Montee Ball had an up-and-down senior season coming off a record-breaking junior year. He'll finally be headed to the NFL after the Rose Bowl, leaving Wisconsin in a time of upheaval.
Montee Ball committed to Wisconsin in the summer of 2008, and stayed committed during UW's four straight losses, 7-5 regular season record and ugly loss to Florida State in the Champ Sports Bowl. He didn't commit to the home-state Missouri Tigers, a squad that had been ranked as high as No. 2 in the Coaches' poll that year. Ball was lured, in large part, by Wisconsin's run-first tradition.
"Everything fits me perfectly," Ball said. "I love the academics. I love the environment, and I love how I fit their offense."
He turned down from offers from Nebraska and Stanford, too, though in fairness neither program was particularly strong at the time. Nor was Ball very highly sought after. He was a four-star recruit according to Rivals.com, but barely. He was the last prep running back to earn the designation in the Class of 2009, ranking as the 33rd-best back in the country. Outside of Missouri, Wisconsin was the only other team to offer Ball that finished the 2007 or 2008 season ranked in either poll. He was a sub-elite player committing to a sub-elite team. It was an marriage of two non-ugly people, and everyone agreed it was adorable. The shockwaves stopped at Columbia, 84 miles from Wentzville, MO.
I was in my most advanced stages of don't-give-a-damn during Ball's freshman season. I was traipsing around France instead, taking full advantage of a grotesque number of federally-mandated holidays from a job teaching English for 12 hours a week. In that time, I was only vaguely aware that Wisconsin had a quarterback that didn't induce cringing. The win over Miami in the Champ Sports Bowl now stands as a turning point in the Bret Bielema era, but I missed it. I was in Prague, you see, and there were these Swedish women there. If there was some sign of impending greatness in Ball's 61 yards rushing then, I am unaware.
Ball entered my consciousness at a low point, and right on time.
Coming back from an exotic place, I had a notion that I was somebody important, somebody who could be a writer, maybe, or if not then perhaps someone who could work in finance, or marketing, or some other industry that seemed to pay a lot of real money to make fake money.
It didn't work out for me like that, just as it doesn't for the countless others who suffer, at some length, through a mid-20s malaise. I got a job taking customer service calls at an auto parts company instead. I was awful at it, because I didn't know anything about cars and because I didn't know how to end a bad phone call without apologizing for five minutes. Correctable problems, but in my naivety I mistook them for total incompetence at what I wrongly supposed was a menial job. Most days I left work in a funk.
I missed the first half of the 2010 Iowa game covering a Saturday shift. Early in the morning, I had a phone slammed on me by a deep-voiced woman I had just called "sir" for the 10th time. I was too frazzled to do anything competently the rest of the day. I went to the closest bar after work to catch what I could of the game. Shockingly, drinking alone didn't help me much.
The game was a classic, however. Wisconsin kept possession in the fourth quarter on a fake punt. Brad Nortman simply took the snap, faked the kick for all of two steps then took off running for a 17-yard gain. It was a simple design, tailored to work against a head coach who has yet to meet a yard-line he can't punt from.
Wisconsin made its way down to the 8-yard line. Ball was in the game for John Clay. Ball had just rushed for eight yards on what was his second carry of the game, so the coaches decided to roll with the fresh set of legs. I like to think that running backs coach John Settle and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst simultaneously noticed a gleam in Ball's eye, nodded knowingly at one another, and with no words exchanged agreed that No. 28 was getting the football on the next play.
Ball scored. Of course he did. Plowing through five defenders, he eventually fell, somehow, with his knees off the ground just long enough so that he could stretch the ball just past the plane of the end zone. The play, then, was one of the greatest single exertions of will I had ever seen on a football field. We know now that is just what Montee Ball does.
That play didn't help me find a better job, a significant other, or peace of any kind. It did provide the winning margin in a pivotal game during Wisconsin's run to the first of three-straight Rose Bowls, and it did make me very happy. The bartender gave me a shot of something red and poisonous and free. I threw it down just fine.
Montee Ball stayed at Wisconsin for what may prove to be another six-loss season. When he made his decision to return for a senior season just after the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, after tying Barry Sanders' touchdown record, I was sure he was wrong. I was even more sure after he was mugged on University Avenue. I was even more sure when he looked uncertain of himself running behind the Mike Markuson version of the offensive line early in the season.
Ball averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry four times this season. Three of those instances came within the first five games of the season. Assign the blame as you will among himself, the coaching staff and the offensive line, but Ball looked incompetent to kick off what was supposed to be a Heisman campaign. He got his groove back beginning with the Illinois game, but overtime losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State made certain that the awkwardness never dissipated. Ball could have been making a healthy sum in the NFL. Instead, he was outshined by Zach Zwinak on the day he set the NCAA career touchdown mark.
In place of a triumphant season, Montee Ball got a collection of days. December 1 was the day our August daydreams were fully realized, when the best version of himself ran wild behind an offensive line performing up to the exceptional standards set by past iterations. Ball averaged a season-high 9.6 yards per carry on his way to a fourth career game with over 200 yards rushing. He found the end zone three times, twice in the third quarter. The 57-yard run to give Wisconsin a 56-17 lead was pure selfish satisfaction, complete with a defensive back-humiliating stiff-arm.
Bret Bielema killed the buzz three days later by announcing that he would be coaching at Arkansas next season. Many questioned what the move said about the prestige of the Big Ten versus the SEC, and the prestige of Wisconsin itself. Bielema said he wanted a chance to win a championship. It was a bizarre statement, considering how downright good the 2011 and 2012 squads were. That Russell Wilson-led offense seemed like a dream, but we know it wasn't.
Perhaps Wisconsin is on the brink of realizing how unimportant it really is. The team has outperformed its recruiting rankings for years. If Gary Andersen gets only what people expect out of his players, the Badgers could be about to embark on a run of Gator Bowl appearances.
I like to think that Ball is every reason why Wisconsin won't be irrelevant anytime soon, that his dogged persistence to be something more than a pretty good running back is symbolic of Wisconsin's dogged persistence to be something more than a pretty good football team. I like to think he came back his senior season because his time with Wisconsin really was a perfect marriage, damn the draft risk. I like to think that Wisconsin made Ball as much as Ball made Wisconsin, and that there will be more like him in the years to come.
This isn't a science. Our hopes and expectations are constantly shifting and rarely met, good or bad. The future is always murky, so we hold onto the tangible moments.
Montee Ball will be a former great Wisconsin football player after today, and he made a lot of people profoundly happy throughout his career.