AURORA, Ill. – Matt Ward will be the first to admit, with a broad grin on his bearded face, that he was “a good guy but a bad kid” who put his family through hell during a few rebellious years at West Aurora High School that eventually got him sent to “reform school.”
Now 29, the affable tattoo artist eventually got his act together.
And what an act it is.
He and brother, Ryan, are veterans on the Chicago Bulls’ “Benny and the Elevators” stunt-dunking team, which dazzles halftime crowds with high-flying trampoline maneuvers that combine gymnastics, acrobatics, tumbling and good old basketball skills.
They grew up in a big family in a small house near Greenman Elementary School on the city’s West Side. The backyard really was “our playground,” said Matt, where long afternoons were spent hanging from swing sets, walking across monkey bars and jumping from anything and everything high enough to give their parents, Joy and Mike, fits.
Both boys were in organized sports, but eventually got hooked on BMX bike competitions which, for Matt, was particularly satisfying because unlike team sports, “it wasn’t someone telling me what to do. I could do whatever I wanted and it helped me be free.”
Their “tricking” and “kicking” went up a few notches when Hupp Skate Park opened in the mid-2000s. Matt said he would spend “hours, days on end” practicing jumps and flips. A couple of broken bones convinced Ryan to concentrate on ground acrobatics, where he didn’t “have to worry about having control over another element.” And it wasn’t long, Matt noted, until his kid brother could “far surpass him in any sort of gymnastics.”
Matt said he was a “straight A student” until he got into high school and “wanted to do my own thing.” While he never got into heavy drugs, he acknowledged to being in trouble with authorities on plenty of occasions, all of which put more pressure on his more studious, serious and “definitely more white sheep” little brother to be the role model for two younger siblings.
After that Iowa boarding school, Matt came home and started concentrating on his artistic side, eventually becoming a professional tattoo artist. His brother, on the other hand, earned a degree in psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is also where he began refining his skills in the school’s gymnastics room.
Neither brother ever stopped moving, learning new tricks and techniques. But it was while practicing flips off a ledge at UIC, said Ryan, that Benny the Bull’s girlfriend happened to walk by and, watching him in action, told him about the Elevators and their daredevil act.
Both he and Matt tried out for the team and, in 2013, the Ward brothers, self taught and each with his own distinct style, joined the eight-member squad that is part of the Bulls Entertainment Network.
Their mom, Joy, part of West Aurora’s team that won the 1979 United States Cheer Leading Association Championship, certainly understands the passion and work that goes into their stunts. She said she hopes the duo eventually will be able to find sponsors to reach that next level.
While both have had their share of injuries, Matt has been hit the hardest, with nerve, back and ankle problems, “because he takes more risks,” his brother noted. Age and injury, they said they realize, will limit their time with the Bulls group, not to mention extreme sports in general.
For now, though, mom said, “It’s amazing what they can put together.”