The saga of Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano and the trombone player from Bethune-Cookman who Gano pushed out of his way at halftime Sunday has a happy ending.
Gano was very troubled about the incident after Sunday’s game. In the locker room after Carolina’s 20-14 victory against Tampa Bay, the kicker asked me to try to track down the trombone player because Gano wanted to talk to the young man and apologize.
That’s exactly what happened. With the help of numerous readers and the Bethune-Cookman band director, it didn’t take long at all for me to find Marquel Ballard, the freshman trombonist.
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I passed along Ballard’s phone number Monday, and Gano immediately called the trombonist. They talked over the incident and ultimately laughed it off.
“I apologized, and he accepted,” Gano said. “All is forgiven.”
“We’re cool,” Ballard told me afterward. “Everything is good. We were both just doing our jobs, and our paths crossed. I think it’s kind of funny now.”
Ballard is from Atlanta and a talented enough musician that he is on a partial band scholarship at Bethune-Cookman. Gano found out Monday that Ballard was a Falcons fan and offered him two tickets and field passes for the Panthers’ season-closing game at Atlanta on Dec. 28. Ballard said he hoped to take Gano up on the offer but would have to check the band’s Christmas schedule first.
Gano was heavily criticized on social media right after the game for his push – video of it quickly went viral – but the Bethune-Cookman band director said Monday that criticism was misguided.
“It was no harm, no foul and no malice,” said Donovan Wells, who has directed the university’s band for the past 18 years. “I saw a freshman out there playing his horn and trying to get through a very adverse situation. And I saw a kicker trying to get his kicks in for the second half – two people just doing their jobs.”
Gano and Ballard normally wouldn’t have crossed paths during halftime. NFL regular-season halftimes are 12 minutes, so halftime shows are abbreviated affairs compared to collegiate football games. Both teams’ kickers and punters routinely take the field with a few minutes left in halftime to practice.
But Bethune-Cookman – which had never been late for a performance in Wells’ career as band director – was running way behind Sunday. What is normally a three-hour drive from its campus in Daytona Beach, Fla., to Tampa, took more than four hours. A horrific storm near Orlando slowed the seven charter buses carrying 330 band members to a 10 mph pace in stretches.
“The storm that Noah had to build an ark for?” Wells said. “That’s what we ran into.”
Instead of arriving at about 4:20 p.m. as planned, the band pulled up to the stadium at 5:30 p.m., just as halftime began. Already dressed in uniform, band members literally ran for their instruments and sprinted onto the field.
By the time they had lined up, less than four minutes remained in halftime and Gano was already kicking. (So was Tampa Bay’s kicker, but in a less congested spot on the other side of the field).
The band took its spots around Gano and started playing and dancing while Gano continued to line up his final kicks. Then came Gano’s two pushes – “really more like one nudge and one push,” Ballard said – as Gano tried to get in his practice kicks despite the band playing all around him.
“I didn’t move on the first one,” Ballard said. “Then the second time I almost stumbled over.”
It was only Ballard’s second performance in the band. Many freshmen are alternates in the BCU band and don’t actually march, but Ballard – who can play numerous brass instruments and was also on his high school’s swim team – earned a spot.
“It’s like a freshman starting on a football team,” Wells said. “It’s rare.”
Was Ballard angry about Gano’s push initially?
“No, it was more like confusion,” Ballard said. “I was trying to do my show, he was trying to do his stuff too. I just kept doing my routine.”
“I regret that it happened,” Gano said, “but I am very impressed that Marquel never broke stride. He just kept playing. He never skipped a beat. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, and that’s an awesome band.”
As for the push itself, Wells said: “Have you ever seen Black Friday at Wal-Mart? That’s a lot worse.”
Wells also praised Tampa Bay for allowing the band to perform at all and said he had written Bucs officials a letter of apology for the band’s tardiness.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Gano was “flustered” when he came to the sideline after the incident. Gano, who missed three field goals in all of 2013, missed a 48-yard attempt and made a 33-yarder in the second half.
“He felt bad, he really did,” Rivera said Monday. “People don’t understand how hard that was ... on him. He’s apologized for it, and hopefully it’ll die.”
The Bethune-Cookman band, which has performed at dozens of NFL games and pregame at a Super Bowl, doesn’t stay for football games after it plays at halftime because of postgame traffic. So right after its three-minute show, it was back on the buses for the ride back to campus.
“People were all over me on the bus,” Ballard said, laughing. “They kept saying, ‘An NFL player pushed you! You’re famous.’ It was kind of fun.”