Montee Ball remembers vividly the first time he dreamed of playing in the NFL. Just 8 years old, he walked in on his father watching a Broncos game. Ball saw Broncos RB Terrell Davis score a touchdown, after which he said to his dad, “So all the person with the ball has to do is carry it past the line? That is easy.”
During his junior season at the University of Wisconsin, Ball often made it look easy. As part of an offense that included Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, Bengals OG Kevin Zeitler and Falcons OG Peter Konz, Ball produced one of the most prolific rushing seasons in college football history. He tied Barry Sanders’ single-season FBS TD record (39), in addition to piling up an NCAA-best 1,923 rushing yards as well as a number of esteemed awards, including consensus first-team All American and Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He also was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and Heisman Trophy.
Ball and the Badgers finished the 2011 season 11-3 and co-champions in the Big Ten, but they wound up losing their second consecutive Rose Bowl, 38-35 to Oregon. After receiving a third-round draft assessment from the advisory committee, Ball was faced with the biggest decision of his life up until that point.
“I was completely on the fence,” Ball said. “If I stayed, I would be able to get another year under my belt — get bigger, faster, stronger and really mentally prepare myself for the NFL, while also coming back to try to win another championship with my teammates.
“Obviously, with leaving, I had the opportunity to fulfill my dream ... so it was really tough,” he said.
So tough, according to Ball, that, after deciding one or two days before the Rose Bowl meeting with Oregon that he would return for his senior season, he continued to waffle until one hour before he was expected to publicly announce his decision. Ultimately, he sat down with his parents in a restaurant on the way to the press conference, discussing the pros and cons one last time, before deciding to return for his senior season.
“(The third-round assessment) wasn’t a slap in the face at all, because just being drafted is great, period,” he said. “But, I’m really, really competitive. ... I thought by returning I had a chance to improve and perhaps go in the first or second round.”
It didn’t take long for Ball to wonder if he made the right decision.
In May of 2012, after several of his teammates were drafted and a number of coaches had departed, he was arrested for trespassing during the University’s annual Mifflin Street Block Party. Then, in the early morning hours on July 31, just one week prior to camp opening, Ball was brutally attacked by five men, left with a concussion and facial injuries. The attack was unprovoked — he had never met his assailants — but Ball blames himself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It was difficult; a lot of things weren’t going the way me and the team had hoped,” he said. “The off-field situations — I would never blame anyone else. I just had to experience the hard way that my life is in a fish bowl.”
He recovered in time for the season opener, but it quickly became obvious that the Badgers’ sudden dearth of offensive resources meant he had to dig deeper.
“As a player, I think it helped me out immensely,” Ball said. “It’s no secret that a lot of my TDs as a junior, I was untouched. ... It really showed me that, as a running back, you’re going to have to break tackles — you have to make guys miss.”
And, after a slow start to his senior season, Ball caught fire, showing evaluators he could create on his own.
Even with so many changes and obstacles to overcome, Ball won the Doak Walker Award. He repeated as consensus All American. He became the FBS all-time TD leader. What’s more, Ball learned a difficult, yet invaluable lesson in overcoming adversity.
“I understand that things generally don’t go as planned,” Ball said. “I hope people can see in me as a player and person that I’m capable of overcoming a lot. I’m always going to fight, no matter what.”