Monday, December 09, 2013

For Montee Ball, determination and perseverance paying off

Broncos running back Montee Ball enjoyed his finest game as a rookie last Sunday, when he gained 117 yards on 13 carries for a 9.0-yard average in a 35-28 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)

By Joan Niesen
December 8, 2013

His father is a graphics designer. His mother works in customer service. The kid's no genetic freak, hardly bred for football greatness. He's just another kid with a dream, as improbable as the next.

Eight-year-old Montee Ball doesn't know it's improbable, though. He doesn't know that Wentzville, Mo., is hardly prime football recruiting territory, or to play a sport at its highest level requires as much talent as it does determination. He doesn't know that a decade and a half later, he'll be paired with arguably the greatest quarterback of a generation, a man who might as well have been raised on another planet, or that their unlikely partnership might help him climb out of the struggles of a tough rookie year.

He just knows he's going to play in the NFL.

When Ball was in second grade, his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer came fast and sure: Football player. The NFL.

"She was like, 'That's good, but think of something else you want to do, because the percentage is extremely low,' " Ball said. "But ... my dad always told me, if you have a backup plan, you've already failed."

Ball hasn't needed that backup plan. It didn't matter that he couldn't play running back until he was 12 and he was finally under the weight limit required to touch the ball. It didn't matter that when he showed up to Timberland High School the summer before his freshman year, he was just a big back with potential, and that it took his coach, Craig Collins, another two years to realize Ball was a major college talent.

It didn't matter that when he went to Wisconsin for college, he was third on the Badgers' depth chart, then still a backup as a sophomore. It didn't matter, because Ball was going to play in the NFL.

By his junior year, Ball was a human highlight reel. He set NCAA record after NCAA record, most notably scoring 39 touchdowns as a junior to tie Barry Sanders for the most ever in a single season. Ball was the littlest big man on a campus known for producing cornfed lineman, eventually going in the second round to the Broncos — his favorite team as a child — in the 2013 NFL draft.

But the fairy tale ends there, or perhaps it breaks for intermission. Ball's rookie season — until last Sunday — has been marred by fumbles and time on the bench. But, after rushing for 117 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ball the Broncos staked their second-round pick on seems to be surfacing.

"Montee has been thrown into the fire as a rookie," Manning said. "He's certainly made some mistakes, like all rookies do, all players do. I'm still waiting for somebody to break my NFL record for interceptions as a rookie. Got to be a 16-game starter to do it, though."

On paper, it's an unlikely pairing, Manning and Ball, but in reality, these are two of the most single-minded, goal-oriented players on the Broncos.

Since the start of training camp, Manning has pulled Ball aside at practices to offer suggestions. He's helped slowed down the game for him, Ball said, although the rookie still struggles to stay on the wavelength of a four-time MVP.

"I'm trying to catch up to how he sees the game, but as a running back," Ball said. "Obviously it's different as a quarterback. All I can say is he's really helped me take every play for what it is."

Even now, Manning and the Broncos are still learning exactly what kind of player Ball can be. At Wisconsin, he rarely caught passes, but turns out, he's a better receiver than the Broncos imagined. He rarely had to block in college, but when asked to do it, he's exceeded expectations too. Most important, he's putting his mistakes behind him.

"I think it's just kind of unwrapping the whole gift of what he can do," running backs coach Eric Studesville said.

For a player whose name dots the NCAA record books, the past has somehow become irrelevant. This is a new world, light years from that far-out St. Louis suburb and the comfort of Madison. Ball isn't dwelling on it, though.

After all, he didn't tell that teacher he wanted to be a college star. He told her NFL, and here he is, that improbable goal unfolding in front of him.

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