MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin running back Montee Ball admits he mentally prepared himself for the disappointment of not being named a team captain.
Few returning Heisman Trophy finalists would have to worry about such a seemingly preposterous snub, but given Ball’s unusually tumultuous offseason, he had reason for doubt.
“That was in the back of my mind that maybe I’m not going to get that,” Ball said. “You don’t have to be a captain to be a leader. That’s basically what I was going to do if I wasn’t going to be a captain.”
Instead, Ball will have the opportunity to do both.
On Tuesday, he was named one of six co-captains for the 2012 season, along with senior left tackle Ricky Wagner, junior center Travis Frederick, senior safety Shelton Johnson, senior linebacker Mike Taylor and junior linebacker Chris Borland.
Frederick and Borland become the first juniors to be named captains at Wisconsin since linebacker Jonathan Casillas in 2007. They are the only three juniors to serve as season-long captains during head coach Bret Bielema’s tenure, which began in 2006.
Ball, of course, is the biggest name in this year’s bunch.
Last season as a junior, he rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns to become a Heisman Trophy finalist and help Wisconsin reach its second consecutive Rose Bowl. He also scored 39 total touchdowns, which tied an FBS single-season record set by Barry Sanders in 1988.
But statistics aren’t the only reason Ball earned captainship status among his peers. In addition to being talented, he also is hardworking and well liked, which made it easier for teammates to pardon Ball for his off-the-field transgressions.
Ball’s well-documented offseason included receiving a wrong-place, wrong-time trespassing citation in May at the annual Mifflin Street Block Party. He also was present during a late-July fight involving Wisconsin students and football players, although police have cleared him of any involvement in the altercation. A few days later, five men assaulted Ball as possible retaliation the morning of Aug. 1 as he walked back to his apartment at 2:15 a.m. following a night out with friends.
Add those incidents up, and it’s easy to see how teammates could have questioned Ball’s judgment. Not so, according to his co-captains.
“My support for him never wavered in anything that happened,” Frederick said. “And I think that’s the general feeling throughout the team. I think if you ask anybody, a lot of us believe what he’s telling us. I don’t think he’s lying to us at all.
“He’s a guy that just comes out and works. I think that he’s going to continue to work and has worked his way through those issues and is really a better person because of those issues.”
Following Ball’s assault, he addressed the entire team and apologized for being a distraction. Ball told them he would continue to work hard and be a leader, and the message stuck with teammates when it came time to vote for captains.
“To me, when something just happens once, it’s by chance,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t change his role on this team, honestly. And it doesn’t change the view of anybody that spends more than 10 minutes with him.”
On the field, Ball has continued to wear a green non-contact jersey throughout fall practice. He is being held out of full-contact drills as a precautionary measure after sustaining a concussion during his assault. But he is expected to rejoin contact drills soon and will be in the starting lineup for Wisconsin’s Sept. 1. season opener against Northern Iowa.
“I’m taking all reps now with the ones,” Ball said. “There’s no reason to get hit. When we do blitz pickup, the linebackers will blitz and just stop so I get the reads down and stuff like that.”
Although Ball’s fall camp has not gone according to plan, he indicated his timing within the offense already had returned while working with the first-team offense. And he said he didn’t think his offseason had affected his relationship with teammates.
“I believe that everyone understands the situation,” Ball said. “I don’t go out causing trouble. I didn’t go out saying, ‘Let’s do this today. Let me get a trespassing ticket. Let me get jumped today.’ That’s why I love this team. That’s why I call it my family, and I’m really glad that I came back because they all understand the situations and are mature enough to just let them go and continue on our success.”
When the captains were announced on Tuesday, Ball’s name was the last to be called, but he fulfilled one of his wishes nonetheless. Among the reasons Ball cited for bypassing the NFL Draft and returning to school during his press conference in January was to be a team captain for his senior year.
“It’s a huge deal,” Ball said. “I don’t think it’s soaked in yet because everything is just flying by. Flying so fast with camp and everything. Once it does, it’s going to sink in pretty deep. You’re a captain forever. I’ll always be the 2012 senior captain of this team, or one of the captains, so it’s an honor.”
Although players could vote for themselves as captain, Ball elected to use his three votes on Frederick, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and Taylor.
“I just felt like I didn’t need to,” Ball said of voting for himself. “Not saying that I knew I was going to be captain. But I believe there’s other leaders on this team that deserve it.”
Ultimately, Ball’s teammates felt he was just as deserving.