MADISON, Wis. — The facial cuts, bruises and concussion symptoms would fade in time, but Montee Ball couldn’t bring himself to feel fortunate about his health. Not yet. He was too angry. Hurt. And deeply troubled by what had transpired during the early morning hours of Aug. 1.
It was supposed to be a celebratory night for Ball, one last evening out with friends before his senior season of football began for the University of Wisconsin. It ended with his blacking out and waking up in a local hospital later that morning.
When the fogginess cleared from Ball’s mind, he tried telling himself it could have been worse. Much worse. Five men he had never met attacked him from behind in downtown Madison, a block from his off-campus apartment. They knocked him to the ground, kicked his chest and face and fled into the night.
A police report would later indicate it was a retaliatory beating stemming from an incident in which Ball had no part. There had been an apartment party July 27, and Ball was there. He said he was in the living room when a fight erupted in the kitchen involving other football players.
Police eventually cleared Ball of any wrongdoing. But when news of his assault broke, the public scorn sure didn’t make it feel that way.
In the 24-7 Internet news cycle, where rumors and innuendo fly as quickly as fingers taking to a keyboard, others questioned Ball’s judgment. Why was he out at 2 a.m. so close to the start of football season? Shouldn’t an athlete of his stature in town — a returning Heisman Trophy finalist, no less — know better than to find trouble again?
Just two months earlier, he had been arrested for trespassing during Madison’s annual Mifflin Street Block Party because he stood on a porch belonging to a homeowner who complained to police. Although Ball was one of more than 400 arrested that day, his photo in handcuffs garnered plenty of discussion. So was this another wrong-place, wrong-time incident or an emerging pattern of bad behavior?
The public wanted answers Ball could not provide as the police investigation to find the perpetrators continued.
“We always say that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but it really is the opposite,” says Melissa Ball, Montee’s mom. “When you don’t have the full story, they’re quick to judge. But he’s the same person from Day 1 until the end of his career here. He’s the same honest kid who has never started a fight, never fought anybody, never would put his hands on anybody.”
In January, Ball had announced his intention to return to school for his senior season and bypass the NFL Draft. He wanted to improve his blocking and pass catching to better his draft stock as a running back. He wanted to be a senior leader and enjoy one last year before becoming a professional.
Now, he learned a concussion would keep him out of full-contact drills during fall practices. The path to breaking the all-time NCAA FBS touchdown record and becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist again had become more difficult. And as he recovered from his injuries at his parents’ house, the joy in Ball’s life was evaporating.
All the while, Ball couldn’t help but wonder: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I put my name into the NFL Draft and stay there?
“August 1, I got that sense,” Melissa says. “Going through that healing process after that attack on August 1 is when I thought, ‘I hope that you’re not sorry for coming back.’ “
Montee Ball had to be honest with his parents, who had invested so much time and love into his football career. For the first time since January, he wasn’t sure why he was still at Wisconsin.
“After my situation, when I got jumped in the summer, everything started piling on,” Ball says. “All the negative stuff did. I sat back and I asked myself if I made the right decision to come back. I had my regrets.”
When he returned to practice, he apologized to his teammates for causing a distraction. Then, he unleashed his pent-up anger on the field, desperately hoping to regain fans’ trust and recapture the magic he found one year earlier.
Montee Ball Sr. says he saw something special in his son from the very beginning of his football career. Maybe that sounds trite to some now that Montee Jr. is one of the most accomplished running backs in college football history, but the qualities that define him now — toughness, tirelessness and a will to succeed — were evident even when he was 8-years-old.
That year, Montee Sr. became Montee Jr.’s football coach, and the father continued to coach the son until high school. In the fall, the two would come home from practice at 6:30, eat dinner as a family and walk down to the basement, where Montee Jr. would lift weights or watch his father design plays.
It was during those sessions together when Montee Jr. learned different defensive schemes from his father: a 4-3 front, goal-line pressures, blitz packages and motions. He soaked it up until 9 p.m. on the nose, when his bedtime arrived.
“If it was up to him, we’d have been up all night,” Montee Sr. says. “It was constantly five to six hours a day worth of football from the age of 8 until now. He worked on it as much as he could.”
Montee Jr. was too big to play running back because he exceeded the 100-pound Pop Warner weight maximum, so he began as a linebacker and an offensive lineman. By age 11, his talents as a tailback were obvious, and the family hired a strength trainer and nutritionist to maximize his abilities.
A fall routine soon emerged in the Ball household. One of Ball’s family members would record him tearing apart defenses, and they would all return home and re-watch the grainy footage on television. Ball’s parents realized their son might be good enough to earn a college scholarship. So they decided the family would move with Montee Jr. wherever he attended college in an effort to keep the family together.
