Aug. 12, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin assistant coach Thomas Hammock surveyed his team meeting room and had each of his running backs stand and speak to what they had seen in the early practices, what they had to work on and where they thought the focus needed to be moving forward.
Although he had yet to take the field because of injuries sustained during an Aug. 1 assault, Montee Ball occupied his normal seat in the front of the room. And that’s how he wanted to treat everything now: he wanted to be upfront with his teammates, so he spoke up.
“Honestly, it was a spur of the moment thing,’’ Ball said. “I stood up and apologized for the situation and what they’ve had to deal with. I also told them, ‘I’m all in to win with you guys.’ I just felt it was the time to say that just so everyone knows, ‘I’m all in.’’’
While Hammock can be one of the most persuasive and forceful assistants on Bret Bielema’s coaching staff, particularly on the practice field, Ball insisted that Hammock “did not ask me to say that’’ to the group. Instead, it was Ball’s idea to speak from the heart.
Afterward he admitted, “I did feel better. That’s why I can’t wait to talk to the entire team.’’
That was scheduled for Friday night following the first practice in full gear. During training camp, Bielema likes to set aside some time slots after dinner -- open forums -- which are the equivalent of “open mics’’ for players who want to get up and address whatever crosses their mind.
“It can be a quote,’’ Ball said, “Or it can be one word.’’
It can be frivolous. Or, it can be thought-provoking.
Ball conceded that he was a little nervous “because I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone and speaking to over 100 people and that’s most definitely different. But it needs to be done. Right now, it’s kind of lingering and I want to get up there and tell everybody the situation I’ve had to deal with.’’
More importantly, he would tell them, “I apologize for the distraction. Obviously, it’s another unfortunate situation for me, but I just want to make sure that you know that I don’t want to create a distraction for this team. I apologize to you guys because you’ve had to deal with the situation a little bit, too. But let’s put this behind us and focus on the training camp and our season.’’
What’s lingering is what happened to Ball in the early morning hours of Aug. 1. According to police reports, Ball was attacked by five assailants who knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Ball suffered a concussion and some facial injuries and was treated and released from the hospital.
The 21-year-old Ball said that he was out with some friends on what was one of their final football-free evenings before the start of training camp. At the end of the night, he was walking back to his apartment in a well-lit and populated campus area.
“I was a block away from my place,’’ he said.
That’s when he got jumped.
“That’s all I remember,’’ Ball said.
There has been speculation that the attack on Ball is connected to an earlier altercation at a July 28 party which was attended by some members of the football team. Ball was at the party but said that he was a bystander. He has steadfastly denied that he had words with anyone, or fought with anyone, or had anything to do with an incident which resulted in an undisclosed injury to an unnamed individual.
“People who know me -- who really know who I am -- know that I’m not the type of person to be out causing trouble,’’ Ball said.
Ball realizes that some might question why he was out at 2:15 a.m. the night he was assaulted.
“Obviously, as a leader on this team, I shouldn’t have been out,’’ he said. “But I was out with a couple of good friends and we were having a good time when I decided to go home and I got attacked.’’
In retrospect, he was grateful that the injuries weren’t more severe.
“I’ve been counting my blessings, for sure,’’ he said. “When you’re attacked by five people, the odds are not in your favor that you’re going to be able to walk away. I feel really blessed.’’
When Ball addressed his teammates, he referenced “another unfortunate incident’’ -- the Mifflin Street block party in early May. More than 400 were arrested. Ball was fined for trespassing. He’s aware of the fact that some have tried to connect the dots and draw conclusions about him.
“Living in a fishbowl is something that I have to deal with and Mifflin Street was most definitely a lesson because I was big news for getting a trespassing ticket,’’ said Ball, who reiterated, “People who know me (he paused) know who I am and what type of kid I am. At least I hope they do. I don’t have a mask on. I’ve been this person since I was born; the same person my whole life. But it was unfortunate for me to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You never want it to happen to you. But it did, and there’s nothing I can do about it, except learn from it. You have to live and learn -- it’s part of growing up. This was a painful learning experience but I’ve learned a very valuable lesson from the situation.’’
Among other things, Ball said that he has learned “how much I have to realize that people know me as soon as I step outside the door, and they’re going to see if I do anything out of the ordinary.’’
Former UW teammate Nick Toon reminded him of the challenges of carrying a high profile. Toon is the son of former NFL star Al Toon, so he has essentially grown up in the spotlight.
“Nick just basically said what everyone else was saying,’’ Ball said, “he told me that you’ve got to understand that you’re in the public eye and you’re under a microscope.
“That can be very difficult for someone of my age to understand. But everything that happened I believe happened for a reason. So I’m able to accept it now and move on.’’
Toon was not the only one to reach out to Ball and offer their support. He also heard from former UW tailback Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner. Dayne lives in the Madison area.
“He said that he’d come up here (Camp Randall Stadium) and we’d be able to talk face to face,’’ Ball said. “He gave me some wise words and I’m really looking forward to talking to him in person.’’
Ball said that he also received a supportive text from the uncle of Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman winner. As one of the award’s finalists, Ball and RG3 hit it off in New York City last December.
His uncle’s message, Ball said, was to “Stay strong and have faith. We know that you will come back stronger from this. Keep your head in it, and stay right because you’ll be up here with us (in time).’’
Griffin, a first round draft pick, is now the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
Immediately after the assault, Ball got the greatest support and strength from his mom and dad, Melissa and Montee Sr., and from his girlfriend, AnneMarie.
