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No Fairy-Tale Endings: Montee Ball’s Senior Year

How the Wisconsin running back turned around the Badgers’ season and saved his career.

Montee Ball

Montee Ball was sitting on a plane somewhere above the Pacific Northwest when he started to wonder what the hell he’d been thinking.

It was September 8, and the All-American running back’s Wisconsin team had just been upset by Oregon State, 10-7. Ball’s 21-game touchdown streak? Over. His Heisman campaign? Stalled. His team’s no. 13 Associated Press ranking? Now demonstrably undeserved.

It was tough to pick the worst moment of the afternoon. There were inside handoffs when Ball ran directly into his own linemen, who’d been blown back from the line of scrimmage. There were cutbacks into waiting defenders, screen passes devoid of actual screens, and downs when Ball split out wide to run routes, only to watch passes sail over other receivers’ heads. On FX, the announcers began the day pushing Ball’s Heisman candidacy. They ended it wondering why the Badgers had barely given him the ball.

Here it comes, Ball remembers thinking on the flight home. Here comes the heat from the critics. The year before, he’d been the best player on one of the best offenses in the country. But while the rest of the Badgers’ stars went to the NFL, Ball stayed behind. Here comes everybody saying, “He should have left.”

Some had already been saying it. Conventional wisdom suggests running backs should get to the NFL as soon as possible. Better to start earning money now, before the hits add up and your legs slow down. And for Ball, life had spiraled downward shortly after he announced his plan to stay in Madison. He’d been photographed in handcuffs in the spring, beaten and left unconscious in the summer, and now stymied and embarrassed in the fall.

I could be sitting back, with money in the bank, playing on a huge stage, he thought. But I’m not. He insists his thoughts never developed into full-blown regret, but still: “At that point, even I’m thinking, Did I make the right decision?

On January 5, eight months before the Oregon State game, Ball couldn’t have known about his impending arrest, his on-field struggles, or the attack that would leave him bloodied and lying on the pavement after 2 a.m. He couldn’t have known about the coaching departures or the quarterback controversies or the offensive futility that would emerge when fall arrived.

All Ball knew was that in a few hours he had to announce his decision to stay in college or turn pro. His problem: He still hadn’t decided.

Days before, Ball told his Wisconsin teammates he’d return. They had just lost the Rose Bowl to Oregon, and amid the silence and downcast stares, Ball decided to inject some optimism into the locker room. “I’m coming back,” he said, and he smiled as they all cheered. Ball had been a Heisman finalist, rushing for 1,923 yards and tying Barry Sanders’s record with 39 touchdowns. His return gave underclassmen a reason to hope.

But now on the day of his announcement, Ball wondered if he’d told his teammates the truth. “When he woke up that morning, he was leaving,” says Ball’s father, Montee Sr. Yet an hour after rising, Ball changed his mind. He could still get better, he thought. NFL evaluators had graded him a third-rounder, and with another year in college, he could prove himself worthy of a higher pick. Then news broke of a mass exodus of Badgers assistant coaches, and as Ball rode with his parents to the press conference, he decided that if the coaches were leaving, maybe he should leave, too. Panic rose and nerves set in, and Ball asked his parents to stop at a McDonald’s so he could think. After sitting in silence, Ball changed his mind one last time. He couldn’t go back on what he’d promised his teammates. Even though the bulk of the team’s offensive talent was NFL-bound, Ball would stay behind.

He arrived on campus and took his seat before the cameras. “To the entire Wisconsin nation,” he said, “I will be returning for my senior season.”

The room fell silent. A television camerawoman turned around to look at Ball’s parents, eyes wide. Reporters paused before asking questions. “I think people were like, ‘Is he serious?'” Ball remembers. “That moment was so, so awkward.”

