GAINESVILLE, Fla. – His Florida teammates call him "Little Kid." That's not because Neiron Ball is little. He's NFL-big – 230 pounds. The nickname isn't demeaning, either, because the Gators have a visible, palpable respect for him that borders on awe.
No, "Little Kid" is because of Ball's spirit. He's always smiling, joking around, cutting up. He's a frenzy of motion on the practice field and in the weight room, pausing only to toss his dreds back in laughter. He's like a little kid, the Gators say, which is remarkable considering the hell he has been through before he's turned 20.
It was Valentine's Day morning 2011 when Florida head trainer Anthony Pass walked over to new coach Will Muschamp and told him Ball would have to leave a team workout. Mushcamp thought that odd; the Gators were only doing some running and jumping, and former coach Urban Meyer had insisted to Muschamp that this particular guy certainly was not a slacker. Ball, who had played in all 13 games as a freshman linebacker, was coming off surgery for a groin injury, so maybe it was that. Muschamp didn't worry too much and eventually took a flight out of town to make a speech.
That night, he got a call. Ball was in the hospital.
The ache started in Ball's lower neck, which surprised him on the practice field because he hadn't tweaked anything. "Bro," he told teammate Ronald Powell, "something doesn't feel right."
Was it a pinched nerve? No, too much of a dull pain. He pushed through it. Then he started to wobble. He went into a hop drill, and when he came down on one leg, it buckled underneath him. Then came a kind of pain he never had felt before, like his head was about to split into a million pieces.
"At that point the docs thought it was musculoskeletal," says Pass, associate director for sports health at Florida. "He maybe had a spasm."
Trainers sent him home and told him to rest. He couldn't. The pain kept getting worse, like the worst migraine ever. "It was like someone was squeezing my brain," Ball says.
Was he having an aneurysm? Was he about to die? Ball thought maybe he was. Pass called and told him to get to the hospital. Nurses hooked Ball up to a morphine drip, and it still didn't take the agony away. So he kept asking for more pain-killers. Even the lights in the room made things worse, so Muschamp arrived to see his young player in the dark, writhing in pain.
The coach consulted with the doctors, who had no answers, and no clue, really. All they knew was that Ball was bleeding in his brain. There was talk about a hereditary condition, and Muschamp started fearing the worst.
"You are responsible, and you don't know what it is," he says now, sitting in his office. "All of us are standing there looking at the doctor."
Muschamp wanted to call Ball's parents. But as he went to dial his phone, it hit him: "Who do we call?"
When Neiron was 6, his mother, Johanna, had a heart attack. She already had been diagnosed with cancer, but the heart attack still came as a shock to a small boy. She was in the hospital for a week; Neiron remembers visiting her. She died on Mother's Day, 1998.
When Neiron was 9, something happened to his dad, Ronnie. He was the man who put both his youngest sons on the football field and taught them the game. But before Neiron got to be really good, Ronnie was diagnosed with lung cancer and needed surgery on his throat. Neiron remembers on the night of a football game, he was helping his dad eat through a tube. All of a sudden, Ronnie started shaking. He was having a seizure, but back then, a 9-year-old didn't know what was happening. "I didn't think it was life-threatening," Neiron says now.
It was. Ronnie passed away that night; Neiron Ball had lost both his parents before he was 10 years old.
He cried for a month. He had family around him, including an involved grandmother, Josephine. But nothing could replace his mom and dad.
"Both of them were very outgoing," Ball says. "Very giving." Neiron would look up at the stars every single night and think about his mom and dad, imagining them smiling and watching him play.
On the night Neiron Ball started bleeding from the brain, Muschamp ended up calling Dary Myricks, Neiron's brother-in-law in Locust Grove, Ga., where the surviving family members lived. It was Myricks who became Neiron's father figure, even though he was just 25 when Ronnie died. It was Myricks who helped Neiron and his brother, Neland, with football as an assistant coach at nearby Jackson (Ga.) High. And it was Myricks who drove the 4½ hours down Interstate 75 to Gainesville to see his surrogate son. He tried to be strong, but he was full of dread.
