It started out as a dull throb in his head.
For a day or so in mid-February of 2011, Florida Gators linebacker Neiron Ball couldn’t shake what he thought was a garden variety headache. Then when the pain escalated, reaching all the way to his neck and Ball couldn’t look down without experiencing excruciating pain his high school trainer rushed him to the hospital.
Everyone feared news of an aneurysm. The diagnosis was as terrifying if not worse because Ball’s immediate condition was now a race against time – a blood vessel in his brain had burst. Doctors discovered he had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a hereditary condition where arteries and veins are abnormally connected. If untreated, the condition can lead to severe brain damage. The condition is rare; one percent of the American population have brain AVMs, according to the American Stroke Association.
Laying in a bed a Shands Hospital it was uncertain if Ball would live to see another day. From his hometown of Jackson, Ga., Balls’ family rushed to be right by his side.
But they were not the only ones who would hold a bedside vigil for him. The night Ball was admitted to Shands here in Gainesville, head coach Will Muschamp spoke during at an out-of-state function at which he was scheduled to appear. Once word of Ball’s condition reached Muschamp, he immediately flew back to Gainesville and joined Ball’s family by his bedside – hoping and praying for the safe recovery of his player.
“At that point, it wasn’t about playing, it was about living,” Muschamp said.
Ball would miss the entire 2011 season, but would return to play in 2012, accumulating only 10 tackles. He made 25 tackles in 2013, but only had one game with five or more tackles, with six against South Carolina on November 16.
In the first game this year against Eastern Michigan, Ball had the best game of his career, matching his personal best in tackles and forcing a fumble. The journey from the hospital bed in 2011 to helping Florida shut out the Eagles 65-0 Saturday was apparent in Ball’s demeanor after the game. Bright-eyed and a smile on his face, Ball said the incident three years ago humbled him. After having a great high school career, he looked forward to doing the same in college, but the injury changed plans.
“Of course there was a time where I thought, ‘Maybe I won’t play, maybe I will,’” he said. “I didn’t know, but it feels good.”
Ball was able to have success due to the Gators’ defensive scheme. Earlier in the week, defensive coordinator DJ Durkin said they would use Ball in pass-rushing situations. This allowed the linebacker to get to the backfield with a speed and ferocity that Eagles couldn’t contain. Throughout the game Ball was around the ballcarrier and was part of a defense that had one quarterback hurry and two sacks.
Ball said the defense prepared well for EMU’s offense throughout the week and took pride having the first shutout for Florida in two years. During the game the defense stayed focused on the task at hand.
“Oh yeah, we play every down like it’s 0-0, no matter what the score is,” he said.
The Gators, much like Ball are looking to bounce back from a disappointing season last year. As the 2014 campaign progresses, the victories like the one on Saturday mean even more.
“I think it brings momentum to the next game because it’s been so long,” Ball said. “Through all the workouts, through the rainout game, through the last game in the Swamp we lost, I mean, it’s been so long. It means a lot to us.”
Neiron Ball’s collegiate career has been a roller coaster of emotions, almost derailed entirely by AVM. However, Ball’s character and perseverance not only helped the Gators win a game Saturday, it has won over his teammates and coaches.
“I could be here for a couple of hours talking about Neiron Ball as far as what’s he’s faced off the field and his family situation and what he’s lost,” Muschamp said. “He’s a lot tougher than I am, I could tell you that.”