By R. Alan Richardson, Sports Editor
The storied history of Morgan County football has seen its fair share of gridiron stars. After polling some of the old historians concerning who would be in the conversation for possibly the best of the best, several players were mentioned. Edell Davis, Jake Saye, Snook Saye, Bill and Bob McWhorter, Ricky White, Tim Brown, Charles Taylor and others got comments by Alvin Richardson, Kenny Moore, and Steve Cisson. However, two of the three voted for Derrick Ballard. Cisson mentioned that Ballard and Brown both had great college careers at Memphis and Georgia Southern. The Miami Dolphins drafted Tim Brown.
Ballard had an illustrious career and garnered many awards during his high school playing days from 1996-1999 where he was a four-year starter for head coach Kenny Moore. Ballard went on to become a four-year starter at Memphis University (Memphis State) before enjoying a five year career in both the NFL and European Football League. Ballard’s playing career at MCHS began as a ninth grader when he was brought in early in the season for an injured starter at wing back. That was the beginning for him that led to him playing multiple positions on offense (wing back, running back, and receiver) and defense (outside linebacker, strong safety and safety). He rushed for over 1000 yards his senior year to become the first back to do that in recent memory and averaged over 100 yards per game that season. Ballard was named all-region and all-state his senior year, but also was awarded all-region that same year in basketball. His freshman year he was named all-state in soccer in the only year he played the sport.
There were two special games he remembered from his high school playing days. The first came against Washington-Wilkes in what has always been a grudge match for both schools. Derrick told the Citizen, “They were a ranked team and I’m sure favored against us. They were huge but we had an emotional reason to win. The details are a little cloudy, but our ROTC director’s wife was either in a wheelchair fighting for her life or she might have passed that week. Anyway, we dedicated the game to them and played our hearts out. We won the game in a close battle and I got player of the week in the Athens Banner Herald and the Morgan County Citizen. I made two big plays on interceptions, the last one sealing the deal, and made a lot of tackles.” The second game was one that was very special for him, “I was blessed to have played basketball with my older brother, Rico, in basketball, but the game against East Hall my senior year in football was special as well. My younger brother, Darren, was on the squad and I was hampered by an injury. Coach Moore and Malone decided to start Darren at running back and just play me on defense. The very first time he touched the ball in a varsity game he went 81 yards for a touchdown. Coach Malone had been telling us that he was going to break a long one all week long. Family has always been big to me so I was very happy for him. As the game went on he kept making these big plays and I’m thinking he’s going to take my job!”
The brothers received co-players of the week for the Athens Banner-Herald. Here are the offensive stats of that game for the Ballard’s. The duo combined for 410 yards on 16 carries. Darren barely outrushed his big brother by four yards gaining 207 to Derrick’s 204. Darren had touchdown runs of 81, 64, and 36 yards while Derek scored on runs of 94 and 25 yards. Not a bad day’s work. However, Derrick one-upped his brother with two interceptions on defense. Derrick again commented, “He was more of a prototypical running back who I always thought was a better runner than I was. After he was making all these big plays I intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the game and thought I’m going to show him up and run it back 100 yards. I got tackled on the six yard line and Coach Rock (Defensive coordinator, Coach Graziano) wanted to know what in the world was I thinking. On the next play I went the distance of 94 yards so he wasn’t mad at me anymore. At that point in time, it was the longest run in Morgan County history, or so I was told.” When asked about his high school coach Derrick had these words, “Coach Moore was like a Dad to me. My Mom calls him my other Daddy. He was more than a coach and few coaches I’ve had have stood out more than he did. It’s like you don’t want to let your Dad down. He and Coach Malone would take me home if I needed a ride. They went above and beyond what is expected of a coach and you knew they did it out of love, not because they had to. Coach Moore was always a straight shooter. He’d chew you out when you needed it and hug you when you needed it, but you always knew he cared about you. Playing in high school was the most fun I ever had playing football.”
After graduation, Ballard was pursued by a number of Division I schools before deciding on Memphis University where he earned a communications degree. Like high school, he had a stellar career as a four-year starter playing defensively at strong safety, outside linebacker, corner, and safety. When asked about his college career he commented, “The thing about Memphis was it was the first time I realized a difference in levels. The competition, speed, size and mental aspect replaced just the physical type of play I used in high school. It was an eye-opener. The football program at Memphis had not had much success over the years with a lot of 3-9 or 5-6 teams. I was given an opportunity to speak to our booster club my junior year and promised them a bowl bid the next year. We turned the corner my senior year playing in the first bowl game in 32 years, the New Orleans Bowl in the Superdome. Our fans took over the city. My whole family was there and we won the game 27-17. It was a great way to end my college career and go out a winner.” Derrick gave a lot of credit to the team’s and his success that year to Tiger head Coach Tommy West and defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. “I probably had better stats my junior year, but in their scheme my senior year I was able to show my versatility to the pro scouts. They moved me around a lot like a roamer. Sometimes I was in the box as a strong safety or outside linebacker while other times I would be out on an island going 1-on-1 with their best receiver. Then I might be at free safety giving help over the top or blitzing. It really made me more intriguing to the scouts.”
Ballard was named all-conference in both his junior and senior years while capturing the team’s best defensive lineman in his junior year. He also received the best defensive player award the following year. The next level proved a little more challenging for the Bulldog star when he was offered a free-agent contract to play for the Chicago Bears. “Dallas was negotiating with my agent and they were offering me more money and seemed to want me more, but they lied to both of us. They told us that they were going to take me in the fourth round if I was still available, but they didn’t. I had a big party on draft day, but when they didn’t take me it was embarrassing. My agent was really upset. That’s when I signed with Chicago. I was released but brought back and finished out the season with them. They again released me at the end of the season and I was picked up by the Atlanta Falcons, but they released me too at the end of the season. I decided to play for the team in Amsterdam, Holland in the European Football League and had three successful seasons there before three knee surgeries ended my career,” said Ballard.
Make your arguments for others if you will, but Derrick Ballard is at the top of the conversation list when it comes to Morgan’s greatest football player in history.