“We knew that we had to keep our promise by the time he got to high school,” Melissa says. “I’m like, ‘He really wants to play college football, and he’s really going to do this. We can’t go back on our word. We promised him.’ “
The entire family, including Ball’s older sister, Ashley (24), and younger sister, Aireanna (12), packed up their belongings in Wentzville, Mo., a town 40 miles west of St. Louis, and moved to Wisconsin. They settled in Sun Prairie, just east of Madison. Ashley enrolled at Edgewood College in Madison, where she will earn her bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology in December.
Montee Sr. was able to keep his job as a marketing and graphics design employee for St. Charles Research and continues to commute to the St. Louis area once a month. Melissa was laid off from her job with Sara Lee but found work as a customer service representative in Madison.
“They made sure to tell me that we’re going to give you your space,” Ball says. “We’re not going to crowd you. Basically, they were there if I needed them.”
Turns out, he needed them more than he could ever know.
There was more hype surrounding Ball’s senior season than there had been for any player at Wisconsin since 1999, when running back Ron Dayne won a Heisman Trophy. Many assumed Ball’s college career would end in the same fashion.
Wisconsin’s sports information department created a Heisman campaign entitled: “This Fall Belongs To Ball,” promoting the team’s star football player on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A bus featuring Ball’s face drove around town and touted how close he was to the all-time touchdown record — he needed 17 to tie the mark.
As a junior in 2011, Ball produced one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history. He rushed for 1,923 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns to tie the single-season record established by Barry Sanders in 1988.
But when he submitted his name for consideration with the NFL Draft advisory board, that group sent him a letter voicing its unanimous opinion: He was no better than a third-round pick. There were other talented running backs ahead of him, and he needed to improve in pass protection and catching out of the backfield.
Ball, shocked by the determination, asked himself: What more do I have to do? He convened with his parents and decided that if he wasn’t going to be drafted in the first two rounds, he might as well stay and make certain the same thing wouldn’t happen the next year.
“Kind of sitting back and thinking about it, I knew there were better running backs in front of me,” Ball says. “I knew that if I stay, I’ll have the opportunity to get my degree, I’ll have the opportunity to play another year with my teammates, get another Big Ten championship if possible and also be one of the top running backs in the next draft.”
At least, that was the plan.
Then came the assault and concussion that forced the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Ball to wear a green non-contact jersey in practice. When he returned for the season opener against Northern Iowa, he was admittedly rusty. His cuts weren’t sharp, he wasn’t running low to the ground and he didn’t trust the vision that enabled him to reach record heights the previous season.
He slid deeper and deeper into a funk. During Wisconsin’s 10-7 loss at Oregon State on Sept. 8, Ball gained just 61 yards and didn’t score a touchdown for the first time in 21 games. Two weeks later, he suffered a concussion against UTEP and left the game in the second quarter. He was averaging 90.0 yards rushing per game and had scored just three touchdowns.
“Our running back coach (Thomas Hammock) tells us to get four yards before you get 40,” says Badgers running back James White, Ball’s roommate and close friend. “And in the beginning of the season, he was trying to get that 40, trying to help save the game instead of just getting those four yards.”
But just as Ball wasn’t the same, neither was his team. The star quarterback (Russell Wilson), fullback (Bradie Ewing) and wide receiver (Nick Toon) all had graduated and moved on to the NFL. Three all-conference offensive linemen were gone, including two (Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler) who were also drafted in the NFL.
Six assistant coaches from that team had left as well, led by offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, the mastermind who directed Wisconsin to a school-record 44.1 points per game in 2011. He was now the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dissent in the ranks followed when new offensive line coach Mike Markuson began teaching different blocking philosophies that did little to open holes for Ball. Markuson was fired after the Oregon State game, and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema brought in graduate assistant Bart Miller to coach the line.
All of Ball’s potential records and accolades, it seemed, were fluttering away amid team chaos.
“Everything that happened to me this summer, coming out of the gates real slow,” Ball says, “personally I kind of felt that it was way out of hand’s reach for myself.”
If the first month was the low point of Ball’s season, it certainly wasn’t the low point of his college career. At least coaches trusted him enough to work his problems out on the field this time.
That same faith didn’t exist on Oct. 16, 2010, when Wisconsin upset then-No. 1 Ohio State, 31-18, at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers called 38 rushing plays for their running backs, none of which were for Ball, who stood on the sideline and did not play a single snap as the third-string tailback. Instead, White and John Clay took all the carries in the backfield.
It was the first time in Ball’s football career that he did not play in a game in which he was healthy, a devastating blow to his psyche.
“We had never been in that situation before,” Montee Sr. says. “He was standing around, in his head, what to do here and there.”
Ball told his father he wanted to switch to linebacker to get on the field, and Montee Sr. leveled some harsh truth at his son. Your cuts aren’t sharp. You aren’t eating right. You need to play faster and put in more time in practice.
