Jan. 5, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Two days before playing in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball felt like he had collected enough information to make a "huge decision that would change the rest of my life.''
Heeding the advice of his mom and dad to "take your time with everything'' and following the lead of UW coaches who "told me to do what is best for you and your family,'' Ball felt like he was ready.
Ready, he said, to "look at myself in the mirror'' and "answer the question'' after much deliberation on whether he should return for his senior year or enter the National Football League draft.
"I believe that I am mentally ready (for the NFL),'' Ball said, "but I think I need to become stronger and faster and I believe another year in the program will most definitely get me to that level.
"I do believe that I need to come back for my degree because education is most important and that will give me another year to become a better football player.
"I believe it's a win-win situation.''
After informing his parents and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema of his decision last Saturday, Ball shared the news with his position coach Thomas Hammock and the other running backs.
"We're a family in the (locker) room,'' Ball explained, "and I told them, `I feel like I should tell you guys before you see it in the media.' They were all extremely supportive of my decision.
"That's why I really cherish our relationships and friendship.''
Following UW's heartbreaking 45-38 loss to Oregon on Monday, Ball observed that "there were a bunch of seniors with tears'' while Bielema was addressing the team.
"Coach B had some words and once he stepped back, he asked, `Does anyone have any questions or concerns?''' Ball recounted. "I raised my hand and asked him if I could speak.
Bielema turned over the floor to Ball, who spoke from his heart.
"This loss stings a lot and I'm sorry for the seniors who have to go out this way,'' he said. "For the juniors, sophomores and freshmen, I want them to know I really cherish playing for this university.
"I really cherish being a Badger and I choose to come back and play my senior year.''
It was a ray of sunshine in a gloomy locker room.
"It was something that I needed to say,'' he confided.
To his thinking, it was just something that he needed to do, too.
"I knew I needed to stay,'' Ball said.
Thus, the Badgers will retain the services of their record-shattering, All-American tailback who had one of the most spectacular seasons in school history and ended up fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
"He made tremendous strides both on and off the field during the offseason a year ago and I expect him to work just as hard this year," Bielema said. "I know he wants to improve not only to make himself a better player but also to help his teammates pursue a third-straight Big Ten title.
"Montee will be one of the top returning players in the country and I know he will thrive with that spotlight on him. It's a credit to Montee that he is willing to accept that challenge and try and help our program continue our success."
He will undoubtedly be one of the nation's top returners next season, but the chance to improve even further helped spur Ball's decision to come back.
"Once I sat back and did my research,'' Ball said, "I realized that with another year in this great football program I believe that I'll become an even better running back.''
Two weeks ago, Ball received the results of his evaluation by the NFL draft advisory board.
"They projected me for the third round,'' he said. "Obviously, I wasn't expecting third round. But by testing well at the combine, I'd maybe be able to get into the late second round.
"That factored into my decision as well. Maybe by adding some weight and getting stronger and faster, maybe I can jump into the second round of maybe even the first round next year.''
Ball seriously considered both sides of the argument to go or stay.
"For the longest time, I was leaning more towards leaving,'' he said, "because growing up as a child it was my dream to play in the NFL.
"I thought, `Man, it's right here. I need to go right now. I need to go when I'm on top, when I'm hot and all of that stuff.'''
But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about the plusses of coming back.
"I believe choosing to stay for my senior year will better my stock for the NFL,'' he said. "Once the time comes, I'll be able to go in fully prepared. But it will also better our program here.''
Melissa and Montee Ball Sr., took the "help yourself and others'' approach with their son.
"That's why I love my parents to death; me and my family are so close,'' he said. "So I started off by talking to them and asking them for their opinions and what they would do in my shoes.
"They told me upfront, `Obviously we'd love for you to complete your dream but the NFL will still be there after your senior season.'''
There were a number of bullet points.
"Stay and get your degree'' his parents recommended.
"Come back and help the program stay on its feet'' they encouraged him.
"Take your time with everything'' they reminded him throughout the decision-making ordeal.
Meanwhile, the UW coaches made sure that Ball knew that "they had his back.''
Citing the input of Bielema, Hammock and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Ball said, "They basically all told me the same thing, `No matter what I choose, they'd be behind me.'
"They each made sure to tell me, `You have to do what is best for you and your family.'''
Despite the fact that Chryst is leaving Wisconsin to run his own program at the University of Pittsburgh, he still had a positive influence on Ball's thought-process and return to the Badgers.
Related Ball, "He said, `You are the only one who knows if you're ready for the NFL or not. So look at yourself in the mirror and answer that question on your own. Basically that's what I did.'''
Ball admitted that he was "caught off guard'' when he learned that UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad would also be joining Chryst's staff in Pittsburgh.
"Once I heard that,'' Ball said, "I thought in the spur of the moment that `I have to leave now.' But once everything died down and the smoke cleared, I sat back and trusted Coach B.
"I trust that he will get just as good of coaches and we'll be as good as we were.''
Bielema played a critical role in helping manage the process for Ball.
"One of the reasons why I chose this football program,'' Ball said, "was because everyone was so upfront and honest with me from the start.
"I don't want to say Coach B is going through a tough time what with losing his offensive coordinator and also his offensive line coach.
"But anybody else in his position I believe would have come up to me and just told me that, `I need you stay in this program.' But he didn't handle it that way.
"Coach B kept telling me that whatever decision that I made that he would be behind me 100 percent. I really respected him for that. We have a great relationship with one another.''
Hammock's impact on Ball's development was also a key piece to the puzzle.
Hammock just completed his first year on the UW staff after replacing John Settle.
"Coach Settle helped get me into the university and helped me with the playbook and helped me become a better football player from high school to college,'' Ball said.
"Once Coach Hammock came in, he brought the aggressive side out of me and really developed me as an overall football player which is something I really needed.
"You can clearly tell (the difference) from my sophomore year to my junior year tape.''
Ball said that he did not talk to former UW tailback Ron Dayne, who elected to return for his senior year in 1999 and wound up winning the Heisman and setting the NCAA career rushing mark.
"I know for a fact,'' Ball noted, "he would have said the same things about taking your time and making sure you do what is best for yourself. You have to be selfish when making this big of a decision.''
While Ball is completing his degree, he will continue to reshape his body in the weight room.
"Right now, I'm at 206 pounds,'' he said. "I'd like to try and get up to 215 or 218 in the spring and get my body used to carrying that weight and try to carry it into the (2012) season.
"I'm going to focus on strengthening every part of my body.''
Ball sounded relived that the process had finally come to an end.
"It's been very emotional, of course,'' he said. "I remember one day I looked at my dad and I told him, `This decision that I'm going to make is going to change my life.
"If I choose to leave, it's going to change my life.
"And if I choose to stay, it will also change my life; the rest of my life.'
"It was a huge, huge decision.
"But like I said a few months ago, `I knew that I was going to make the right decision.'
"The bottom line is that I believe that I did.
"My heart still lies with the Badgers.''