You could call it awkward or shocking or, if so inclined, stupid. The list of running backs who peak in their mid-20s is long, and NFL teams have grown wary of awarding healthy contracts to ball carriers who may already be in decline. “It’s tough,” says Ball. “You could say that people see running backs as kind of — I don’t know how to say it — kind of expendable in a way. We’re a play away from going down, and teams see a certain history, and that affects the way they think. I had to educate myself on all of that.”

Only two years ago, Ball faced a similar decision — over quitting his position, his team, or both. On October 16, 2010, he stood on the field as fans rushed past him, climbing the goalposts and gathering at the 50-yard-line to celebrate the Badgers’ upset of top-ranked Ohio State. Ball looked on, smiling but dazed. His team had just beaten the best team in the country, but they’d done it without any help from him.

He was neither hurt nor suspended. On this night, the Badgers simply had no use for Ball. He had zero carries. He hadn’t even stepped onto the field. For the first time in his life, he suited up for a football game without playing a single down.

Leaving the stadium, Ball sat silent in the back of his parents’ car. More than a decade before, they had decided that wherever he went to play college football, they would follow. Ball sees his parents once or twice a week, often for Sunday dinners or immediately following Saturday games. Now, while the rest of Madison celebrated, Ball rode to his parents’ house in the suburbs.

First, he felt frustrated. “What did I do wrong?” Then, angry. “The coaches are playing favorites. They could have at least put me in for one snap.” Finally, as they pulled up to their home, he felt defeated. “I’ll change positions. If they don’t want me at running back, I’ll move to linebacker.” His parents listened while Ball vented. “Go to bed,” his father said, finally. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

Over breakfast, Ball’s father told him to blame only himself. “Those coaches have to feed their families,” he said. “They’re going to do whatever it takes to win. If you give them the best chance to win, they’ll play you. Obviously, they don’t think that’s the case.” The elder Ball also talked his son out of changing positions. “You’ve always been a running back,” Ball Sr. said. “That’s just who you are. You can’t give up on your position coach and the other running backs and yourself just because you didn’t get to play in one game.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had already begun to worry about Ball’s future with the program. “I had my eye on him that night,” Bielema says. “I knew that wasn’t going to sit too well with him, and I was worried we were going to lose him — whether as a transfer or just, you know, losing him emotionally.” Bielema asked an assistant to talk to Ball, but by the time Ball showed up for the team’s Sunday meetings, he’d calmed down. “Anytime football gets taken away from Montee,” Bielema says, “he comes back stronger.”

The next week, John Clay and James White, both of whom were ahead of Ball on the depth chart, left a game against Iowa with injuries. With 1:06 left, Ball ran 8 yards for the game-winning touchdown. For the next year and a half, Ball never looked back, becoming the most prolific running back in the country. He averaged 155 rushing yards per game over the last five games of the 2010 season. When the season ended, Ball decided to lose weight. He spent the summer jogging to and from workouts, eating little aside from baked potatoes and cottage cheese (“Absolutely disgusting,” he says), and cutting from 235 pounds to 206.

That fall, he saw the results. With future pros on his offensive line, Ball didn’t have to make people miss often. “I had some big runs where I was just completely untouched,” he says. “Some of the holes were ridiculous.” But when he did need to beat a defender, he now had the quickness to get it done. He rushed for 151 against Nebraska, then topped 100 yards in eight of his team’s last nine games, surpassing 200 twice.

Ball was named a Heisman Trophy finalist, alongside Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, and Tyrann Mathieu. “I knew the whole time that I was the underdog, that I just needed to enjoy the experience and soak it up,” he says. “But then there’s that moment, two seconds before she reads the name on the card, where you realize, ‘Oh, wow, she might be about to say my name.'” Instead, she said Griffin’s.

Months later, Griffin, Luck, and Richardson were selected with the top three picks in the NFL draft. Mathieu was eventually kicked off the team at LSU. Ball would begin the season as the nation’s lone returning Heisman finalist and a preseason favorite for the award. But as soon as the offseason began, Ball’s chances started slipping away.