"In the car I told Natalie [Neiron's older sister], 'When there's blood on the brain, it's not good,' " Myricks says. "We were really worried."
So was Muschamp. "He was scared," he says of Myricks. "I was, too."
Football had vanished from everyone's mind by this point. Nobody really cared much about seeing Neiron play again. Would he walk again? Speak? Be anything close to normal?
"I didn't know if I'd be able to talk to him again," Gators teammate Trey Burton says. "Will he even be able to come back to say goodbye?"
When Myricks arrived at Shands Hospital, he'll never forget what he witnessed there in the dark.
"When I saw him, he was in so much pain," he says. "I knew they'd have tubes and medicine, but he was literally screaming when we walked in."
Neiron looked at his brother-in-law and said, "Why me?"
Mike Parris has coached 27 years of high school football in Georgia, and he's had two players who were above and beyond the rest: Hines Ward and Neiron Ball. They were similar players, despite one playing wide receiver and the other playing defensive end.
"As far as athletic ability, there's not a whole lot of difference," Parris says. "Those were the only two where they've taken over the whole game."
But there was a more striking similarity than that. "Neiron was just a good kid," Parris says. "Wonderful young man to be around. One thing he liked to do is smile. Neiron would always smile. You couldn't get him tired."
Part of the reason Neiron was so happy was because he had a chance to play with his older brother. Neiron and Neland were unstoppable as teammates on Jackson's defensive line, and led a formerly unremarkable team into contention for the state title in 2007. Neland, three years older, was a top-15 in-state recruit and signed to play with Georgia.
But Neland never got to a chance to live up to his potential as a Bulldog. He was in a car accident in 2009, injured his back and never was able to play again. Neland, now 22, remains a student at Georgia. And the news from Gainesville about his little brother was overwhelming. Neland had lost not only his parents, but also his best friend in a different car accident. He couldn't hold himself together, thinking his only brother, and his family's last football dream, wasn't going to make it. In Neiron's words, his brother was "messed up."
The morning after Ball was admitted to the hospital, there was some good news: Doctors had a diagnosis. Neiron had a rare condition called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is where the brain's blood vessels get tangled and rupture. It was a congenital condition, affecting 300,000 Americans, many of whom never find out they have it. Nurses told Ball the condition could have been fatal. Ball was worried that it would be; after all, his brain still was bleeding. "I thought it was my time," he says.
Doctors at Shands could operate, but it wouldn't be easy. Brain surgery never is. Either they could try to radiate the tangled vessel, causing it to scar and hopefully clot, or they could cut open his brain. Easy choice. Doctors told Ball to go back to Georgia and rest first. But there would be no rest. Almost as soon as he got home, the pain returned – just as bad as before. Neiron was taken to an emergency room, then spent another week in unbearable pain. Would he even make it to surgery? "I didn't know what to do except pray," Ball says. "I didn't want to die."
His teammates feared for his life. Running back Mack Brown, who is from Atlanta, had driven back to Gainesville the night before the original incident with Ball in the car behind him. Brown got a call halfway through the trek from Neiron, instructing him to call his grandmother "if something happens to me."
Brown figured Ball was just tired and joking around, but now he was spooked. What if the incident had happened while Neiron was driving? "It scared everybody on the team," Brown says.
Finally, Ball returned to Gainesville for surgery. He had a brace attached to his head, cinched into place with four screws. He was given some dye to drink, then was put into a huge radiation chamber while surgeons tried to clot the AVM and stop the bleeding. All Ball could think as he entered the machine was, "I hope this works."
It did work, but how well? The pain finally subsided, but Ball underwent months of MRIs to make sure the lesion caused by the radiation kept the vessels from bursting again. Ball's family was happy he was alive. But Neiron was devastated: His chances of playing football again obviously weren't good. "He seemed kind of down," Burton says. "Not like a little kid anymore."
