GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It started as the "worst headache ever."
And before Florida linebacker Neiron Ball knew the diagnosis, the pain had gotten so severe that he couldn't look down and was begging for medication.
"I can't really explain it," Ball said. "The closest thing I can think is somebody just smushing my brain."
Doctors determined that blood vessels in his brain were tangled and ruptured, causing bleeding that had to be stopped by radiation surgery. Ball still remembers his prevailing thought as he waited in the hospital.
"Forget football. I'm thinking about living," he said.
Now, more than 20 months later, Ball is back on the field and playing a key role for the seventh-ranked Gators (8-1). He has nine tackles, two fumble recoveries and an interception — numbers that mean little compared to all he's been through.
"I just want to go hard every moment in life because you never know when that moment can be taken away," Ball said. "I value each moment."
Ball, a third-year sophomore from Jackson, Ga., was one of the team's top special teams player in 2010. His tackling skills were evident and his upside was seemingly limitless.
The following February, though, he started feeling pressure in his neck and then a dull ache in his head while working out. He went to trainers and ended up in the hospital.
He was diagnosed with arteriovenous maliformation — a serious condition that needed immediate attention.
He called his sister and her husband, who rushed to Gainesville. Ball's parents had both died before he was 10, his father a victim of cancer and his mother dying from a heart attack. His grandmother had raised him about 40 miles south of Atlanta, but she was too frail to make the trip.
His sister took him home to rest for surgery, but the pain brought him back to the emergency room. Finally, doctors were ready for a non-invasive radiosurgery. They clamped his head into a brace with four screws and went to work.
The procedure worked, but Ball's recovery took time.
He spent 10 days in the hospital, lost 30 pounds, felt weak and off-balance. And that was just the beginning.
"The scariest moment was when it was happening, the pain that I felt," he said. "The happiest moment is when they said I was going to live. Before that, I was lost. I didn't know what was going on. I had no idea what was going on."
He had no idea about football, either. It wasn't until January that he was able to start working out.
Even then, he didn't know if he would be cleared to play again.
That came in June, after countless tests to make sure the vessels had not burst again.
"He's been through an awful lot, not just with the injury last year, but he's had some tough things happen in his life, some setbacks," coach Will Muschamp said. "Any time you're able to see something like that, it makes you feel good about where you are and what you're doing.
"He's a really good player, too. He's a guy that missed football for a year. It's a developmental game. When you miss that much time, it doesn't come back as easily as it does for others. It's come back very quickly for him."
Ball started the season opener against Bowling Green as well as Florida's victory over LSU. He intercepted a pass against Georgia, which he called the highlight of his college career.
"I'm happy as a friend," cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "All of us are. He went through a lot. The plays that are coming his way, he's making them and he's just excited to be out there. It means a lot and it shows you should cherish every moment on the field."
Ball is a finalist for the Orange Bowl Courage Award, given annually to a player, coach or support person in college football who displays courage on or off the field.
Ball, meanwhile, has shared his story with anyone who asks. And it always starts with the "worst headache ever."
"It always reminds me," he said. "The experiences I've been through, I just feel like I've seen a lot and I learned from it. Other people haven't seen some of the things that I have seen. I just feel like because of those things I see things differently."