It started the day he decided to return to school. In total, six assistant coaches announced their departures, including four from the offensive staff. Ball watched as his team’s two best linemen went in the first two rounds of the draft, followed shortly by quarterback Russell Wilson, receiver Nick Toon, and blocking fullback Bradie Ewing. Midway through spring practice, it became clear: “We were going to have some struggles,” says Bielema. “You see the ball get snapped, and Montee has someone in his lap from the moment he touches the ball.”

In May, Madison hosted the Mifflin Street Block Party, an annual event begun in the 1960s as an occasion for protest and continued today as an occasion for student-body drunkenness. Bielema didn’t ban his players from attending — “I’m not that guy,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — but he did advise them, if you go, “You’ve got to be aware.”

Ball went. “I’m a college kid,” he says. “I look out my window and see 20,000 people in the street [police estimated the attendance was closer to 5,000], and it’s a nice day, I’m going down there to check it out.” He arrived to a party where beers were poured from balconies and shots were set up on planks, with students and police eyeing each other in advance of the inevitable arrests. The way Ball tells it, at some point in the afternoon, one of his friends was called onto a porch. Ball followed. He hadn’t seen the No Trespassing sign erected by the home’s owner, but when she opened her front door to complain, Ball was standing right in front of her. “Literally,” he says, “wrong place, wrong time.” Minutes later, he was arrested. Minutes after that, a photo of Ball in handcuffs started making the rounds on Twitter. In all, more than 400 people were arrested at the block party, as has become Madison tradition. But only Ball earned the privilege of being labeled a “thug” on message boards.

“He doesn’t understand that he’s famous,” says Ball’s father, who insists the Mifflin incident was the only time Ball has ever been in trouble in his life. “He’s always had the mind-set: ‘If I’m not doing anything illegal, I’m OK.’ Well, sometimes you might not think it’s illegal, but it is. And you can’t just do what everybody else is doing. Everybody else isn’t the face of the university.”

Three months later, his offseason got worse. On July 31, less than a week before the start of fall camp, Ball went with a group of teammates to State Street Brats, a downtown Madison institution that serves hangovers with a side of sausage. We’ve got one week until this four-month grind starts, he remembers thinking. So let’s go out, enjoy ourselves. Brendan Gould, a University of Wisconsin–La Crosse student who was in Madison that night, noticed Ball at the bar. “He looked like he was in a great mood,” says Gould. “He was smiling, talking to a lot of people. There was a group of girls surrounding him and a few other guys. Nothing crazy at all, just laughing, having a good time.”

Ball says that around 2 a.m., after being at the bar for 45 minutes, he got tired and decided to go home. He walked down Frances Street and turned left on University — down a block with bars and a liquor store, all neon signs and walls of washed-out brick.

At this point in the story, Ball’s mind goes blank, so he doesn’t remember that a man shouted “Montee!” and that when he turned around, someone punched him in the face. Nor does he remember the screams from onlookers or kicks to his torso, or the fact that another UW student, Christina Kukowski, threw herself on top of Ball to make the attackers stop.

From across the street, Gould saw Ball getting pounded. “I had no idea who it was,” says Gould. “It’s not like it was a fight. It was one guy on the ground getting the shit beat of him.” Gould ran toward the scene immediately, and as soon as he and others approached, the five attackers ran. After chasing them for a few seconds, Gould returned to the scene. “Only then did I realize,” he says. “‘Holy shit. That’s Montee Ball.'”

The assembled group positioned Ball with his legs up, so blood would flow to his head. As an ambulance approached, onlookers asked Ball questions to gauge his mental capacities. Someone asked, “How old are you?” Ball mumbled, “Eighteen.” (He was, and still is, 21.)

