For years, Neiron Ball built up his 6-foot-3, 230-pound body to regularly withstand the rigors of a football season without breaking down.
The bumps and bruises that piled up from playing at a contact-driven position like linebacker were second nature. He thought he could weather them all.
In February of last year though, Ball had a frightening health scare when doctors found he had a congenital vascular condition known as arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, which is caused when blood vessels tangle and eventually rupture.
Ball’s case of AVM was located in his brain, causing nearly indescribable pain.
“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.”
Ball was forced to take a medical redshirt and was sidelined with the condition for the Gators’ entire 2011-2012 campaign.
Not knowing if he would be able to play again at Florida, Ball endured a long road to recovery but was eventually cleared to rejoin team activities last June.
“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.”
After months of tests and doctors visits, he battled his way into contention again for the Gators’ starting SAM linebacker position this season — a role he shares with junior Darrin Kitchens.
Now, after nine thankful weeks on the field, Ball is still trying to get back to his old self and ward off the minor injuries that could keep out of the rotation.
“I ain’t use to it like I was,” Ball said. “I went years with playing football, but then I went a year without it. Now my body is kind of beat up. I’m still fighting through it.”
While Ball’s return to football after such a life-threatening illness is a feel-good story in and of itself, the sophomore has also been a key contributor for Florida this season.
Ball has nine total tackles on the year and leads UF’s linebacker corps with three recovered turnovers. He scooped up fumbles in consecutive wins against LSU and Vanderbilt, followed by an interception last Saturday in Florida’s 17-9 loss to Georgia.
A native of Jackson, Ga., Ball said his first quarter pick against the Bulldogs had extra meaning for him. Though his individual play was overshadowed by the defeat, it was a special moment considering his long road to recovery.
“Probably the interception against Georgia, but the loss kind of took over that,” Ball said. “Us just having a winning season, just to turn around from last year and the year before that.”
Two weeks ago, Ball’s efforts this season were recognized by the national media when he was named a nominee for the Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. A group of select writers from the FWAA will vote at the end of the year for the player who best displayed courage on and off the field this season.
While Ball was not familiar with the significance of the award when he was named the weekly winner, he said he is glad to hear his story might inspire others.
“I’m thankful for that because it has been some adversity,” Ball said. “I’m just ready to finish fighting through it.”