MILWAUKEE — Montee Ball has known for quite some time this door of his life at the University of Wisconsin would close. Now that he literally must give away the keys to that door, the reality of his future is finally coming into view.
“I’m still living in the same apartment with James,” he said Thursday night, referring to former Badgers teammate James White. “I’m going to throw the sublet information up on the Internet tomorrow to get rid of it. It is weird. Exactly a week from today.”
Ball, the NCAA’s all-time FBS touchdown leader, spent Thursday night at the Harley-Davidson Museum, where he won the Wisconsin Sports Awards college player of the year. Among the candidates he beat out were former Marquette basketball standout Jae Crowder and former Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor, both of whom have moved on to professional careers.
By the middle of next weekend, Ball will embark on a pro career of his own. The Doak Walker Award winner and former Heisman Trophy finalist is listed among the top running backs in the upcoming NFL Draft, which runs April 25-27. And Ball has been paying close attention to what pundits say about his draft prospects.
“It’s hard not to check it out because it’s all fun for everybody,” Ball told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “Once I do check it out, I’ve been all over the place. The most recent and most common I’ve been seeing is second round. Probably high, mid-second round, which is fine with me. Because nowadays it doesn’t matter where you get drafted. It’s about what you do when you get drafted.”
Ball, who scored 83 total touchdowns in college, likely has put himself in position to be either the first or second running back chosen in the draft. Alabama’s Eddie Lacy appears to be his stiffest competition. Ball improved his stock by shaving two-tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash time from the NFL Combine, when he ran a 4.66. In two tries during his pro day at Wisconsin on March 6, he ran a 4.46 and a 4.49.
“If you take a look at Montee’s production, his durability, he can catch the ball,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said Thursday. “I don’t know what else you’re looking for in a back. I think what he’s accomplished and the type of person he is, that’s a no-brainer. Montee should be a high pick, and quite frankly, I’d like to see him just north of us here.”
Since his pro day, Ball has remained in Madison, lifting weights and staying in shape as he awaits his name being called in the draft. He had spent time in Florida following the season to train at IMG Academy.
“My agent told me if teams want you to work out, you can only work out at your school,” Ball said. “He was like, ‘There’s no reason for you to go train anywhere else.’ So it worked out pretty well.”
Ball said “six or seven” teams had come to Madison to watch him work out since his pro day. And the biggest question relates to the number of carries he tallied during his college career (924).
Last season, Ball carried the ball a career-high 356 times. Only two running backs — Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell (382) and Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson (375) — registered more carries than Ball. And during Ball’s record-setting 2011 season, he ranked sixth among FBS running backs in total carries with 307.
“Every team asks me about it,” Ball said. “That’s every team’s worry. But I tell them, it’s one play for any player. It takes one play (for an injury), and that’s for anybody. It can be a running back’s first play ever.”
Ball’s father, Montee Ball Sr., has heard the skeptics discussing his son’s workload since the season ended and isn’t buying the talk.
“A lot of people say he’s got a lot of mileage on his tires,” Ball Sr. said Thursday night. “But you know what? I told him to look at it this way. You had a lot of carries, more than other players, but that’s because the team had trust in you that you could protect the ball and you made it four years without an injury. That shows your durability.”
Ball’s story of perseverance over the past year has been well documented. He returned for his senior season after an NFL draft advisory board graded him out as no better than a third-round selection — this despite him tying an FBS single-season record with 39 touchdowns and being a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball’s intention was to become a team leader and demonstrate to pro personnel he would be one of the best running backs in the 2013 draft.
Then came two unfortunate incidents that led some to debate his character. It began May 5, when he was handcuffed for refusing to leave the porch of a resident during Madison’s annual Mifflin Street Block Party. In the early morning hours of Aug. 1, Ball was jumped near his downtown apartment after returning home from a night out at 2 a.m. He sustained a concussion and missed several fall practices.
“I think he was more embarrassed about people thinking that he was a troublemaker,” Ball Sr. said. “When they started questioning his character and questioning what type of kid he was, that’s what bothered him the most. Being jumped by five guys on the street, well that can happen to anybody. And he understands that. You’re in the wrong place, wrong time. At 2 a.m., he shouldn’t have been out there. But when they started questioning what type of kid he is, I told him you can go all the way back in your history and you’ve never been in trouble in your life.”
Ball avoided any more incidents the rest of the season and went on to rush for 1,830 yards with 22 touchdowns to win the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s best running back. He also has nearly earned his degree — another reason for returning to school. Ball Sr. said his son was just seven credits shy of graduating and needed to turn in a 50-page report for a psychology class to fulfill all his credits.
“He’s shown a lot of character,” Ball Sr. said. “And kudos to him for sticking with it because a lot of players would have quit.”
Now, Ball is just a week away from realizing his dream of becoming an NFL player. Ball said he had consulted former Badgers players now in the NFL for advice, including Bradie Ewing, Nick Toon, John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi and Lance Kendricks. Each player told him simply to keep doing the things that helped him reach this point.
The Ball family has rented out a space in Madison for family and friends to view the draft, and Ball said the head count was around 72 people. Nearly 50 people will arrive from his hometown of Wentzville, Mo., including his high school coach, school principal and a couple of teachers.
It will be a celebration years in the making for Ball and his family. When one door closes, the old adage goes, another one opens.
“It’s just a blessing for him to be able to fulfill a dream that he started at age 8,” Ball Sr. said. “The door is here, so it’s going to happen. It’s becoming real. It’s eye opening.”