When Ball was released from the hospital, it became clear how difficult his rehab would be. This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill football injury, with ice baths and stretching. While recovering from the surgery, Ball often would collapse in his dorm room without warning, losing his balance and falling over. His teammates would catch a glimpse of him trying to pick something up, only to have to pick himself up instead. Ball would look around, embarrassed, and his teammates quickly looked away, pretending they hadn't noticed.
Despite his issues, Ball became more and more confident he would return to football. "I told myself I'd be back," he says. "I started believing it."
When asked the hardest part of an ordeal that included unimaginable pain, several hospital trips, terrifying surgery and the fear of imminent death, Ball says it was none of that. It was standing on the sideline last season, watching his teammates play without him. That was just too much.
Ball decided he wanted to study to be a nurse, which is poignant considering medicine couldn't help his parents or his older brother live the lives they wanted. Maybe he'd be the one member of his family to get a break. "They saved my life," Ball says of the doctors at Shands. "I would like to help other people feel that."
Ball kept showing up to team events, kept studying, kept getting MRIs, and the results kept coming back clear. Hope kept growing. His coaches slowly started to believe, as well, but not as fast as the Little Kid did. When he passed a crucial test earlier this year, Ball came running through the coaches' offices as if he was back on the field. He even tweeted about it. Everyone from Muschamp on down told him to calm down – Ball still wasn't cleared to play. But by that point, Ball was sure.
"I can't say enough about him through this entire process," linebacker coach D.J. Durkin says. "Unbelievable character. He has seemed unaffected by things I couldn't deal with."
In June, what seemed beyond impossible in that dark hospital room came true: Ball was cleared to play football again.
Muschamp asked the doctors, "Are you sure?" Yes. "Are you sure?" Yes. "Are you sure?"
Muschamp called a team meeting, but didn't say why. He stood in front of the team's meeting room, usually used for going over plays and game plans. He said he had an announcement. Players leaned in.
Then Muschamp told them Neiron Ball had been cleared to play.
Every player in that room leapt out of his chair. There was screaming, hugging, high-fiving. It was as if they had been selected to play in the BCS title game.
"It was epic," Powell says. "Special. The odds were so far against him. We're becoming a team and bonding together. People really care about him. It was joy for everybody."
And if he didn't know it already, Muschamp knew right then: This 19-year-old who hadn't played a down in 2011 was a team leader.
"I listen to him," Burton says of the sophomore. "He's someone I go to now for advice."
Ball's family remains worried. Neiron Ball plays football and football players get hit hard. But doctors say any head injury, whether a concussion or something else, will not aggravate the AVM. "If he has any type of injury," Pass says, "it's a new injury." But the Balls have lost two parents and one football career. They just want Neiron to live and graduate. They've told him over and over again that they wouldn't mind if he didn't play another down.
"The entire family is worried," Myricks says. "We trust the doctors at Shands. They handled it as well as you can handle it. We knew exactly what was going on at all times. But we still are worried. Not a lot of athletes have experienced this.
"You have to think twice about a headache now. You worry, you wonder. I'm waiting for the first day of full pads practice."
That day is today. It's a day Ball has been talking about non-stop for months, with friends, family and teammates. Putting the pads on in the August heat in Florida isn't fun for anyone, but it'll be one of the best moments of Ball's life.
Ball has a shot to earn a lot of playing time, too, remarkable considering he didn't play a down last year. Durkin says he'll be "a household name for Gators fans."
Yes, Neiron Ball will play. He probably won't be able to play in front of his beloved grandmother, who is in her late 80s and too frail to travel from Georgia. But he'll play in front of family. He'll play on national TV and he'll play in those famous night games at the Swamp. And when he gets one of those sacks that made him a top prospect, Neiron will look up into the night sky and imagine his parents smiling.
"I know they'd be so proud," Ball says. "I know they'd be proud of me as a man. I don't have a mother or a father, but I felt like they've been with me through this. I'm still breathing.
"They stopped breathing, but I'm still breathing."
Breathing, living, and playing – like a little kid.
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