By Adam Navarro
As the final minutes of the Arizona Bowl ticked down, the sideline of the soon-to be victorious Ball State Cardinals was full of emotion. After a roller coaster of a season, all the adversity and uncertainty was about to be validated with the first football bowl victory in program history. It would result in a No. 23 ranking in the final Associated Press poll, the first time Ball State had been ranked nationally in the season-ending poll in the FBS period.
But for Delta High School graduate and starting left tackle Kaleb Slaven, the win meant that much more with all the hardships he’s been through on the gridiron.
Four times with a broken foot.
Two surgeries on his foot.
One shoulder surgery.
Two season-ending injuries.
A senior season initially canceled by the Covid-19 pandemic before being restored, but remaining in limbo.
This is the dramatic backdrop to Slaven’s Ball State journey.
Slaven graduated from Delta in 2016 and accumulated quite the career in blue and gold, being a standout on both the offensive and defensive lines. As a junior, he earned First Team All-State on the offensive line and helped lead the Eagles to the sectional title game that same year, where they’d lose. His senior year he was First Team All-State on the defensive line, and helped rebound from the previous year’s sectional loss with the first sectional title since 2009.
“He was pretty much everything put into one package,” said Athletic Director Grant Zgunda, who was the head football coach during Slaven’s time at Delta. “He was big, strong, extremely physically tough, and a great leader.”
It was in 2016 that he also decided to redshirt at Ball State.
“When I was going around to these other schools and visiting places like [the University of] Cincinnati, with a football program that’s ranked top 10, I just felt like the coaching staff there, and the way they treated me and welcomed me in was a little different than Ball State,” Slaven said. “I felt like I was more welcomed at Ball State, and it just felt more right than anywhere else.”
At Ball State, Slaven would play exclusively on the offensive line, assuming the role of left tackle. While his position grants him little attention, make no mistake about its significance in the game.
“It’s a really tough position, both physically and mentally. You’ve got to know and to recognize what safeties are doing. You’ve got to recognize [how] outside linebackers, inside linebackers, and the defensive linemen line up over the ball,” Slaven said. “Definitely a position that doesn’t come with as much reward in terms of media coverage, but it’s something that all the guys in the room take pride in for sure.”
His redshirt freshman season, in 2016, he watched from the sidelines as the Cardinals would finish the year with a 5-7 record.
“We had a good group of seniors that year, and I think they were unsatisfied with that result,” Slaven said.
The following year Slaven started the first nine games at left tackle on a Ball State team that fielded 20 freshman starters before suffering a season ending injury. The team’s youth and inexperience resulted in a nine-game losing streak and a dismal 2-10 record overall.
Slaven noted how head football coach Mike Neu, then in just his second season with the Cardinals, emphasized the importance of getting things figured out while the team was young, to just trust the process.
Slaven’s sophomore season saw him start the first three games of the season before suffering yet another season-ending injury. The team finished 4-8, winning only two conference games.
Heading into his junior season in 2019, Slaven viewed the team as having “NFL talent” on the roster and having more experience than in years’ past. He would start 10 games in 2019, missing only two games due to injury. While Slaven managed to stay healthy for most of the season, the Cardinals still finished with a 5-7 record.
“It’s just not what we wanted to do. We were losing a lot of close games,” Slaven said.
When Slaven’s senior season rolled around, the process that Coach Neu had described two years ago was something Slaven and the rest of his class took to heart.
“This past season, those guys that were playing in 2017 as freshmen are now seniors, and they’re saying ‘This is all we got. We gotta go do it now,’” Slaven said. “We took a lot of beatings, and we took them with our chin up, but, seeing where we are now, I think nobody would ever wish that never happened because it got us where we are today.”
But this year, the biggest opponent the Cardinals faced wasn’t then Top 25 teams Buffalo and San Jose State, both of whom they would later beat. No, this year, it was the Covid-19 pandemic.
In early August, the Mid-American Conference made the decision to cancel football, leaving everyone wondering if there would even be a season. Then, in late September, the MAC reconsidered its previous decision and voted to play a shortened season starting in November. Slaven said that the team had to make plenty of sacrifices to ensure they’d get to play.
“I think collectively, as a group, we kind of knew that this season had already been stripped from us once, so we knew we had to sacrifice what we’re doing outside of football,” Slaven said. “A lot of the guys had that mindset of you wake up, get breakfast, get your Covid test, go to practice, eat lunch, and then you go home, and that’s all we did.”
Slaven also said that many players made the decision to take as many online classes as possible to avoid the rest of the student population.
On the gridiron, Slaven started seven games and only missed one early in the season due to injury.
The Cardinals lost their opening game, but then went on to win seven straight games on their way to claiming the MAC Championship and the Arizona Bowl, the first bowl game victory in program history. For Slaven and all he’s been through, the win meant that much more.
“Celebrating with the guys in the room, the coaching staff, the training staff, and just knowing that we’ve done something that Ball State football has never done, that’s pretty awesome,” Slaven said. “It was kind of bittersweet, took a lot to soak in, and just realizing that this is the last game, it mattered a lot, and we can celebrate this one and have a lot of fun.”
And now, Slaven and the Cardinals will get a chance to do it again. The NCAA has granted all athletes an extra year due to the pandemic. Most of the Ball State seniors, including Slaven, plan to play again this fall.
Slaven, who already has his undergraduate business degree, is halfway through his Master’s of Business Administration. He will finish his master’s in December 2021, which will coincide with the end of his final season as a Cardinal.
Kaleb Slaven’s football career has yielded notable accomplishments and treacherous adversity. But bigger than all that, Slaven said, is the lesson he will take away from all of it.
“I think it’s kind of just been the mindset and the motto that we have. It’s ‘Hard work wins.’ I mean, if you look at Ball State and the MAC and compare it to some of these other schools. We might not have the most money, might not, you know, have the best facilities, but we got a good group of guys and a good coaching staff. And a lot of guys that like to work hard and you know it shows that the Toledos, the Western Michigans, the teams that you know, are used to being ranked, are used to winning in the MAC, and they got, you know, all these bells and whistles. Sometimes they get in there and they get lost in the lights and they don’t really know how to work hard because they’re just used to getting stuff handed to them, unlike our mindset where the Ball State Cardinals were saying, you know, we gotta work hard. We gotta grind. We gotta practice in the cold while everyone else was in their indoor facilities. We gotta practice in the snow or we gotta drive down the road and go inside the Field Sports Building because there’s lightning and we just know we have to get it done. Hard work wins. That’s what I’m taking from my career here.”