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Hochman: From Wentzville to NFL, jail to sobriety. How Montee Ball turned his life around.

Hochman: From Wentzville to NFL, jail to sobriety. How Montee Ball turned his life around.

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His story ends here. And begins here. It was Feb. 7, 2016. Super Bowl Sunday.

In training camp for that 2015 NFL season, Montee Ball arrived with hopes of becoming the Denver Broncos’ starting running back. It was his third season with Denver, the team he idolized as a boy, the team that drafted him in the second round. And on this day, Denver was in the Super Bowl, and Montee Ball was in jail.

Five other prisoners in that Wisconsin jail cell watched the Broncos play and defeat the Carolina Panthers. Ball sprawled on a metal bunk bed, staring at the wall, attempting to avoid what was on television. He was trying to hide from the real world — inside a place specifically built to do just that to him.

“But I could obviously hear everything,” Ball said. “You could hear the cheers from the fans. Everything. …

“One guy turned around and looked at me: ‘Man, you’re supposed to be there.’”

BAD GUY? GOOD GUY? BOTH?

Is Montee Ball a bad guy?

Is Montee Ball a good guy?

At times he’s been both. He’s a complicated public figure. He has made unforgivable mistakes. He has also done his time, found sobriety and is now trying to reclaim his tarnished name in the very city where it was once associated with greatness.

“It’s the question: What happened to Montee Ball?” said Ball, 27, by phone. “I was a smiley kid my entire life, all throughout college. Always been a well-spoken individual. Just leveled-headed. And then — bam! — it happened.”

Ball is one of the better running backs to ever come out of the St. Louis area. He was a two-time Post-Dispatch All-Metro running back. And when he finished his career for Timberland High School in Wentzville, he was the area’s all-time leading rusher (7,109 yards), a record since eclipsed.

At Wisconsin, a school famous for running backs, he was one of the best to ever play there.

He was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. And after his four years, Ball was the NCAA career leader in touchdowns (83).

The Broncos drafted him in the second round in 2013. Five years ago this Saturday, the rookie Ball scored two touchdowns as the 9-1 Broncos won on “Sunday Night Football.”

But Ball is an alcoholic. It runs in his family. At Wisconsin, he was first-team All-Party. But Ball explained that “I never had a bad performance while I was getting drunk all the time. So I never saw anything wrong with it.”

The NFL is just different. There are Montee Ball-caliber talents at every position. And also, he said, “You can be exposed very soon if you’re not studying your playbook.” Ball was drinking even more in Denver than he was in Madison, Wis. He had a system — drink all night, steam room in the morning, stretch, take down a bunch of fluids, practice, repeat. At times he felt lonely. That’s when his drinking increased.

But that 2013 season was so delightful in Denver, it seemed impossible that any Bronco was suffering off the field, let alone the smiling, eager rookie running back. Ball finished the year with 559 rushing yards and had a strong performance in his first-ever playoff game.

The 2013 team, led by MVP Peyton Manning, set offensive records and made the Super Bowl, but lost to Seattle. One would’ve thought that Montee Ball would return again to the Super Bowl.

A FALLING STAR

It happened just the other day. This fall, Ball was invited to a gathering. He lives in the Madison area. A friend spotted a woman he knew.

“And she walked over to our little group of people,” Ball recalled. “I introduced myself, ‘How are you doing, I’m Montee.’ And she’s like, ‘Montee Ball? I hope not.’ Like — ‘I hope you’re not Montee Ball.’”

These moments are humbling. Deserved. Ball understands. Some things stick with you. Ball will always be a legendary Wisconsin football player, and he will always be a star who turned into an asterisk.

Ball’s career careened. In 2014, he was an ineffective running back for Denver. And it was that training camp in 2015 when he tried to return to his rookie form. But he was cut on Sept. 7.

“Obviously (John) Elway and Gary Kubiak at the time saw me spiraling out of control, so they made a business move,” he said of the general manager and coach.

A second-round pick released from the team. Wasted. It doesn’t happen often in the NFL. In December of that season, Denver’s rival, New England, signed Ball to the practice squad.

Ball never played for New England, which lost the AFC title game to Denver. So Ball headed back to Wisconsin that January of 2016.

On the Friday before the Super Bowl — Broncos vs. Panthers — Ball and a girlfriend at the time got into an argument in a Madison hotel. Ball said he was extremely drunk. He admitted to shoving her. He denied her claim that he threw her through a table. He was arrested — and spent the Super Bowl weekend in jail.

