LOS ANGELES — Montee Ball wore a wreath adorned with shiny ornaments as he stood near Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Mickey Mouse. In the land of make believe, the emotions inside Ball were very real.
He stared into the rows of fans and back at his Wisconsin teammates, trying to savor the precious moments that remained of his college football career, including this trip to Disneyland that began a week’s worth of festivities before the Rose Bowl. There were times this season Ball wasn’t sure he or the Badgers would make it back for a third straight visit.
So he basked in sunshine and smiled for cameras, especially appreciative of the opportunity, understanding the finality of the moment.
“You try not to think about it, but sometimes it’s kind of hard,” Ball said this week. “At Disneyland, Melvin Gordon was like, ‘Let’s start recording each other because this is it.’ I’m going to miss these guys a lot.”
It’s safe to say the Badgers will miss him just as much.
Ball, the senior running back, will close one of the most productive careers in college football history Tuesday when Wisconsin (8-5) plays No. 6 Stanford (11-2) in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. He is a former Heisman Trophy finalist, a Doak Walker award winner for nation’s best running back, a two-time consensus All-American and the all-time FBS touchdown leader.
He also has one more opportunity to showcase his skills in a Badgers uniform in a venue that holds special importance to him. It was in Pasadena last Jan. 2 that Ball, standing in a downtrodden locker room following his team’s 45-38 loss to Oregon, declared to teammates that he would return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft.
“Probably the whole team was surprised when he came back,” said Badgers running back James White, Ball’s roommate and good friend. “At the same time, when he said it, we knew we were going to have another great running back coming back. It only made our offense that much more explosive.”
Many presumed Ball would make a return trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist this year, but his season began in stunning fashion when he was assaulted by five men in downtown Madison days before fall camp started. Ball sustained a concussion, missed much of preseason practice and played below his usually standout level upon returning. Through four games, he had rushed for 360 yards and just three touchdowns.
Despite the slow start, Ball’s belief in himself didn’t waver, and he maintained his role as one of the team’s most important leaders. Over the final eight regular-season games and the Big Ten championship, Ball rushed for 1,370 yards with 18 touchdowns.
“The touchdowns are big, but just how much he went through is most impressive,” said Gordon, a freshman running back. “How mentally tough he is. The things that happened this summer with him getting jumped, coming back and performing as well as he did. The will. The leadership he has to get this team through whatever. He persevered.”
Stanford coach David Shaw spoke briefly with Ball during last year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony to congratulate him on his accomplishments. He has followed Ball’s season from afar and been dazzled by what he has seen.
“He’s got great vision, great balance,” Shaw said. “He waits for the blocks to happen and then he explodes. He doesn’t turn the ball over. He doesn’t sacrifice the good play to try to make the big play. He makes the plays he’s supposed to make and then makes more.”
In an era when star athletes can become selfish and worry only about their own statistics, Ball has done the opposite. He has rushed for 5,040 career yards and scored an FBS-record 82 touchdowns, but asking him to name his proudest moment yields a surprising answer.
He cites his ability to overcome not playing against No. 1 Ohio State two seasons ago, when coaches deemed him not good enough to earn a carry. One week later, he scored the game-winning touchdown against Iowa and became the team’s top running back for the next 33 games.
Ball has used his friendships with teammates to fuel him during difficult times. He has grown especially close with fellow running backs White and Gordon, three inseparable musketeers on the road together.
Gordon, like Ball, is trying to spend as much time with his friend as possible.
“It’s been great,” Gordon said. “It’s been nothing but happiness, fun and laughter. We’re trying to live it up. We know we’ve got a couple days with him now. We’re taking pictures every second. We’re all out together with me, him and James.
“We know he’s in the business world after this and he probably won’t have much time to hit us up because he’ll be doing work himself, trying to get better for the league.”
Before Ball begins preparation for the NFL, he has one last order of business — to finally win a Rose Bowl in his third try. Ball also needs 150 yards rushing against Stanford to tie former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne for the all-time career rushing record in Rose Bowl games.
While Ball has spent part of the week waxing nostalgic, he continues to look ahead. There is, after all, a time to savor the moments and a time to create new ones.
“I’ve thought about everything that I’ve accomplished, and every time I think about that, one thing that sticks out to me is I have yet to win a Rose Bowl,” Ball said. “I think in a way it’s motivated me to practice harder and study film longer because I do want to win this game.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the player who did this but lost three Rose Bowl games. I want to be remembered as a player who did all this and won his last Rose Bowl game.”