Oct. 27, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- Tuesday’s developmental practice was intended to be a padded work day for UW freshmen who are redshirting and anybody else who didn’t see extended game action at Iowa. But when a couple of young running backs weren’t cleared medically, the coaching staff was forced to go with a Plan B.
B stands for Ball.
Montee Ball, who was not originally scheduled to take part in the practice.
“Coach came up to me and said, ‘How do you feel?’” Ball related. “I told him, ‘I feel good.’ So I went out there and did a little bit. It was a chance to get some extra work, and I love that.”
That’s how Ball has attacked the job, even when he didn’t have one.
Despite scoring the game-winning touchdown against the Hawkeyes and being named the team’s co-offensive MVP with quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 19-year-old Ball realizes that there are no guarantees of a job. Especially since he’s still the third tailback behind John Clay and James White.
“I pray for James to come back and I know he will,” Ball said of White, a UW freshman, who was injured (knee sprain) in the first half at Iowa. “Once he comes back, he deserves his spot back because of what he has been doing over and over and over. I have yet to show that consistency.”
During Tuesday’s practice, Ball shared reps with Zach Brown, a three-year letterwinner, who’s redshirting because of the surplus of running backs. Brown knows what it’s like to lose playing time after starting five of the first six games last season. So, he shared some of his experiences with Ball.
“The same thing that happened to him last year happened to me this year,” said Ball who moved ahead of Brown and took over as the No. 2 tailback during the second half of the 2009 season. “He told me, ‘Always stay ready because as fast as you lost it (a spot) you can get it back.’”
When things weren’t going his way, Ball had some other people in his corner, namely his mom Melissa and dad Montee Sr. The Ball family – including 10-year-old Aireamma and 22-year-old Ashley – made the move from Wentzville, Mo., to Middleton when Montee enrolled as a UW freshman.
“When adversity struck, I went and talked to my parents; they’re only 11 minutes away,” said Montee Ball, who lives in an apartment with fellow teammates Devin Smith and Josh Peprah. “When I’d start doubting myself and my performance, which is human nature, they’d tell me, ‘God always has a plan for people. So keep your head on right and just keep fighting and fighting and you’ll get your shot.’”
Thing is, Ball never had to fight for a job at Timberland High School, where he was a starter, a captain and the team MVP as a sophomore, junior and senior. “So I had no adversity at all,” Ball said. “You’re the starter, you’re going to play, nobody is going to take your spot. But here, people are coming in every year to take your spot. When James White came in, I didn’t know how to handle it at first.”
Slowly, but surely, he came to grips with his situation. And he thought about different ways he could still be contributing. That included asking UW coach Bret Bielema if he could be on special teams. “I just wanted an opportunity to get on the field,” Ball said, “and he was thinking the same thing.”
Ball, though, did not play a snap in Wisconsin’s upset of No. 1-ranked Ohio State. That led to a discussion with his position coach, John Settle. “I had a few questions,” Ball said. “But I was basically letting him know that I was still committed to the team 100 percent. I told him, ‘I’m not going anywhere and I’m ready – whenever my number is called – to go in and produce.’”
The Badgers desperately needed No. 28 last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium after White went down with the injury and Ball, true to his word, responded with a team-high five catches for 41 yards and three rushes for 18. How did Ball stay mentally and physical ready when he wasn’t playing?
“Practice,” he said. “I knew I had to get better, and I had to stay hungry. I just practiced real hard and stayed focused. Coming off the Ohio State game, I wasn’t expecting to play at Iowa. But I still had to stay ready for a situation like what happened to James. So when he was injured, I starting snapping in mentally, going through everything in my head because I knew I was going to be called on.”
Ball didn’t disappoint, particularly on his memorable 8-yard touchdown run with 66 seconds left. “I saw a little crease and hit it,” Ball said. “I thought I’d probably get a couple of yards. But, all of a sudden, they tried stripping the ball from me and they weren’t really focused on making the tackle.”
All he could think about was making sure “my feet are still going, my feet are still going.”
As he neared the goal line, Ball instinctively extended the football to break the plane.
“Bad idea,” he said. “You don’t reach for a touchdown.”
While the play was being reviewed, what was going through his mind?
“Oh, my goodness, I knew we were in enemy territory,” he said of Iowa City, “and you never know what the refs are going to call. So I was very nervous.”
The ruling? Touchdown.
Later that night, he got text messages from high school friends who were celebrating Missouri’s upset of No. 1-ranked Oklahoma. But they were just as excited to turn on ESPN’s SportsCenter and see Montee Ball fighting through gridlock to get into the end zone. Not a bad Plan B.