MADISON, Wis. — Any lingering physical damage to Wisconsin running back Montee Ball from an attack that sent him to the hospital wasn’t visible Sunday as he sat on a folding chair inside Camp Randall Stadium.
The damage to Ball’s image, whether fair or not, hasn’t healed quite as quickly.
In the 11 days since five men assaulted and concussed Ball near campus during the early morning hours of Aug. 1, many have questioned Ball’s character and his commitment to Wisconsin’s football team. Why was he out until 2:15 a.m. that night? Why had a Heisman Trophy candidate put himself in a vulnerable position yet again during this offseason?
On Sunday during Wisconsin’s media day, Ball finally had an opportunity to provide a response when he spoke with reporters for the first time since his attack.
“You can say that I shouldn’t have been out at 2 in the morning,” Ball said. “But I was a block away from my apartment, literally inside of my apartment, when I got attacked. We’re in college and this and that. I’m not making any excuses for myself. I was just in a bad position at the wrong time.”
The 21-year-old Ball said he went out with friends that night to enjoy one final evening before the start of Wisconsin’s fall football practices. While walking back to his apartment, five men kicked him to the ground. Ball said he “blacked out” during the assault, suffered a jaw contusion and woke up in the hospital.
The incident taught Ball an important lesson about his celebrity status.
“It really showed me how much I do live my life in a fishbowl and how big of a microscope is on top of me,” Ball said. “Everyone is watching to see what I do as soon as I step out from my apartment. It’s a learning experience. You live and you learn. I’m most definitely going to count my blessings and just thank the Lord that I only had a bruised jaw.”
Detectives investigating Ball’s assault believe it may have stemmed from a fight that occurred late on July 27 and into the morning of July 28. That altercation involved Wisconsin students, including members of the football team, according to a police statement.
Police say Ball was present, but Ball has denied any involvement in the fight.
“I had nothing to do with it at all, but with the police investigation still going on there’s not much I can say,” Ball said. “But I can 100 percent tell you that I had nothing to do with that first fight, honestly.”
It has been an unusually tumultuous offseason for Ball away from the field. In May, he was one of more than 400 people arrested and cited for trespassing at the annual Mifflin Street Block Party. Ball received a $429 citation for refusing to leave a resident’s porch when asked by police.
Ball understands the natural inclination is for some to connect the dots to the two incidents.
“I’ve read a couple (stories) basically saying I’m kind of drawing a pattern here,” Ball said. “But no, that’s not true at all. People who know me know how I am, how I carry myself.”
Last season as a junior, Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns to become a Heisman Trophy finalist and help Wisconsin reach its second consecutive Rose Bowl. He scored 39 total touchdowns, which tied an FBS single-season record set by Barry Sanders in 1988.
Ball will begin working in full pads Tuesday but is being held out of full-contact drills for a second week as a precautionary measure. Even while missing time, he already has attempted to put the latest disruption behind him with teammates.
On Friday night, he addressed the entire team and apologized for being a distraction.
“I knew I had to get up there and say something to all the players because all the hard work I’ve put into this program, I’m sure they’re looking up to me,” Ball said. “So I just wanted to make sure that they all know that I’m all in with them and focusing on what I need to do.”
The message resonated with teammates and coaches.
Badgers center Travis Frederick said Ball’s impromptu speech came across as sincere and heartfelt, and he had no reason to suspect any off-the-field incidents would have lingering effects on the team.
“I think you’re going to find with whoever you talk to that Montee is a leader on the team,” Frederick said. “What he does on the practice field really tells who he is. You’ve seen him come out and be the first one on the field or work harder than anybody else. I think he’s going to continue to do that. I don’t see how anything changes that.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has said he doesn’t believe Ball’s turbulent offseason will deter him from an opportunity to win the Heisman Trophy this season because Ball was not involved in the initial July fight. But Bielema reiterated Sunday that Ball must be careful of the company he keeps.
“Everything he does is going to be monitored,” Bielema said. “I had some conversations with him and his parents to make them totally aware. I think he is. The proof is in the pudding on what happens from this day forward.”
Ball said he doesn’t intend to have an active social life during football season. And he is hopeful the focus on him can finally move to his actions on the football field.
“I’m looking at it now as I’m just blessed,” Ball said, “because obviously it could have been a lot worse.”