“I cannot be any more apologetic — I love to say I’m sorry, because I am,” Ball said, often, during the phone interview. “I felt numb. And a lot of remorse. ...

“Just walking through that jail as I was getting processed, I remember looking into cells. People sitting in the corner on the floor. And about 20 minutes in, somebody recognized me. They were saying to me, ‘You were supposed to be somebody we can look up to. And you’re sitting here with us?’ I remember I rolled over. I wasn’t going to say anything to retaliate, because I was kind of licking my wounds right there. And I remember I started tearing up, thinking to myself — this is awful, this is crazy. Is he right?”

Ball was charged with battery and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors. A month later, a previous girlfriend told police she’d been assaulted by Ball in 2014. And in August of 2016, Ball was sentenced to 60 days in jail — and 18 months probation — after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct and battery for his role in the two domestic abuse incidents.

'SOME PEOPLE ... ARE NEVER GOING TO LIKE ME'

Ball was the star of a team in Madison, but now it’s taken a team of people in Madison to rekindle Ball.

His parents, his sisters, his therapist, the friends who have stuck with him and his mentor, Bob Wynn, who helps players navigate life after football. Ball has been sober for about two years, Wynn said. Ball returned to Madison and took classes. He’s 14 credits shy of graduating — but has taken a job with Mid-west Family Marketing in Madison, selling advertising air time and offering his voice as a spokesperson.

“I get to shake hands, smile, share my story and just work,” Ball said. “Did I ever see myself working for radio? Absolutely not. But I like it. ...

“I understand that some people aren’t going to like me and never are going to like me, because of maybe something they’ve experienced. And I completely respect that, I truly do. On the other side of it — don’t act like you don’t understand how someone under the influence could act uncharacteristically, and I’m not minimizing what I did, but I always share that to put things in perspective. ...

“Am I saying what I did was OK? Absolutely not. But it would be different if I never came out and admitted my problem, sought therapy, and I was charged, convicted and was sent to jail and then house arrest, completed 18 months of probation and therapy. It would be different if I was still sitting here saying: She shouldn’t have done this or that.’

“I made a big mistake that I have to live with for the rest of my life. But I hope you respect the gains that I’ve made since then. And now I’m a huge advocate for mental health, and I do donate money to DAIS.”

That’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, based in Madison. Ball’s attorney took him to a DAIS luncheon in 2018.

“And can you imagine how nervous I was to walk in there?” Ball said. “Wearing my nametag? … I was like , ‘You know what, I think this is what I need.’ To show my respects to women who have gone through abuse, and to listen to stories of women who have gone through abuse. And to understand how it affects them, affects their family members and their kids.

“I’m at the luncheon, telling myself I wish every man who has made a similar mistake were forced to go to one of those luncheons, just to sit there and listen. Just to listen. That situation changed my life, too.”

A DAIS spokesperson was asked to comment on Ball and his involvement.

“The DAIS luncheon is a public event that anyone is able to purchase a ticket for and attend,” she said.

A follow-up email asked if someone from DAIS was aware of Montee — and could speak about his contribution and his attendance at the event.

“I do not have any further comment on Montee,” she said.

THE GREATEST GIFT

Of all the people who have helped Ball, the person who has done the most doesn’t even know it.

Maverick Ball was born in April 2016, two months after the arrest. Maverick’s mother, Alisa Fresquez, was with Ball during his Denver days. But they have reconnected as parents — and fallen in love. She’s aware of his past.

Ball laughed about successfully talking her into moving from Denver to the even colder city of Madison. Alisa is now his fiancee.

And 2-year-old Maverick “is a spitting image of me,” Ball said. “He acts like me, his mannerisms are spot on. And that honestly is one of the greatest gifts given to me ever. Because it gives you something to wake up to. To wake up for. Something to stay sober for. Something to keep pushing for — I have someone who is completely reliant on me. That woke me up. …

“I needed that eye-opener to wake me up. You’re going to drink yourself to death or drink yourself into spending years and years in prison. I can now be the parent I am today for my son and allow me to share my message and story to others who I know are going through the same thing.

“Alcoholism is no walk through the park. People tend to forget that alcohol is a drug and alcoholism is a common disease. Everybody knows an alcoholic or is a family member to one.”


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