: Yes, I am working to get a degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition because I saw how much rugby was helping me and I wanted to help others. I especially want to help those members in my community who I know often suﬀer from depression, loneliness and poor body image issues. Some living with HIV often think they are incapable of doing any type of physical activity or playing a sport. I want to be able to make a diﬀerence in those people’s lives.
Rugby has helped me deﬁne my career goals and I am on the verge of completing my first degree. It has helped me to get into better shape, it has helped me with depression and loneliness and it has helped me to feel more conﬁdent in my being. It is not just the camaraderie that does this nor the fact that your body can still be physically standing after three days of an international tournament – it is the physicality as well as the emotional and mental demands it places on you that builds your confidence. Rugby gives me a purpose and a community that is not just local or national but international. I have people in every pocket of this magniﬁcent world that I can call friends, brothers and sisters. If it weren’t for rugby I would not have seen an opportunity in me to transform myself and to help others.
BP: Do you have any future rugby plans you’d like to share?
JB: I wouldn’t give rugby up for the world. I plan on playing rugby for as long as I am physically able. I already have a number of goals in the short term; I am planning and training for rugby’s international Bingham Cup 2018 tournament in Amsterdam. I am also training for my ﬁrst track and field events and for playing 7’s rugby at my ﬁrst Gay Games in Paris in 2018.
BP: Well, we’ll definitely be seeing a lot of you on the sports scene, Jeremy. And thank you so much for your deep commitment to sports diversity and inclusion, and for representing rugby so well.
By Brian Patrick
Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ballard