‘Block’ing away doubt

Published 1:35 pm Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Howard Ballard helps a player during practice.


Mild-mannered and modest, Howard Ballard has already conquered the highest levels of the football playing field, so now, he’s attempting the next challenge: conquering the sideline. But it isn’t always easy. The Clay County native said coaching has brought plenty of challenges.

“The main thing is that a lot of [players] don’t seem to have a program that really is competitive at the elementary level,” Ballard said. “That’s probably been the most challenging thing, where a lot of terminology, the football IQ doesn’t seem to be as high as it would have been in Clay County where you would have a good program other than just the high school or the middle school level.”

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The former Pro Bowl offensive lineman turned to his first paid coaching job at Vigor High School in 2006 alongside then-receivers coach Lev Holly. Not surprisingly, Ballard started out as offensive line coach, the same position he holds today at Escambia County High School.

Under the direction of Escambia County’s current head coach Lev Holly, Ballard and the entire coaching staff have made an effort to make positive changes.

“For the most part, for a lot of them we’ve had some change of mentality I guess in the last couple weeks than it was when I first came,” Ballard said.

Ballard said getting his players to have a positive attitude has been one of the first steps in bringing about changes.

“One thing we’ve been trying to get across, as well as the other stuff, is finishing and being positive. A lot of our guys, they’re kind of negative,” Ballard said. “So, we’re trying to instill into them to be positive—positive thinking, being positive to one another, and trying to motivate that way as well, just saying encouraging things to one another and not degrading one another, having confidence that that person is your family member. So, you have to encourage them and hope and pray that they move forward. Then, if they can move forward, they can help you move forward as well.”

During the game, Ballard is one of the most encouraging coaches you will find. In Escambia County’s game against Wilcox Central, the team’s sophomore center Darius Norman snapped the ball before Chris Johnson had finished calling the play. It was a significant mistake, although not an uncommon one for a younger player.

As Norman sat on the bench in not-so-obvious disappointment, Ballard recognized something amiss in his player’s demeanor. So, Ballard approached Norman and asked him if he was okay. Norman told him he was fine. Without saying a word, Ballard gave him a firm pat on the shoulder and a look that conveyed the message, ‘don’t worry, you’ll learn from this.’

Learning starts on the practice field and Ballard has tried to stress the importance of practice.

“Every day we talk about it. You have to learn how to practice,” Ballard said. “Even a walkthrough is a learning process. Our guys here at Escambia County are trying to learn that and it may take the whole year.”

Ballard will call players out in practice, but only after they’ve missed their assignment for the third, fourth or fifth time. Ballard won’t hesitate to crouch into a stance to show his players the proper technique, so they’ll get it right the next time. Sometimes they do, but other times it takes a while to get it right.

Ballard said a lot of mistakes are caused by simple mental errors that can easily be corrected.

“The physical part is only about 10 to 15 to 20 percent,” Ballard said. “If you can’t get that mental part down, then the physical part is never going to happen, not at 100 percent. We’ll get it down though. We’ll get it down.”

Ballard wants to encourage his player to aim as high as they can, to desire perfection and work to improve when they can’t achieve perfection.

“The major thing that I’m learning is how the guys and the kids here it always seems as if ‘well, good enough that’s good enough,’ instead of saying that they want to be perfect,” Ballard said. “It’s like they’ve got it made up in their head that everybody’s been telling them ‘nobody can be perfect.’ But it’s nothing like hoping and praying that you can be perfect and you’ve got to try to reach for the stars. If you don’t, then you ain’t gonna’ get caught by the moon if you don’t reach for the stars because you’re never going to be above the moon.

Escambia County players won’t find many who believe in them as much as Ballard, Holly and the coaching staff. Holly’s program is centered on the belief that football extends beyond the playing field. Ballard said his number one goal as a coach is to help Holly teach

“The main thing is trying to help coach Holly build his program for the Escambia County program,” Ballard said. “That program consists of getting more involved in the city and getting more involved with the kids being able to participate in things other than just athletics here at the school, to try to become better men. That’s what coach Holly is trying to instill in them: that we’re not just teaching football, we’re teaching you to come from a boy to a man.”