Sparkling like twin rhinestones on the buckle of the Rust Belt arc the two best quarterbacks in Division III: Mount Union's Jim Ballard and Baldwin-Wallace's John Koz. Their schools are linked by 45 miles of northeast Ohio highways that wind from Mount Union's campus in Alliance to Baldwin-Wallace's in Berea. The two seniors share an uncommon talent for completing passes. Over the past three seasons Ballard and Koz have thrown a total of 1,652 passes but just 56 interceptions. Last year Ballard completed nearly 64% of his passes and Koz hit 62% of his.
It is not only geographic proximity and passing prowess that make these two quarterbacks alike: Both were born and raised in the upper right-hand corner of the Buckeye State (Ballard in Cuyahoga Falls, Koz in Lakewood); both were mischievous youths (Ballard used to streak about his neighborhood dressed only in hightop sneakers during high school; Koz was a practitioner of the dingdong dash, in which he would rig a bucket of water above a neighbor's doorway and ring the bell); both are transfers (Ballard spent his freshman season at Wilmington College, Koz at Marshall); and both have made the schools they transferred to very happy (Mount Union has a 20-2-1 record under Ballard, Baldwin-Wallace is 22-3 under Koz).
Despite all the similarities, most folks in northeastern Ohio arc fiercely loyal to only one of the players. It's either Ballard or Koz. So for those few fans who remain undecided, here are four ways to tell the two apart: fashion (Ballard's bible is GQ; Koz prizes sweatpants and baseball caps); physique (Ballard is lean; Koz, uh, is not); passing style (Ballard's tight spirals forced Mount Union flanker Mike Sirianni to wear long-sleeved shirts around campus to cover the red welts Ballard's passes left on his forearms; Koz's throws arc wobbly, Bernie Kosar-like jobs).
But the most obvious difference is how much—or how little—encouragement it takes to get each to talk about his passing skills. With Ballard, a simple hello will suffice. Koz needs the kind of provoking administered by Army drill sergeants.
"I go into every game thinking no one's going to stop our offense," says Ballard. "I don't care if we're playing Miami." During Mount Union's second-round playoff win last season over Illinois Wesleyan in Alliance, Ballard torched the Titans for 454 yards and five touchdowns. During one stretch he tied a Division III record by completing 17 consecutive passes. After taking one especially gruesome hit, he jumped to his feet and began taunting several defenders. Unfortunately he was then unable to summon enough breath to call the ensuing play, and the Purple Raiders were assessed a delay-of-game penalty.
No such outburst is ever heard in the Baldwin-Wallace back-field. Often the laconic Koz (rhymes with doze) appears so unemotional that one wonders if he's awake. "He's the quietest quarterback I've ever been around," says Yellow Jacket coach Bob Packard.
Ballard came upon his brash quarterback persona early in life. When he was three, his grandmother bought him a Pittsburgh Steeler uniform, which he wore constantly. Late one night a few years later his mother caught him scribbling football plays on a notepad under the covers. In the eighth grade, Jim, by now a quarterback, led the Cuyahoga Falls Little Black Tigers to the finals of the national Pee-Wee tournament. "He had to play quarterback," says Jim's father, Randy, who coached the Tigers. "He was the only kid whose hands were big enough to take the snap."
When it looked as though the Tigers wouldn't have enough money to travel to the Pee-Wee championships in Daytona Beach, Jim rallied his troops, and they raised $15,000 by soliciting donations and selling T-shirts and mugs. Pittsburgh beat the Tigers in the championship, 20-0, but, says Jim, "What I remember most about the tournament was eating pizza at the beach on Thanksgiving. Not that we lost, but that we made it there."
Since then, a variety of goals have kept the 6'4", 215-pound Ballard bulling forward. Shortly after Mount Union lost to Wisconsin-La Crosse in the semifinals of the NCAA playoffs last year, he locked himself in his room and penned a list of objectives for this season. The list is now laminated and hanging near his bed. He wants to pass for 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns and throw fewer than five interceptions. The goals appear unrealistic until they are compared with his numbers last year: 2,656 yards, 29 TDs and eight interceptions.
Jim is not the only Ballard who is consumed by football. In 1986, during Jim's freshman year at Cuyahoga Falls High, his parents battled through a contentious divorce. When they got back on speaking terms, it was Jim's football games that they were speaking about. "The Ballard family has used football as a focal point," says Purple Raider coach Larry Kehres. "They are here for every game."
Jim's mother, Bonnie, now has her own toll-free number that Jim uses daily to keep her abreast of how practices are going. And when Bonnie's father died a year ago, her mother, Betty Wrayno, asked that instead of sending flowers, mourners make contributions to the Mount Union football program. The Raiders' purple game pants were bought with those proceeds.
Football took on great significance in the Koz family, too. One afternoon during his senior year at Lakewood High, John was playing catch in his front yard while his sister, Diane, and their father, Russ, went jogging. Russ collapsed about a mile into the run when a blood vessel in his brain ruptured. He remained in a coma for two months. "There was never any question that I would continue playing football," says John. "It allowed me to think of something other than the hospital."
At halftime of the third game of the season, against Bay Village, John suddenly found his father entering his thoughts. He sensed something was wrong. When the game ended, he was told that his father had died.
"I was a pretty bad kid," Koz says. "I was always one of the bullies in class. But when my father died, almost at the exact moment I found out, I decided to change. Each day since I've tried to grow in some way, to live a fuller life."
That philosophy was behind Koz's decision to return to Baldwin-Wallace for a fifth year. Not only would it probably be his last chance to play organized football, but also he realized that having his name in the paper a few more times could only enhance his prospects as he sought work in the Cleveland real estate business after graduation. Almost daily Koz leafs through newspapers looking for available parcels of land. Then he pretends the land is his. "So far," he says, "I've built a lot of imaginary malls."
Fortunately for Baldwin-Wallace, the dining establishments in those malls arc also imaginary. Koz's weight balloons by 25 or so pounds during the off-season, thanks primarily to the pizza spun at his brother Russ's Italian eatery in Cleveland, 10 miles from Berea. In fact, the 6'3", 220-pound Koz is so doughy that an opposing coach once played a scouting videotape in slow motion so he could watch Koz's paunch jiggle.
Food has long been associated with football for Koz. During his sophomore year at Lakewood, he had just played in a junior varsity game when the varsity coach plucked a hotdog-munching Koz from the grandstand and inserted him into a scrimmage. Wide-eyed and mustard-stained, he took the field and threw two quick strikes for touchdowns. "That's when I first thought I could be good," he says, "that I was a quarterback." He won the starting job a month later.
The Yellow Jackets are hoping a similar wave of confidence washes over Koz on Oct. 2, when they host Mount Union. The rivalry is intense, with Ballard and Koz having split their previous two meetings. In last season's game, which Mount Union won 23-14, the two threw a total of 94 passes. Both have already begun putting their personal spin on the upcoming encounter.
"It should be a good one," says Koz, in his typically understated manner. "I don't care how I play as long as we win."
"This is the rubber match," says Ballard. "Not only do I want the game, but I want to outplay Koz. It's a personal thing."
Koz (left) may rhyme with "doze," but as Ballard can attest, his play can give visitors to Baldwin-Wallace a wake-up call.
KEVIN CASEY/AKRON BEACON JOURNAL
Koz (12, above) and Ballard: Styles differ, results don't.
[See caption above.]