Even in the blizzard that threatened to turn last Saturday's Stagg Bowl into the stag bowl (fit only for reindeer), it was clear that Jim Ballard, the cocky, strong-armed senior quarterback for Mount Union College, just might be as good as he thinks he is. How good is that? After Mount Union's 34-24 win over Rowan College in Salem, Va., people actually agreed with Ballard when he shared this opinion about his NFL potential: "If somebody gives me a legitimate chance, I think I can make it."
Ballard's brashness was on display before the Division III championship game too. Last Friday, after a luncheon for the two teams, he found himself standing next to Bill Fisher, Rowan's 6'3", 280-pound senior noseguard. "I felt him staring at me," says Fisher, "so I looked at him. Then he called me a punk. A punk! I couldn't believe the disrespect."
The following afternoon Fisher exacted a measure of revenge, sacking Ballard once and picking off one of his passes. But it was only a small measure; the day belonged to Ballard, who completed 28 of 45 passes for 387 yards and three touchdowns and brought the Purple Raiders from behind by directing two fourth-quarter scoring drives. On the second, an 80-yard march, he completed five passes, three of them to his favorite receiver, wideout Ed (the Plague) Bubonics, who made six catches for 104 yards in the game's final 15 minutes.
"During games, I'm cocky," says Ballard. "I'm arrogant, and I talk a lot of trash. But I don't mean anything by it. That's just me."
Ballard plays mind games with himself as well. Two weeks ago, before Mount Union, which is in Alliance, Ohio, won its semifinal game against St. John's of Minnesota, Ballard got fired up over the news that SI had named St. John's quarterback Willie Seiler as its Division III Player of the Year. So Ballard went out and threw eight touchdown passes in a 56-8 rout of St. John's.
Six days after his team lost to Mount Union, coach John Gagliardi, who has been at St. John's for 41 years, presented Ballard with the first Gagliardi Trophy, Division Ill's version of the Heisman. Said Gagliardi, "It's a happy coincidence for me to award this to someone who is supposed to be the best in Division III, but it didn't have to be proved so convincingly. In all my years I've never seen someone dominate a game like that."
When he graduated from Cuyahoga Falls High, just outside Akron, Ballard didn't receive a single Division I-A scholarship offer. So he went to another Division III school, Wilmington (Ohio) College, for a year before transferring to Mount Union. Since arriving in Alliance, Ballard has set 15 NCAA passing records.
You want numbers? How about 51 touchdown passes and 4,168 yards passing this year before the Rowan game? Is it any wonder that scouts from every NFL team found their way to northeast Ohio during the last few months to have a look al the 6'4", 220-pounder with the cannon?
The only quarterback to make it big in the pros from a school that's now in Division III was Ken Anderson, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1971 to '86 after graduating from Augustana College in Illinois. Ballard may become the second because of his size, strength and savvy. And don't forget that 'tude. Ballard says his first goal is to get invited to play with the big boys in a college all-star game. "I'd love to see how I could do in a game with players from Ohio State and Nebraska and places like that," he says.
After the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, Ballard tried to explain that he really hadn't meant to insult Fisher by calling him a punk. "I was just trying to intimidate him, get him mad so that maybe he'd do something dumb and get called for a 15-yard penalty when we needed it," said Ballard.
This explanation did nothing to appease Fisher. However, in displaying some bravado of his own, Fisher paid Ballard a compliment. "Tell him," said Fisher, glowering as he rubbed the stubble on his chin, "that I'll see him in the NFL."
On a cold day in Salem, Ballard, who threw for 387 yards and three TDs, had a hot hand.