Defensive Lineman, 2007-2010
*Photo from Iowa Sports Information
Christian Ballard may be retired from football, but he’s still trying to make an impact on the game.
The former All-Big Ten defensive lineman from who started 39 games for the Hawkeyes from 2007-2010 is now tackling the negative perception of marijuana in the United States, serving as an advocate for a plant he believes could have a dramatically positive impact on NFL players and others suffering from pain.
Ballard, 27, lives in Aurora, Colorado and works for Kind Love — a Denver-area dispensary of medical and recreational marijuana. The former Hawkeye has worked in a cultivation warehouse since March 2016, handling the plants from their infancy until they are harvested. He waters the plants, cleans the tanks, and works to make sure each plant is growing as planned to achieve maximum yield and potency.
“I just don’t think it’s healthy for football players to get pumped with painkillers,” he said. “I have a passion for this and I have a decent knowledge about this plant. I feel like it’s a waste if I don’t spread that knowledge around.“
The former Hawkeye called this job his “first step” toward his goal of getting Cannabidiol (CBD) available to all NFL players, veterans, people with disabilities and neurological disorders, and those with immune-compromised diseases. CBD is one of the many chemical compounds found in cannabis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is considered to have a wide range of potential therapeutic benefits.
Before that first step can be accomplished, of course, marijuana would need to be legalized in all fifty states and removed from the banned substances list in the NFL.
An NFLPA spokesman told The Washington Post in November that the association was “actively looking at the issue of pain management…And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on.”
Ballard, like many proponents of medical marijuana, points to the well-documented overuse and abuse of painkillers in recent years as a primary reason for why pot should be legal. According to the Centers of Disease Control, overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription opioids and heroin, have nearly quadrupled since 1999, and three out of five drug overdose deaths involve an opioid.
“Opioids can be replaced by a drug that can be grown,” he said. “It’s so hard to grasp because for years and years we’ve been conditioned to believe opioids are OK, while we’ve demonized the marijuana plant. There’s an uphill battle to change that perception.”
Ballard’s goal is to eventually create a pain relief cream similar to Icy Hot, except it would be made with CBD. But right now, he continues to soak up all the information he can about the plant, learning something new every day.
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“I’ve seen so many people come in and benefit from using marijuana,” he said. “It’s hard for me to turn my back when I know this is something that should be available to anybody who is putting their body at risk and putting their health on the line. I want to show people this plant can support families, bring jobs to people, and positively contribute to the community and the environment.”
The former Hawkeye isn’t the first current or former professional athlete to advocate for the legalization of marijuana. Former NFL players Jake Plummer and Eugene Monroe are two of the most vocal activists for the cause, and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr recently admitted he has used marijuana to help with back pain.
“I don’t think there’s any question pot is better for your body than Vicodin,” Kerr said on the Warriors Insider Podcast on Dec. 2. “And yet, athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like it’s Vitamin C, like it’s no big deal. And there’s this perception in our country over-the-counter drugs are fine but pot is bad…I would just hope that sports leagues are able to look past the perception.”
The former All-Big Ten defensive lineman played a key role in changing the perception of Iowa football at a time when the program was struggling to win big games.
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He started 39 straight games for the Hawkeyes, playing a pivotal role in helping Iowa win 28 games over three seasons — including three straight bowl wins. He recorded 154 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 12.5 sacks over the course of his collegiate career.
NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. rated Ballard as one of his top five defensive tackles available in the 2011 NFL Draft, noting that he might even be worthy of a first round draft pick.
But Ballard was one of two players who tested positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine, which many believe caused his draft stock to slip. He was picked by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, and never missed a game in his two seasons as a pro — recording 29 tackles and a sack.
Then in training camp leading up to the 2013 season, Ballard walked away from football, leaving many scratching their heads and wondering how someone playing at football’s highest level could retire so abruptly.
“Obviously I was living this ‘dream’ and making a lot of money, but when I started playing in the NFL I felt like I was missing something,” he said. “I felt like I was doing something that was required of me. Playing in college we had a different kind of bond. In the NFL we were bonded by a contract. When you get to the pros it’s more about making money than it is about the game, really. That’s fine and all and I respect that, but for me it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”
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He returned to his home state of Kansas, enrolling at KU to get an art degree. Ballard got married shortly after leaving football, and moved out to Colorado earlier this year shortly after graduating from school and recently became the father of a newborn daughter.
Looking back on it now, Ballard said he didn’t fully understand the ramifications of leaving the NFL before his contract was up. He lost his signing bonus and royalty revenue.
That said, the former Hawkeye doesn’t have any regrets about stepping away from the game.
“I don’t miss the game,” he said. “My life is going a different route than what people perceived it to. I’m more assured than ever that I did the right thing.”
His focus now is staying active in the fight to legalize marijuana. He feels the research has been done to validate the benefits, and it is now time to spread that knowledge and push for change.
Ballard knows his path through life has been unconventional, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It feels like the focus in the world today is all about getting ahead — getting rich and being famous,” he said. “Peopled don’t take the time to see and appreciate the simple things. There are times in the NFL where I felt I was superior to other people, but I was no different than anyone else. Taking the bus doesn’t make someone less of a person compared to someone who drives a Lamborghini. I’ve found a job and a lifestyle that suits me. Not following the crowd doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong if you’re doing something you love.”