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Ballard bursting with pride to 'be a part' of World Cup

Friday Apr. 4, 2014 is not a day Mike Ballard is ever likely to forget. Playing for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in a domestic cup final, the American prop made a tackle that changed his life forever.

Pinned at the bottom of a ruck, Ballard suffered a spinal injury that saw him stretchered off after a lengthy period of treatment and taken in a waiting ambulance to a local hospital. Surgery was performed overnight, but he is yet to regain feeling in his legs.

Having only taken up the sport when he relocated to the Emirates with work three years earlier, a lay spectator might have expected the 30-year-old to have cut all his ties with rugby union. But that would not take into account the impact it had made on him.

After all, the Gulf rugby community were quick to rally round, setting up a foundation in his name that has helped raise funds proven invaluable to his rehabilitation. And those supporters would not have been surprised to have seen Ballard with a beaming smile as he attempted to compute Wales' last-gasp defeat of England.

The game at Twickenham was the culmination of a whirlwind week's trip around southern England and Wales that also included stops at the Brighton Community Stadium and Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. The American also met USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville and Wales legend Derek Quinnell. If you've seen a van speeding around the southwest of the UK recently, the chances are it contained Ballard and his tour operator, Ed Lewsey.

"I'm in his debt forever, my gosh," Ballard says, referring to Lewsey. "He sorted everything out, we had a van, which we took and did a tour all the way 'round the south west up to Cardiff. This was our third rugby game and it had to end this way. Obviously we were going to go out with a come-from-behind win in front of a packed house."

Lewsey -- a former Wales under-19 international scrum-half who played for both Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion in the Championship -- pulled in a couple of favours from friends and family in high places. His brother Josh, for example, helped to put the former Abu Dhabi Quins teammates in touch with the organisers who took care of tickets for the USA's defeat to Samoa, Australia's win over Fiji and the blockbuster at Twickenham.

It was following the USA's match in Brighton that Ballard met Melville, with the 30-year-old -- a hulking presence even in a wheelchair -- bursting with pride at being able to "be a part" of the occasion. Indeed he was impressed with just how knowledgeable his compatriots in attendance were.

He added: "The USA game was a lot of fun. I thought the USA fans had a pretty good showing. I was surprised at how many Americans were there and how well versed we were in rugby."

Ballard may have been taken with the Eagles' support, but he clearly made an impression on Melville. "His travel schedule changed and he wasn't able to meet the players as we had hoped," the former Gloucester and Wasps boss said. "It was fantastic to see him at the game and supporting the Eagles, what an inspiring young man he is."

The invitation had been a tempting one for Ballard, but he was forced to delay his flight in order to attend his alma mater Gladwin High School's American football game in his role as assistant coach.

His passion for rugby is even evident back home in Michigan, where he has introduced a 'Man on the Line' award to give recognition to those unsung heroes who play as offensive and defensive lineman. It was an idea that evolved when reflecting on how union rewards all participants, not just those who score points.

"They always ask me how much more aggressive rugby is and how much meaner," Ballard says of his gridiron charges. "So I'm just trying to get that over to them. Make sure they're not too soft out there really."

The breathless tour also took in stops at Exeter's Sandy Park, a Devon school, where Ballard gave a talk to pupils, the Royal Marines' Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, where he trained, and Bisham Abbey, where he spoke with other people who have suffered similar injuries.

His meeting with former Wales back-row Quinnell was a happy coincidence, however.

"We parked at Richmond Athletic Ground [before England vs. Wales], we just popped in to see Richmond playing against Coventry and I was like 'what's the score?' And it was Derek Quinnell!" Lewsey says. "So we started chatting away and got a nice picture with him."

As anyone could attest who encountered Ballard during his whistle-stop tour of the Rugby World Cup, his passion for rugby remains undimmed despite all the long hours spent in rehabilitation over the past 17 months. In fact, with that chapter of his life over, he is already eyeing a coaching role within the Abu Dhabi Quins mini section when he returns to the UAE at the end of this year.

"We've done well," Ballard says in a bid to sum up his trip. "Across the board everything has been world class -- great rugby, great people, great fun."