The ambulance arrived, and emergency personnel took Ball to the hospital. Gould left, but ran into the attackers again later that night. “At that point, they were calm,” he says. “They made it clear they didn’t have a problem with me or anything. It was pretty clear they only wanted to get Montee.” Like several other witnesses, Gould later talked with police. He described the attackers’ appearance and offered a clue that pointed to a motive. As one of the biggest assailants ran away from the block where the assault took place, he’d shouted to whomever could hear, “One football player down! Nine to go!”

After being discharged from the hospital, Ball spent the night at his girlfriend’s house. When he awoke, his brain concussed and his face badly swollen from the previous night’s blows, he was too disoriented to be angry. “He could barely understand what had even happened,” says his father. “He didn’t know who to be angry at.” As the days passed, however, facts emerged to help Ball’s frustration take shape.

Reporters asked him about the incident, but Ball had been asked by investigators not to reveal details. “They’re asking me questions, and I can’t answer,” he says. “So then it turns from, ‘What happened?,’ to people asking each other, ‘Well, why was he out?’ ‘What was he doing?’ ‘What does he think is going to happen when it’s two o’clock in the morning?'”

“The whole thing turned so quickly into, ‘Is Montee a good kid?'” remembers Bielema. “That was the most frustrating thing about all of it. You’ve got this guy who’s hurt, who’s been through something awful, and now people are asking me if he’s a good kid? Are you serious? He’s just about the best kid I got.”

Police began investigating another fight that Ball witnessed less than a week before he was attacked. “It was in a room just like this one,” Ball says as we’re sitting in the living room of his downtown Madison apartment one night in late October. “In fact, it was in this building, just a few floors down.” He stands up, remembering the night of July 27. “Me and James [White, his roommate and backup] are standing over here” — he gestures to the far corner of the room — “just talking, whatever. I remember seeing these three guys walk in, and I didn’t think anything of it. But all of a sudden people are screaming, and I turn around and there’s a fight in the kitchen. The lady who lives in the apartment screams for all of the people fighting to get out. Then pretty much right after that she kicks everybody else out. So we leave. That was it.”

The party’s host, Ball says, took her frustrations to Twitter and mentioned Ball by name. He says that one Wisconsin player, who was later disciplined privately by the team, was involved in the fight. According to police reports, Ball had indeed been a bystander at the first incident, which was linked to his subsequent assault. On August 28, police arrested three of the five alleged attackers, all 21-year-old Wisconsin students. “What I still can’t figure out is, did those guys think I was in the fight?” he says. “I got really angry, because I wasn’t.” I mentioned the fact that one of the attackers shouted something about having nine football players to go. “If they thought there were 10 football players in that fight, they weren’t too bright, or they couldn’t count, or something. There’s no way anyone could have seen it and thought there were that many involved.”

“Or maybe they knew I wasn’t involved?” he says. “Maybe they just wanted to get football players. Maybe that’s all it was. That would make me even more angry.” He stops, takes a deep breath, and sticks his plastic fork into the Styrofoam container holding his post-practice chicken. “I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “I just know it was a rough, rough summer.”

When fall began, Ball’s life improved, but not by much. He missed the beginning of fall camp while recovering from the concussion he suffered during the attack. The Badgers opened their season with a 26-21 win over FCS opponent Northern Iowa, then suffered the upset the next week at Oregon State. Against the Beavers, Ball rushed for 61 yards on 15 carries, his lowest output in nearly two years. No longer surrounded by All-Americans and future pros, Ball looked ordinary, nothing like the man who’d tied Sanders’s record the year before.

“I think Ball had an adjustment to make,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay told reporters in a conference call earlier this season. “I made the analogy comparison to flying first class your whole life, and you get thrown back into seat 28B with peanuts. He was so used to knowing where the hole was going to open up, when it was going to open up, exactly when his guard was going to be pulling through the hole … This year he comes in, and all of a sudden his guards are pulling late. Their angles aren’t correct. They’re three yards deeper in their own backfield, and he’s having to make a decision whether to almost come to a screeching halt and having to start back up or to ditch his convoy and do it on his own. So early on, he was frustrated.”

