GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The simple routine is one he has done over and over in his life. Before leaving town for a break between summer semesters on Friday afternoon, Neiron Ball stepped onto a scale to weigh himself. He registered 230 pounds.
If that sounds rather pedestrian, you’re right. Football players give the scale a constant workout during offseason conditioning drills.
But for Ball, a Gators redshirt sophomore linebacker, little has been routine over the past 16 months. That is why climbing to 230 pounds was another milestone moment for the good-natured 19-year-old with a teethy smile and dreadlocked hair.
“I feel great,’’ Ball said later. “I’m in shape. I haven’t felt this good in a long time. I had a lot of people trying to lift me up.”
Ball signed with the Gators out of Jackson (Ga.) High School in 2010 and immediately made an impression, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams. Ball’s future was full of promising possibilities when he walked off the field at Raymond James Stadium on New Year’s Day 2011.
Ball made two tackles in Florida’s win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. More playing time appeared certain as a sophomore. Maybe Ball could earn a starting spot and make all those people firmly in his corner back in tiny Jackson even more proud. Ball’s story in Jackson – located about halfway between Macon and Atlanta with a population of around 5,000 according to the most recent U.S. Census report – is well-known.
He and his older brother Neland helped turn the Jackson High Red Devils into a small-school powerhouse. Neland is three years older and earned a scholarship to Georgia, where a serious knee injury and other ailments derailed his career. Then Neiron came along and continued the family tradition, starring at receiver, linebacker, defensive end, and anywhere else head coach Mike Parris decided to play him.
There was one game Parris recalls that Neiron must have had “12 or 13 sacks.”
“I’ve never seen a kid just take over a football game like he did,’’ said Parris, in his 17th year at Jackson and former Steelers receiver Hines Ward’s high school coach. “They couldn’t block him. It was just amazing.”
The fact Florida and several other SEC schools recruited Ball didn’t surprise Parris. He knew how good of a player and person Ball was. Parris still laughs at how hard it was for Ball to say no to recruiters since he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Parris also knew how much an opportunity to play college football would mean for the kid.
“He’s been dealt some curveballs in his life that most young men haven’t gone through,’’ Parris said.
Ball, who turns 20 in August, is the youngest of five siblings. He and Neland came along later in life for their deceased parents, who died when Ball was young.
Primarily their grandmother, Josephine White, raised them with help from their older siblings.
One of Parris’ assistant coaches at Jackson High is a key influence in Ball’s life. Dary Myricks played football at The Citadel and later spent seven seasons in the Arena Football League. He married Ball’s older sister Natalie, a union that led to Myricks’ role as sort of a father figure to her younger brothers.
When Gators coach Will Muschamp called late one night in February 2011, just a few weeks after the Outback Bowl, Dary and Natalie immediately hopped into their car and started the drive down I-75 toward Gainesville.
They feared the worst.
“We didn’t know what was in store for us,’’ Myricks said.
Earlier in the day Ball had to leave spring practice with an excruciating headache that nearly knocked him to the ground.
By the next morning Ball had been diagnosed with a condition known as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a tangling of blood vessels.
In Ball’s case, the tangled blood vessels were in his brain and had ruptured and bled, causing unbearable pain.
“I was devastated,’’ Ball said. “It was in the worst pain I ever felt. I wouldn’t even call it a headache. It felt like somebody was squeezing my brain. I knew it was very serious. At that point, I really thought I wasn’t going to make it because I was in terrible pain.”
The AVM was a congenital vascular condition that Ball had lived with unknowingly until he began to feel wobbly during that day at spring practice. According to a report last August when Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson was diagnosed with the same condition, about 300,000 Americans are thought to be affected by AVMs of the brain or spinal cord.
Anthony Pass, Florida’s associate director of sports health and head athletic trainer for football, said when he began to research the condition for treatment plans, he could not find a case study attributed to a football player. Patterson’s condition wasn’t discovered until a few months after Ball’s.
“It was kind of a weird thing. It’s one of those [conditions] where it didn’t present typical,’’ Pass said. “You thought, ‘What’s going on with this kid?’ Luckily knowing Neiron and being around him, you knew something was really wrong once he persisted with telling you the symptoms.”
Ball was diagnosed with an AVM by neurosurgeons at Shands Hospital and a treatment plan was established under the direction of Dr. William Friedman, professor and chairman of UF’s Department of Neurosurgery.