“They helped me out the most,’’ he said.
Three years ago, the Ball family left their home in Wentzville, Mo., 35 miles outside of St. Louis, and relocated to Middleton to be closer to Montee. They now live in Sun Prairie.
Montee’s younger sister, Airenna, is a seventh grader. His older sister, Ashley, 23, didn’t initially move away from Wentzville. But she wound up transferring to Edgewood College in Madison last year.
Family ties have always been important to Montee Ball.
“I was most definitely feeling the after-effects (from the assault) the first few days,’’ he said, admitting to being in somewhat of a fog. “But I had a lot of family members calling me, texting me, shooting me messages on Facebook and Twitter. All of that made me feel really good about myself.
“Also I want to thank all the fans in the Badger family. I’ve received words of encouragement from people who were concerned about my health. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. One of the reasons I came back for my senior year was because of the great support here.’’
Bielema, obviously, has been a key figure in Ball’s recovery. So has his position coach, Hammock, who re-emphasized the importance of prioritizing everything in his life, especially his goals. “Not that he was saying that I don’t already do that, or that they’re out of order,’’ Ball said.
Hammock has a way of cutting to the chase. “He was just bringing me back,’’ Ball said, “telling me, ‘You’ve got to get back to work and once all this cools down, you have to put your blinders on, block out everything, focus on what you need to do, keep your mouth shut and just go home and disappear.’’
Ready to make a return
Right now, Ball wants to get back on the field.
“It’s tough seeing the other players out there -- working and sweating and all that stuff -- and you’re sitting on the sidelines,’’ said Ball, adding that the medical staff “is taking small steps to bring me back just to be smart about it.’’
Ball took part in a walk-through with the offense Friday morning and has been able to participate in conditioning and some light drills the past couple of days.
“I’ve been able to work on the (stationary) bike and jog around the field,’’ he said. “That’s just to get my heart rate up to see how I’m handling it and to see if anything has changed with my symptoms.
“Because of my concussion, I’ve taken some physical tests and some impact tests, which focus on your reaction time and memory. The first time wasn’t too good. But I’ve improved a lot since then.’’
“The weird thing is that I haven’t had any headaches,’’ he said. “At first, I was a little blurry. I felt slowed down and I was sleeping a lot more than usual. But I’ve felt great the last three days. My sleeping patterns are back to normal; I’m not sluggish, I’m not foggy, or anything like that.’’
Ball felt good after taking a final exam in a summer school class on Thursday.
“It all started to come back to me,’’ he said.
Patience, he knows, is the operative word while waiting to get medical clearance to practice.
“Once I get the pads on and I start running, they’ll see how I am,’’ Ball said. “I’m going to try and push the issue and see if they’ll let me do some individual drills with the running backs just so I can get back into the feel of playing football.
“As far as contact, that’s up to Coach B (Bielema). He’ll probably limit me during camp. But I’d definitely like to get hit a little bit to get back into the feel of my position.’’
After Friday’s practice, Bielema said of Ball’s timetable, “Next week we’ll probably break him in, keep him in a green jersey out of contact for another week; then two weeks out from the (opening) game, we’ll hit the ground running.’’
How much will it take for Ball to get back on track physically?
“Obviously taking 10 days off from running, you’re going to lose a little bit (in conditioning),’’ Ball said. “But I believe with my mentality and the great training staff that we have here, I’ll be able to jump right back into practice. Coach Hammock is not going to let me get out of shape.’’
Does Ball feel like he’s nearly back to being himself?
“I’m most definitely back, but it’s taken a while,’’ he confided. “Sitting out from practice is different for me. But I’m not worried about it. Once I start up, I’m going to be 100 percent, full throttle.
“They say it’s hard to get into shape, but easy to get out of shape. In my situation, I don’t think I’ve lost what I had from last season. I’ve been building on it since the Rose Bowl.
“I believe three weeks will be enough to get right back into it (before the Sept.1 opener against Northern Iowa) and I can take off from there. You always want to start out (the season) with a bang.’’
Ball has tried to not get ahead of himself. That’s where Bielema’s signature “1-and-0’’ mentality has had the most application.
“It’s really one of the great mottos,’’ Ball said, “because you have to approach every day for what it is and how it presents itself and make sure you do a great job that day.’’
In turn, he added, “You look forward to the next day before you go to sleep.’’
Ball is in that mode, again, especially now that he’s back to horsing around with one of his closest friends on the team, James White, a junior tailback from Florida.
“We’re back to cracking jokes and making fun of teammates,’’ said Ball, who will be living with White this fall. “At the same time, they’re making fun of us in the running back group.’’
That, he said, got him back to business as usual.
In this respect, Ball will take questions from the media for the first time Sunday.
“It’s going to be a challenge but I’m looking forward to it,’’ he said, suggesting that it’s another step in returning his life to normalcy. “I just want to get back to where I was before all of this happened; I just want to get back to being myself, smiling and having a good time.’’
Ball is not the type to live his life by looking over his shoulder.
“I do know the microscope on me is bigger,’’ he said. “I’ve talked to my parents and the coaches about it and we agreed how to handle it: you don’t react to the situation, you respond to it. Everybody is going to see how I’m going to respond in game one.
“My focus is on the stadium, my schoolwork, my house, my parents, my family, and that’s it. I’m going to focus on what I need to do, and how I respond.
“This will all make me stronger.’’