After Ball spent the flight home from Oregon State wondering if he’d made the wrong decision, the season got worse. The next week, Wisconsin barely beat Utah State. The week after that, Ball rushed for only 40 yards against UTEP before leaving the game with concussion-like symptoms. Against Nebraska the following week, Wisconsin trailed 30-27 with little more than a minute to go. On 4th-and-1, a fumbled handoff to Ball (there was a mix-up; the play was supposed to be a pass) ended the Badgers’ chances.

Two weeks later, Ball attended a team Bible study the night before a game against Purdue. Ball, whose family is religious, had never been to the meeting, but he knew that anytime a player went for the first time, he was expected to explain why he felt compelled to attend. Ball told his teammates that he’d begun doubting the existence of God, and that his crisis of faith had left him rootless and confused. “I don’t know why, but for some reason, ever since I started feeling that way, I had gotten a little lazy,” he says. “Just a little bit. I mean, I always work hard, but something in me wasn’t doing what I knew I need to be doing.”

The other attendees prayed for Ball. “It was just important for me to get that out,” he says. “Just to express what I’ve been dealing with instead of bottling it up, to start talking and thinking about all of it.”

The next day, Ball rushed for 247 yards. A week later against Minnesota, he gained 166 more. After a down week in a loss to Michigan State, he put up 198 yards last Saturday in a division-clinching win over Indiana. Despite an unstable quarterback situation (the Badgers have had three different starters so far), changes in the coaching staff (the offseason changes weren’t all — Bielema fired the offensive line coach after the Oregon State loss), and an inexperienced offensive line, Ball’s stats are similar to last season. (Through 10 games last year, he had 1,242 rushing yards and 23 TDs; this year he has 1,226 rushing yards and 16 TDs.)

Bielema insists that Ball is a better running back this year than he was last year. “That’s not just coming from me; that’s coming from NFL people who are talking to me about him,” he says. “He’s stronger, he’s more physical, he’s more complete. He’s popped a couple guys this year, and I still don’t know if they’ve gotten back up.”

McShay thinks Ball’s inferior supporting cast has forced him to improve. “When you get to the NFL, it’s not all going to be first class,” he said in the conference call. “You’ve got to create yards on your own. You’ve got to deal with broken assignments … with great players on the defensive front that penetrate and disrupt and force you to make a jump cut or force you to adjust early in your run, and he’s doing that … If anything, it may help his draft stock a little bit.”

Back in his apartment, Ball walks to the balcony and looks out as the sun sets behind downtown Madison. He points down at the street. Right there, he says, is where he ran in the summer of 2011 to lose weight, preparing for his run at the Heisman. Over there, to the right, that’s where he got jumped, left mute and confused, his face puffed up like a misshapen balloon. And then over there, to the left, is the stadium where he stood in anger two years ago after the Badgers had beaten Ohio State, the same stadium he turned into his personal stage just weeks later.

On Saturday, Wisconsin will host the Buckeyes. Once again, OSU will be undefeated. Once again, Wisconsin will be looking for a signature win. But this time, Ball knows he will play — no doubt about that. If he performs, his team could win. If he doesn’t, the upset of 2010 will almost surely go unrepeated. Largely due to sanctions against both the Buckeyes and Penn State, the Badgers have already clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game. But over the next three weeks (UW will play the Nittany Lions after OSU and before the conference championship game), Ball can determine whether his final Wisconsin team goes down as a model of resilience or a group of underachievers.

“For me, personally, it would be something like closure, for me in my journey, if we were able to get that win,” he says of the Ohio State game. “We’re hoping, I’m hoping, they stay undefeated. We’re hoping they roll in here for a repeat.”

So far, Ball has gotten his wish. The Buckeyes will arrive at Camp Randall Stadium tomorrow 10-0. As for the rest, that’s up to him.