CHICAGO — Montee Ball nearly quit on the Wisconsin Badgers two years ago because he felt they nearly quit on him.
After one of the most impressive wins in Wisconsin history, a 31-18 dismantling of No. 1-ranked Ohio State, the highly decorated running back sat alone in a locker-room corner at Camp Randall Stadium. Ball didn’t play that night, and he pondered his future.
“For a couple of days I was very discouraged,” he said. “I was thinking about switching positions.”
His coach, Bret Bielema, was worried that Ball might switch schools.
“I caught Montee’s eyes in the postgame locker room,” Bielema recalled. “It was on my mind that night because I love the kid, and I want him to have success.
“We’re in a staff meeting the next day and we always go through this process: what’s good, what’s bad, position by position. John Settle was the running back coach at the time, and I looked at Sett and I said, ‘Did you grab Montee after the game?’ He was like, ‘No, but I’m going to after today.’ I knew something was going on there. I didn’t want to get involved in it because I didn’t want him to think it was bigger than it was. It was a good game and a guy didn’t play. But I knew as a running back it was a big deal.”
Ball, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound senior, was at a career crossroads. He could pout and eventually transfer. Or he could examine his approach to football. His family helped him choose the latter, and he’s since reaped the rewards.
Last year he posted one of the best seasons in college history. He scored 39 touchdowns to equal Barry Sanders’ Division I record. Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and earned consensus All-American honors. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist. It’s all because his father compelled him to grow up.
Ball’s parents moved from St. Louis to Sun Prairie, Wis., to closely follow their son through college. Ball’s father, Montee Ball Sr., forced his son in a face-to-face conversation to identify why he wasn’t playing as opposed to blaming his coaches for riding the bench.
“What they told me was you have to be your hardest critic, really watch film and basically tell yourself what you’re not doing right,” Ball said. “That’s basically what I did. I’m really grateful that that happened because I matured.”
“The No. 1 reason Montee is where he is today is because of his father,” Bielema said. “His mother and father. I know they had a conversation. He was going to leave. His dad stuck him to it. Stick it out and see what happens.”
Ball met with his position coach and the situation was settled. But Ball still was third string behind John Clay and James White entering the No. 10 Badgers’ showdown at No. 13 Iowa one week later. Ball wasn’t sure if he’d play, but he still changed his practice habits.
Ball stood on the sidelines until the second quarter against Iowa when White was injured. Ball entered the game to spell Clay until one crucial stretch late in the game. Wisconsin trailed 30-24, and Ball converted a fourth-and-4 with a 7-yard reception.
With the ball on Iowa’s 8 and only 1:13 left in the game, Ball blasted off right tackle and ran into Iowa linebacker Shane DiBona and safety Tyler Sash at the 5-yard line. Ball overpowered DiBona and withstood Sash’s attempt to jar free the football. Ball then reached the 2-yard line when cornerback Shaun Prater corralled his lower legs. Linebacker Tyler Nielsen bashed Ball’s left side and cornerback Micah Hyde tugged at him from the right as Ball twisted toward the goal line. Ball stretched the ball with his right hand, just as he was told not to do.
In a game earlier that season against San Jose State, White fumbled the ball leaning the ball near the goal line. The score didn’t count, and Bielema blasted White.
“I went off in a team meeting the next day,” Bielema said. “At Wisconsin we run the ball in the end zone; we don’t reach the ball in the end zone. There’s no need to do that.”
Officials ruled Ball down at the 1-yard line. The ball had come out of Ball’s hand as it simultaneously crossed the goal line, and Iowa defensive end Broderick Binns made the recovery. The play was sent for booth review with three possible outcomes: first down at the 1, touchdown or fumble.
“One of the things in that Iowa game in the back of my mind as a head coach, I’m saying to myself, ‘If they rule him down at the 1, I wasn’t going to be overly mad because I wanted to have four shots and eat more clock off to get into the end zone,’” Bielema said.
Ball prayed it wasn’t a fumble.
“I was actually talking to my mom about that two months ago,” Ball said. “If I’d have fumbled that football, that would have been it for Montee Ball.”
Instead, Ball had crossed the line with his knees parallel to the ground a split-second before the ball slipped from his hand. It was a game-winning touchdown that sent his both his career and the Wisconsin program sky-high. The Badgers are 15-4 since that 31-30 win against Iowa.
Ball has scored 53 touchdowns and rushed for 2,700 yards over that 19-game span, and surpassed 100 yards 15 times. He has scored at least two touchdowns a game 17 times in the last 19 games.
Ball rushed for only 18 yards against Iowa, but the performance gave him confidence in his abilities, and his teammates bought into his commitment. He since has shed 25 pounds and gained quickness. Ball leads by example with his work ethic and verbal tone.
“That was the real start of Montee’s success, that game,” Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner said. “Ever since then he took on a role of being a leader, which a lot of people might not see. I think that’s part of the success he has.”“I just showed a lot of strength and a lot of heart,” Ball said. “I was capable of fighting back from not participating in the last game and not licking my wounds and just coming back and fighting for the team.”