Once Ball’s condition had stabilized over the period of a few weeks, a team of neurosurgeons performed a non-invasive procedure called stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS).
In an email to explain the procedure in layman’s terms, Dr. Jay Clugston, a member of the football team’s medical staff, wrote: “It uses radiation precisely targeted to the AVM to cause thrombosis (clotting) of the lesion which over time makes it scar down and stops blood flow through the AVM. The AVM shrinks and eventually may go away. This is why he had to wait for over a year [to get cleared]. He needed the repeat MRIs to make sure it was going away and this last MRI showed it had resolved to the satisfaction of the neurosurgical team.”
The turn of events was crushing for Ball as he dealt with the health scare and life away from football.
Teammates and coaches visited Ball in the hospital and at home, aware of how serious his condition was and how lucky he was to be alive. Back home in Jackson they passed around get-well cards to give to Ball when he returned to town to recover.
“Everyone was worried,’’ said running back Mack Brown, who like Ball, grew up in Georgia and knew Ball before they became teammates at UF. “Some people can’t survive from that. It was a sad scene to me. To see a guy that is so strong with a lot of courage, just not to be able to be himself, it just made you wake up and see that life is precious.”
Ball returned to Georgia with his family shortly after the diagnosis, his football future put on definite hold. At first doctors gave Ball a 50-50 chance of ever playing again. It all depended on how well his body responded to the treatment.
The darkest days came in the first several weeks after the diagnosis when doctors told Ball that his career might be over.
“There wasn’t a 100 percent grand slam [he would play again],’’ Pass said.
Over the past year Ball has regularly undergone MRIs and clinical evaluations to determine the extent of the AVM and to monitor its resolution. Doctors told him his body responded to the radiosurgery magnificently. Ball was cleared to resume football contract drills earlier this month, a day he never doubted regardless of those who may have shared their doubts with him.
“I always knew it was going to happen,’’ Ball said. “I knew that I was going to be able to play again. It was frustrating at some points. It makes me want to take advantage of this second opportunity that I got. I’m just thankful. I’m going to go hard and go all out and know that God has my back.”
Once Ball and his teammates return to campus to resume summer workouts, Ball will participate in all activities.
“If something comes up again, it’s another injury,’’ Pass said. “There is no chronic nature to this. If he gets a concussion, it’s a concussion, it’s not because he had an AVM. He is healthy and he is ready to roll. If he gets injured somehow again and it’s a head injury, it’s another injury. It’s football, so the risk of injury is always there, but he is healthy to play football.”
Long before doctors cleared him to return to the field, Ball had already talked to his family about his desire to continue to play. They support his decision and are confident that any health concerns related to Ball’s rare condition have been alleviated.
“It was scary for us and truth be told, it’s still scary,’’ Myricks said. “But we trust the doctors and the coaching staff at the University of Florida to make the best decisions for his health. They have handled this probably as well as it could have been handled. It came down to him being comfortable. We feel real comfortable where we are right now.
“We’re excited also that he is going to get an opportunity to continue doing what he loves doing. He has been through a lot but he is one hell of a kid. We’re proud of him, not for his talent, but for the way he carries himself.”
Ball is projected to compete for a starting spot at linebacker if all goes well during fall camp. He brings a mixture of athleticism and speed that made him a go-to receiver at Jackson High early in his career.
Those who know him the best can see the burden that has been lifted off Ball’s sizeable shoulders.
“He looks wonderful. His whole outlook on life is just so much better right now since he has been cleared,’’ Parris said. “For him to get this great news was real important for him. He’s excited to get in there and help Florida. He has never sat around and felt sorry for himself or done anything to let people down. If you didn’t know the family, you would never know that anything [bad] had ever happened.”
As Ball talks about his recovery and the experience of the past 16 months, he rattles off the names of coaches and teammates and many people back in Jackson who supported him during his ordeal.
He offered a special thanks to his grandmother, now in her late 80s and in declining health. She used to tell him to never quit regardless of the circumstances. He leaned on that message heavily over the past year.
Now, Ball can’t wait to finally be able to rejoin his teammates on the field. That ever-present smile his family and friends talk about will be on full display.
“There’s going to be a little nervousness going out there my first time,’’ Ball said. “After that first contact, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be back. [This experience] changed me mentally, physically and spiritually.
“I thank God every day for what he has done. I know it was God. The nurses were telling me in the hospital that I am so lucky. They know people that dropped dead from this kind of injury.”