Where are they now? Mike Ballenger

 

Herald file photo
Mike Ballenger looked to drive against Southridge’s Stan Roesner in the 1981 sectional championship, when Ballenger rang up 38 points to lift the Wildcats to a 69-68 win for the sectional crown. Ballenger played one season at the University of Kentucky and finished his college career as a two-sport athlete at Western Kentucky, also playing baseball. He’s lived in five other states since graduating from college and has spent the last 17 years in Columbus, Ohio, where he and wife Connie raise two teenage sons.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

All those strikeouts, all those free throws, all those pinpoint spirals. They all had a greater purpose for Mike Ballenger.

Sure, Ballenger’s name still rings famous around Dubois County, where the 1981 Jasper High School graduate excelled in three sports, still adorns the record books and remains perhaps the most decorated all-around athlete in school history. But the time came for Ballenger, as it does for everyone, when he had to make his name on being more than just a high school hero.

Boy, was he ready.

After his college days — he played basketball his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, then transferred to Western Kentucky University where he performed the basketball-baseball double — Ballenger found a job. Or more like the job found him. Near the end of his senior year, Ballenger gave an interview for the local TV station in Bowling Green, Ky., and talked about what life was like playing two collegiate sports. The president of Fruit of the Loom, the national clothing company based in Bowling Green, was watching and was taken by Ballenger’s easy presence and eloquence.

So the executive got on the horn and called WKU. The message was forthright: Find me that kid, I want him to work for my company.

“He literally called somebody at the university and said, ”˜Hey, I saw this kid on TV, seemed like he did a nice job in the interview, I know he’s getting ready to come out of school, I’d like to interview him for a job,’” Ballenger said. “Because of my past experience in high school and college, the confidence and all the other things that go with that, being a team player, all those things carried over to the interview, which enabled me to get my first job.”

At that time, Fruit of the Loom was building several plants in small towns in the South, and Ballenger became part of a small group of people who hopped from city to city. They helped launch the plant from the ground up, hiring and training workers and getting the assembly rolling.

It also kept Ballenger on the perpetual move.

From North Carolina to Texas to Mississippi to Tennessee, Ballenger made pit stops instead of making roots. The dominoes tumbled to Columbus, Ohio, where Ballenger, 50, has been planted for 17 years. He owns a women’s clothing store as well as condos and commercial real estate on the side.

Soon, the high school sports scene is coming full circle for Ballenger.

He and wife Connie have two sons — Michael, 10, will be a fifth-grader, and Andrew, 14, is about to begin his freshman year of high school. Every male in the Ballenger household sports a distinct taste: The kids play the same three sports that dad did, though Mike is inclined to say that Michael would pick football as a favorite while Andrew would lean toward baseball.

Mike’s No. 1 pick? He has to go with hoops. It offered the chance for solitary improvement that others might not recognize but Ballenger embraced.

“Basketball, to me, was so great because you could get better all by yourself. You didn’t need anybody else,” said Ballenger, whose scoring records of career (1,433) and single-season points (594) and single-season scoring average (24.8 ppg) were later usurped by Michael Lewis.

“You could take a ball and a goal and you can improve your shooting, you can improve everything in the game by yourself. And I did that a lot as a kid. ... You could work on your game and improve all by yourself if you’re willing to work at it.”

Those types of messages are embedded in Mike’s kids, who are encouraged to keep their interests broad. In an era of specialization, Mike preaches the opposite: “I always tell my boys, ”˜Don’t close any doors,’” he said.

Dad carries some clout, because he’s still got a degree of baller status.

He contends he “can’t do (sports) anymore,” though if his kids are organizing a pickup game with friends and there’s an odd number of players, Mike can jump in at a moment’s notice. He’s not as mobile as he once was, but he can still beat his kids in a game of HORSE.

“Once you can shoot, you can always shoot,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little while to get loose, but I can still play a little bit.”

Mostly, he remains plugged into sports via supervisory roles.

Last summer, he coached both his sons in travel baseball, a sum of about 65 games. Earlier this summer, Andrew finished second in a home run derby at a tournament in South Carolina. Mike was the one lobbing pitches to him, though certainly not with the same wattage as in years gone by. In the thick heritage of Jasper baseball, Ballenger remains the all-time leader in wins (28-4), ERA (1.07 in 201 1/3 innings) and strikeouts (304; second is Phil Kendall at 244).

Ballenger visits Jasper only occasionally to see his mother, Shirley, who’s in an assisted living facility. He hasn’t lived in Indiana since he left for college, but that’s not to say his hometown didn’t leave an impression. He reminisces about days of 5,000 fans at a basketball game and learning under respective football, basketball and baseball coaches Jerry Brewer, Rex May and Ray Howard. “I just don’t know if anybody’s ever had three better coaches than those three guys,” he said.

The wins, the success, the poise on the big stage. All just a warm-up of bigger things to come.
“A lot of good things happened in my life because of the experiences I had through the high school there,” Ballenger said. “It’s a great memory for me, it really is.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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