Neiron Ball’s voice soften and a hush fell over the crowd of media members forming semicircle around him.
When Ball tells his life story, everyone listens.
Even journalists who had heard Ball’s Gator tale before wanted to hear it again. It’s that interesting.
The Florida Gators’ linebacker has one of the more intriguing stories to tell of any athlete — not only on UF’s campus, but in the entire country.
Ball’s story is earning national recognition as the redshirt sophomore from Jackson, Ga., is one of seven finalists for the Rare Disease Champion Award, which is presented annually by Uplifting Athletes.
After being diagnosed with arteriorvenous malformation (AVM) in February of 2011, Ball was able to return to the field in 2012, even starting the season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 1. He battled through countless surgeries and a rigorous rehabilitation process before making his miraculous return to football.
Ball sported a team-jogging suit in the visitor’s locker room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to visit with reporters on Oct. 30. He seemed nervous, but not too nervous, as he sat down behind a table. His eyes worked around the room, making contact with each reporter who saw past the dreadlocks dangling on both sides of his head to see Ball’s genuineness.
It easily was one of the most memorable football player interviews this season.
Pain in his neck caused Ball to leave a Valentine’s Day workout early. He told teammates something didn’t feel right and he ended up collapsing during a drill. Trainers sent him home for the day. The pain intensified and he headed to the hospital at the urging of UF head trainer Anthony Pass.
Doctors were dumbfounded. All they knew was Ball’s brain was bleeding. He was on a morphine drip and other painkillers, but it didn’t help much. He was still curled up and writhing in excruciating pain when Florida coach Will Muschamp, only months on the job, arrived in his room.
“He’s had some tough things happen in his life, some
setbacks,” Muschamp said in October, also referring to the fact Ball lost both parents to complications with cancer before he was 10. “Neiron is a great young man.”
The next morning doctors had diagnosed Ball with AVM, a rare condition where brain blood vessels tangle and rupture. He was told it could have been fatal and he ended up undergoing brain surgery in Gainesville. It was a painstaking rehabilitation process, which often had him collapsing in his dorm room, but he made it through before making his return to the gridiron.
Ball talked about how he “sees things differently” after everything he has battled with and how he understands the importance of sharing his story with others.
“The scariest moment was when it was happening, the pain that I felt,” Ball said. “The happiest moment is when they said I was going to live.
“I was lost. I didn’t know what was going on. I had no idea what was going on.”
The only thing Ball knew was he was in pain, but he wasn’t dying. While some may have wished for the latter — heck, it would have been easier and ended the pain — Ball beat the odds. Ball had suffered injuries before, but nothing hurt his 6-foot-3, 231-pound body this badly.
“It was in my head, in my neck — I can’t really explain it,” Ball said. “The closest thing I can think is somebody just smushing my brain. I couldn’t look down.
“That’s pretty much all that I remember. I couldn’t look, like somebody was squeezing my brain.
“It was like the worst headache ever.”
That said, when Ball tweaked his ankle prior to the season opener against Bowling Green, the pain from it wasn’t going to stop him from playing. He actually had minor arthroscopic surgery on his ankle on Monday, but should be fine in time to practice this spring.
For the season opener, Ball ran out of the south end zone tunnel and onto Florida field. His return was an emotional moment, made even more special when coaches inserted him as a starter for the opening defensive play.
“I’m happy as a friend — All of us are,” Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins said of Ball’s return during a Nov. 5 interview. “Not just as a teammate. That he’s back and he’s having so much success. Because he went through a lot. The plays that are coming his way, he’s making them and he’s just excited to be out there.
“It means a lot, and it shows you, you know, cherish every moment on the field. Never give up because he didn’t give up and he came back and he’s a key part of our defense.”
Seeing Ball’s return also served as a special moment for coaches.
“Anytime you’re able to see something like that,” Muschamp said. “it makes you feel good about where you are and what you’re doing and being able to coach guys like him, because he’s such a wonderful young man. He’s a really good player, too.”
The opener was one of two games Ball started this season and he likely will end up a full-time starter in 2013 at one of the outside linebacker positions.
Ball was listed as the SAM, or strong-side linebacker, heading into the season. He also can play at Buck, a defensive end/linebacker position that is a key component in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme.
Muschamp expects Ball will make a huge leap this offseason.
“It’s a developmental game, and when you miss that
much time it doesn’t come back as easy as it does for others — It’s come back very quickly for him,” Muschamp said. “I think he’s a guy that really, because of the injury, he didn’t lift for about 4-6 months, so here’s a guy that’s going to get in our weight room after the season and were going to make him live in the weight room for about six months.
“He’s a guy that’s going to continue to develop, he’s got great flexibility. He’s a very explosive athlete, a guy that can change direction, great initial quickness in short area.
“I think he’s got a very promising career in front of him.”
One of his highlights was an interception against Georgia, which wasn’t quite as sweet because the Gators lost 17-9.
“It’s against my home state,” Ball said, shaking his head. “I don’t even like talking about it.”
Ball admitted he still thinks about his injury when he takes the field. He also said his body wasn’t used to being “beat up” after the year off from contact.
“I ain’t use to it like I was,” Ball said. “I’m still fighting through it.”
When talking about his return, Ball uses the word “blessed” often. Football is a physical sport. Because of his illness, Ball’s family has extra reasons to worry and always “ask how I feel” after each game.
That’s an easy answer.
“I feel blessed,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep going. There’s some positives and negatives, but just thankful for the opportunity.”
Ball said he feels “great energy” and “love” from his coaches and teammates. That helps him stay positive through the ups and downs.
“I’m thankful for that because it has been some adversity,” he said. “I’m just ready to finish fighting through it.”