Montee Sr. also reminded his son about when he started playing football and was too big to play his favorite position. You are a running back.
“If you go to that team right now and say you want to switch positions just to contribute, how do you think those other running backs are going to feel?” Montee Sr. told his son. “How do you think that coach is going to feel with you bailing on them? You stick with it. That’s what we do as a family. When something comes up, you fight. You go back and you practice twice as hard as everybody else. When the opportunity arises and your chance is given to you, don’t give it away.”
One week later against Iowa, White and Clay were injured during the game. Ball entered and scored an 8-yard touchdown to win the game with just over a minute remaining. He averaged 155.4 yards rushing and scored 14 touchdowns in the final five games that season and has been the team’s No. 1 running back ever since.
“He just stepped in and didn’t look back,” White says. “He saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. He saw what he was capable of and how he could run each and every down, and he’s just kept that momentum going.”
Ball would lose 26 pounds during the offseason on a cottage cheese and baked potato diet and transform himself into a Heisman Trophy finalist. And even two years later, he points to the Ohio State game and subsequent talk with his father as his motivation, a lesson in perseverance.
“I think I most definitely look back on it when times get tough, which they did this past summer for me,” Ball says. “I look back on it and tell myself that I went through that challenging time, so anything that comes my way again, I’m able to overcome it.”
Ball’s determination after that Ohio State game also revealed his character to his head coach.
“If he’d come in and told me he wanted to switch to linebacker, I probably wouldn’t have let him, as bad as he might have pleaded,” Bielema says. “I do think we always knew all along he was going to be pretty special.”
First-and-10 from the Penn State 17, and Ball takes a toss play around the right side of the field. The patient eyes and confident cuts have returned. He follows his blockers to the edge, tiptoes down the sideline and strides into the end zone.
On a chilly late-November Saturday afternoon in University Park, Pa., Ball breaks the all-time touchdown record in the final regular-season game of the year. The touchdown, his 79th at Wisconsin, moves him past Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice, who established the mark in 1999.
Statistics will indicate that Ball hasn’t produced the same type of season as he did a year ago. Given the team turmoil and diminished talent, it would have been nearly impossible for him to match those numbers even if he were healthy all season.
Still, he has rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 127.3 yards per game, which ranks No. 8 in the country. Ball returned for Big Ten play the week after his head injury against UTEP and he began tearing apart defenses in much the same fashion he did as an 11-year-old in Wentzville, Mo. In eight Big Ten games, he averaged 146.0 yards per contest and scored 15 touchdowns, while his offensive line rallied from a poor start.
Ball says his anger toward the perpetrators of his assault has subsided. In late August, police arrested three of the five alleged attackers, all 21-year-old students at Wisconsin. He has learned a good deal about moving forward, not allowing previous failures to drag him down.
Now, Ball is focused on the tasks ahead and says the reasons he laid out for coming back in January are still in front of him. He has stayed out of trouble, Wisconsin will play for a Big Ten championship on Saturday against Nebraska and Ball is the leader of this Badgers team.
Sometimes, Ball lets his mind wander to the question that hung in the air after Aug. 1: Did he make the right decision by returning to school? He believes he did, but there is no way of knowing today. Others will help prove him right in the coming months at the NFL draft.
Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for CBSSports.com, says this season has improved Ball’s draft stock. Although his statistics aren’t as gaudy, he is playing on a team with fewer future pros, which has forced Ball to demonstrate his unique gifts as a running back even more.
“Sometimes NFL scouts need to see that,” Rang says, “especially considering the talent Wisconsin has sent to the NFL on the offensive line and at other skill positions in recent years as well.”
Rang lists Ball as the top running back in the senior class and a solid second-round draft pick amid a weak crop of tailbacks. Rang describes him as more reliable in pass protection and a player who has made great gains catching passes. He also called Ball a “more impressive down-to-down runner” this year. And oddly enough, Ball’s struggles have made him more attractive to pro scouts.
“Just the fact that the season started off poorly, not only on the field but all the off-field stuff,” Rang says. “And to keep composed as he has, I think is a testament to him, especially at the running back position. That’s one of those positions where teams worry about the mental maturity of the player. I think he’s shown a great deal in that regard.”
One of Ball’s preseason goals has probably disappeared: He isn’t likely to make a return trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist this year because of his early-season play. But his senior season has provided him with a fresh perspective on playing the game he loves and holding those people close to him even closer. It also has allowed him to bury whatever regrets he held in August.
“I kind of cherish this season more than I do last year,” Ball says. “Growing up, my parents made sure to teach me that everything is not going to go your way. Basically the definition of a man is overcoming adversity, and I overcame a lot of it. … I believe that’s going to help me out in whatever I feel like doing the rest of my life.”
The National Football League is a good place to start.