As a timid freshman more than three years ago, I walked into the McClain Facility to interview a freshman running back I knew nearly nothing about. He was a somewhat lauded four-star recruit who had just earned the first carries of his young college career, a player still buried beneath the shadow of the dual-headed rushing attack of John Clay and Zach Brown.
But for this tailback, the one with the name I struggled to pronounce, I needed to scan the Badgers roster to learn the most fundamental details on whom I was about to interview. Standing across from me that evening was Montee Ball, a much different figure than the nationally-recognized running back he is today.
Never did I imagine this unfamiliar face would grow into a Heisman finalist surpassing all-time NCAA records. Never did I imagine Ball, who rushed for 391 yards that season, would become the enduring face of Wisconsin football.
Yet when Ball high steps into the end zone for the last time at Camp Randall Saturday, the record books won’t be the only place he will secure a spot. He will also etch his name into Wisconsin football legend, joining the most historic figures to ever don the cardinal and white.
When he likely ties or breaks the NCAA career touchdown mark against Ohio State, Ball will officially join the elite ranks of UW’s two Heisman winners – Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche. The senior tailback has never earned the top award in college football, but over the past two-plus years his achievements have more than secured his spot as one of the best players to ever grace the nearly century-old Camp Randall grounds.
With 4,536 career yards and four games remaining in his college career, as Ball’s career comes to a close the legacy he has built at this program becomes increasingly apparent. He won’t own as many records as Dayne when he exits the program and will fall thousands of yards shy of the 7,125 yards the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner slugged his way through over four years.
But Ball has crossed the goal line on his own two feet 77 times in his career, a mark that is nothing short of unbelievable. Dayne, a four-year starter, only managed to reach the end zone 63 times over his career.
Never did Dayne score more than 19 total touchdowns in a single season, less than half of Ball’s 39 a season ago. When asked about breaking former Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice’s all-time record of 78 scores, Ball humbly explained his own place in college football history.
“I just have a nose for the end zone. It kind of says it itself,” he said at a press conference Monday. “I’m the one who has scored the most touchdowns [ever], if I break the record, and just that person that you want to give the football to.”
And it would be more than valid to argue those touchdowns were equally – if not more – valuable than Dayne’s incredible career rushing yard total. Where would this team be without Ball pounding and crawling his way through the tackles for the last two years?
Forget about the two consecutive trips to Pasadena. And forget about Russell Wilson even joining the Badgers without having the security blanket of a Heisman-caliber runner in the backfield.
On its face, Ball’s brutally physical style and inexplicable ability to reach the end zone have helped this offense score and won the Badgers more than a handful of games. But at a deeper level, the Wentzville, Mo., native has been the individual hand, more than any other, that has lifted the Wisconsin football program to new heights in the Big Ten and nationally.
When he first arrived on campus, the Badgers were still reeling after a 7-6 campaign that ended with a blowout loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. UW has won at least 10 games in each of the three seasons since and is one oh-so-enticing win away from its season closing at the Rose Bowl for the third-straight season.
It would be ludicrous to say the senior running back has single-handedly carried the Badgers to their most successful run since the back-to-back Rose Bowls of Dayne’s reign. But for the second half of the 2010 season and each of the last two years, he has beared the weight of the Wisconsin offense.
Just as Dayne did in the late ’90s, Ball has transformed Wisconsin football into a national brand. Only the last time this happened, the Badgers slipped into mediocrity under head coach Barry Alvarez as UW struggled to keep its place among the Big Ten’s elite. The program now finds itself at a similar peak, and how it adapts to life without Ball will be the hinges on the doorway to continued success.
But as the career of one of Wisconsin’s all-time greats comes to a close, fans must realize that as they prepare to witness history against the Buckeyes, they are also watching the final moments of a legendary career.
On a fall Sunday seven or eight years from Saturday, a collection of fresh faces in Camp Randall’s student section will cast a wide-eyed glow over Ball. Then, the curtain will drop over the red-lettered “28 Ball” nameplate plastered alongside a select group of names on the second deck of Camp Randall. Then – and only then – will his legacy be fully realized.