Buzzard makes 17-year trip to finish soccer career a mile away from where stardom began

Brad Buzzard, a goalkeeper for the Huntington University men’s soccer team, stands in front of a goal on the school’s field. Buzzard, 35, was a soccer star at Huntington North High School when he graduated in 1999. Now, years later, he’s finally finishing his college soccer career, opting to do so with the hometown Foresters.
Brad Buzzard, a goalkeeper for the Huntington University men’s soccer team, stands in front of a goal on the school’s field. Buzzard, 35, was a soccer star at Huntington North High School when he graduated in 1999. Now, years later, he’s finally finishing his college soccer career, opting to do so with the hometown Foresters. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published Sept. 8, 2016.

Huntington University is only a mile away from Huntington North High School.

But it took Brad Buzzard 17 years to get there.

A star goalkeeper for the Huntington North boys’ soccer team, Buzzard graduated from the school in 1999 with a Division I college soccer career ahead of him. However, after a series of twists and turns spanning almost two decades, he’s returned to Huntington to finally finish his soccer career, playing for Huntington University at the age of 35.

Back when he was a teenager and sorting through offers from colleges that desired his goalkeeping services, an offer from Huntington College was among them. But it was at the bottom of the stack.

Buzzard and Josh Kesler, who was the Foresters’ head coach at the time, laugh about it now.

“I wouldn’t give him the time of the day because I wanted to play Division I,” says Buzzard of Kesler, who’s now an assistant coach for Huntington. “At that time, I was getting offers from Division I schools and he would come to the games or call me and I’m just like, ‘I’m not playing at Huntington. I want to get out of Huntington. I’m not playing at an NAIA school.’

“So, we joke about that all the time. When you’re that age, certain things, that’s all you care about.”

For Buzzard, he cared about continuing his soccer career at the highest collegiate tier, playing against the top competition. So, to that end, he accepted an offer from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The school gave him the opportunity to leave Huntington while still staying in Indiana and play at the Division I level he desired. It seemed like the perfect match.

But it wasn’t. Buzzard’s head may have been in Indianapolis, but his heart was in Huntington. Janelle, his girlfriend – and future wife – was still a student at Huntington North. He missed her. And that longing led him to transfer closer to home, to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Although IPFW’s coach wanted him to play there, after arriving, Buzzard says the program didn’t feel like a good fit. So, he stepped away from soccer and decided to concentrate on his studies.

In time, Buzzard returned to the sport he loved. He started playing for a semi-pro soccer team in Fort Wayne. One of the players he met during his comeback was an assistant coach for the University of Saint Francis. When Buzzard shared that he was planning on going back to college to earn a degree in secondary education, enabling him to coach and teach, the assistant coach offered to check and see if he had any eligibility remaining to play soccer.

“And it was just kind of a joke,” says Buzzard. “I was like, ‘Go ahead, check.’ So, he checked.

“And he’s like, ‘We think you have eligibility.’”

This led to a meeting between Buzzard and the head coach at Saint Francis, Mitch Ellison. The Cougars’ skipper offered him a scholarship and presented him with a plan that would make him eligible to play. After talking things over with his wife, Buzzard informed Ellison that he was in.

In addition to the scholarship’s financial component, Buzzard says the offer was appealing because it gave him the opportunity to gain experience that could help him better connect with players once he became a coach.

“Not a lot of people get to see that side of it, at that age, and be able to experience it with a different set of eyes,” says Buzzard of playing college soccer in his 30s. “So, I decided to do that.”

But he would have to be patient. In order to tap into his eligibility, Buzzard had to attend Saint Francis for a year without playing, per NAIA rules. During this time, he served as an assistant coach for the team, instructing the goalies. He also trained with the players.

The wait would prove to be worth it. Buzzard started in goal for Saint Francis during the 2013 season, which saw the team finish as Crossroads League co-champions a year after finishing dead last. Buzzard, then a sophomore, ranked among the league’s elite goalies. For his efforts, he was one of two keepers named first-team all-conference.

Saint Francis had high hopes going into its 2014 campaign, says Buzzard, with players and coaches envisioning a trip to the national tournament. However, in the Cougars’ second conference game, their best player, Jason Walcutt, suffered a season-ending knee injury, sinking the team’s fortunes.

While Buzzard again rated among the league’s top goalies at the end of the season, he was drained and ready to leave his playing days behind him.

“I kind of just decided that that was it,” he says. “Because it gets to be a lot. Especially Saint Francis, I mean, you’re 40 minutes away (from Huntington). You’d have 6 a.m. practices. You have 9 o’clock at night practices. I’m still working some. Two kids.”

So, last year, Buzzard left Saint Francis. He transferred to Huntington University to finish his degree closer to home.

Buzzard had no plans to play soccer – that is, until he had a meeting with Huntington’s head coach, Russ Lawson.

“I was going to be done,” confesses Buzzard. “But I talked it out with Coach Lawson, decided I had one semester of eligibility.”

And that one, final semester proved to be too tempting to ignore. Buzzard agreed to play at Huntington, the school he once rebuffed as a teenager.

Just as he had at Saint Francis, though, Buzzard would have to be patient. When a player transfers within a conference, as is the case for Huntington and Saint Francis, they must sit out of sports for a year. Additionally, because Buzzard only had one semester of eligibility remaining, he couldn’t go to school full time.

So, in 2015, Buzzard couldn’t play soccer, nor make much headway on his degree. The year had its positives, though, he says. He took on a role with Huntington similar to the one he’d had with Saint Francis, serving as an assistant coach and mentoring the goalies. Also like at Saint Francis, he trained with the players.

“So, I was involved with the team last year, just didn’t play,” says Buzzard. “I didn’t go to school full time. But that was nice, getting to know everybody.”

Buzzard grew close with his new teammates. He’s well aware of the age discrepancy between them and him, though. After all, back when he was making a name for himself at Huntington North, his Forester compatriots were just toddlers.

“I joke with them all the time about it,” says Buzzard. “They make it easy because they’re a really good group of guys.”

“I joke with them a lot of times, too, if we don’t seem like we’re running hard enough or something, I just say, ‘You know what, you guys call me when you’re 35. Because if I can do this, you guys can do it,” he adds.

All the practices and games do take a physical toll, says Buzzard, with him feeling their effects more acutely than his teammates.

“In the position I play, I don’t do as much running as they do,” he begins. “But still, just after a game I didn’t have to do much in last night, I’m sore.

“I’m sore last night. I’m sore today.”

The aches and pains are one of the clearest indicators to Buzzard that his playing career is nearing its end. What makes that easier for him to accept is the fact that his coaching career is just getting started. After this season, he plans on helping Lawson coach travel soccer in Fort Wayne, then becoming an assistant coach for Huntington. As he prepares for those roles, he’s made a habit of picking Lawson’s brain.

“I’m always kind of quizzing him,” says Buzzard. “I want to know all the ins and outs. Even if it’s recruiting. If it’s budgets. So, sometimes I might even come across as like I’m bugging him. Because I’ll be in his office all the time, just asking him, ‘What do you think about this?’ ‘What do you think about that?’”

One thing that’s not in question, though, is Buzzard’s love for soccer. He thinks Huntington, which is through just a quarter of its season, can make some serious noise in the Crossroads League, maybe even win the conference title.

And from his familiar spot in goal, playing once again in his hometown, he intends to savor every minute of it.

“I usually try to remind myself, ‘How many people get to do that?’,” he says of playing college soccer in his 30s. “Because a lot of people my age, they’d probably go back in a second.”