RACINE — In his college football career with the Wisconsin Badgers, Montee Ball was a force to be reckoned with, a fierce running back who shredded defenses, posting impressive enough numbers that the Denver Broncos spent a second-round pick on him in the 2013 NFL Draft.
But it all fell apart, with Ball’s play taking a nosedive before the Broncos waived him in his third season. Ball signed with the New England Patriots practice squad but was waived in 2016 after he was arrested in Dane County on domestic violence charges; he later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct, both with domestic abuse assessments.
In 2019, though, Ball thinks of himself a butterfly — a creature that has gone through an ugly process filled with hardship, pain and regret to become something beautiful.
Ball, now 28 and a father, is hoping to help others avoid his mistakes by speaking candidly about his struggles with alcoholism and mental illness that contributed to the end of his football career. He gave a free presentation hosted by SC Johnson Wednesday night at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater, 1525 Howe St.
“My goal is just to help as many people as I can,” he said in an interview with The Journal Times before his speech. “If I can help one person, then I’ve done justice. I’ve given justice. I can go home and kiss my son on the forehead and know I’ve done good.”
Through therapy, time and tough lessons learned from his father, a football coach himself, Ball said he came to “face the music” and use his transgressions to educate others on mental health issues.
“For me, it’s always been, don’t coddle up and get in the fetal position and play the woe-is-me card,” he said.
In his recovery, Ball found purpose.
“We can’t ignore the amount of people struggling nowadays with mental health, speaking about the gun shootings, cyberbullying, to anything along those lines,” Ball said. “It’s happening at such a younger age now — 7-year-olds committing suicide.”
During his speech, Ball compared the struggles that humans go through to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. More than 90% of caterpillars die before they get a chance to spread their wings, according to Penn State New Kensington research.
“Many unfortunately lose their battle right before they develop their wings and fly,” he told the crowd. “This is why I picked that illustration, because so many people do not make it through to the other side because of what was affecting them, or better yet, the process that they are going through. Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t even going to be able for me to survive my transformation.”
About 100 people attended Ball’s talk, including his parents and sister. The Badgers’ red and white speckled the audience, and one man wore a Broncos shirt. The former player beamed with happiness that he still has supporters despite his rocky career.
“Wisconsin fans are second to none, and the proof’s in the pudding, because what I’ve done — I’m open about it, I’ve committed an egregious act — and I still have fans who forgive me, have forgiven me, and I cannot be any more grateful for that,” Ball said during the interview.
Ball was living in Wisconsin until about seven months ago, when he moved to Colorado to be with his 3-year-old son, Maverick, and Maverick’s mother. Ball has been enjoying life being a father and playing golf and works in pharmaceutical sales now.
“Being 28 years old, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to just retire,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have money like that.”
Ball said he has been sober for more than two years now.
He credited his parents, sisters, son, therapist, girlfriend and some former Badgers teammates, including current New England Patriots running back James White and Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon with his recovery.
Gordon, Ball said, does not drink because he saw what addiction did to Ball’s life and career.
“Melvin actually, for him, he’s not a drinker. He won’t do it,” Ball told the crowd. “Melvin is someone who will not put it in his body. He watched what it did to me, and as we know now, he’s balling.”
Therapy was where Ball found the most success. There, he said, he could get directly to the root of issues, whereas it “was kind of hard to fly under the radar” with rehabilitation groups because people would recognize him and ask about football.
Ball, despite his young age, has no plans to return to football because the sport was a major source of his anxiety and depression, he said.
“Growing up, all I knew, my name was always attached to ‘the football player: Montee Ball the football player,’ ” he said. “And understanding that I wasn’t performing well … well, we all know the NFL is a business and my days were numbered, and I did not know how to handle that.”
Ball is still in tune with Wisconsin sports, even if he is not on the field anymore. He said he is excited to see how the Milwaukee Bucks have been performing and also gave some advice to the new Badgers crew that only a former star running back could give.
“I’m looking for the Badgers to put some things together, and keep handing the ball to Jonathan Taylor,” he laughed. “Not much of anything to put together. It’s a simple playbook.”