MADISON, Wis. – That Montee Ball was tough was never a question. This, after all, is a kid who rumbled his way to more than 1,900 yards last year, getting pummeled and knocked around in the process. A kid whose 39 touchdowns not only tied Barry Sanders' long-standing record, they were more than many teams could manage. A kid who will likely end this season with more career touchdowns than anyone in the history of major college football.
Being strong is another matter altogether, however. It's an intrinsic quality you either have or you don't, and there's no way to tell until it's too late. As Ball lay awake over the summer, he wondered why he was being tested. Why several men had chosen to attack the Wisconsin running back as he walked home Aug. 1 after a night out with friends, leaving Ball unconscious and with a concussion after they knocked him to the ground and kicked him in his head and chest.
"Going through what I went through this past summer was very difficult," he said. "To see that I'm still here and I'm still working really hard with my teammates, I guess looking back on it now, I'm glad it happened.
"I have a story, basically, for everyone to see," he said. "You're always going to have hurdles to jump over, basically. It's up to you to say if you want to jump over them or not. And I most definitely wanted to."
Ball's dazzling numbers last year made him a Heisman Trophy finalist. He led the nation in both yards rushing (1,923) and from scrimmage (2,229), and he averaged 6.26 yards each time he carried the ball. Yes, carried, not caught. He scored two or more touchdowns in each of Wisconsin's first 10 games, an NCAA record.
He was at his best when the Badgers played the best, averaging 164 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in five games against ranked teams. When Wisconsin beat Michigan State in the first Big Ten title game, Ball ran for 137 yards and three TDs, had three catches for seven yards and another score, and threw a pass.
He considered making a jump to the NFL, but told coach Bret Bielema he wouldn't go unless he was a first-round pick. Maybe a second-rounder.
"He said, 'If it's a third-rounder, I'm going to stay and go for my senior year," Bielema said. "It came back as a three and he just stuck to his plans."
Ball knew the risk he was taking. There was the threat of injury, of course. Just matching his eye-popping stats was going to be difficult, to say nothing of trying to top them, and anything less could hurt his draft prospects. But there were areas he thought he could improve — NFL execs had questioned his size, and said they wanted to see him block better — and Bielema thought Ball could repeat the dominant performances, if not the numbers.
Plus, his family — parents Montee Sr. and Melissa, and sisters Ashley and Aireanna — had moved to Madison from the St. Louis area when Ball came to Wisconsin. Another year would get him close to his degree, too; he'll only be eight credits shy in the spring.
"We told him, 'This is your decision. You're an adult, this is solely your decision. We don't want to sway you either way,'" Montee Sr. said. "That way, you can live with your decision."
And Ball did without question. Until he was attacked in the early hours of Aug. 1.
Three Wisconsin students have pleaded not guilty to a charge of substantial battery in the assault, which police have said may have been tied to a fight a few days earlier involving football players. Ball insists he was not involved in that fight, and no one has suggested anything to the contrary. But the assault came three months after Ball was fined for trespassing at a block party.
"It's nowhere close to anything but a good kid that got caught in a bad situation," Bielema said. "I know those two little blemishes can add a little grey to a story. But if anybody knows the whole story, there's nothing there."
Still, it was disheartening for Ball, who has always taken great pride — and great pains — to conduct himself the right way. He still joins his family for dinner on Sundays. He does charity work on his own that draws little attention. After games, the short walk back to his parents' car can take an hour because of all the autographs he signs.
"He doesn't like to disappoint his coaches, he doesn't like to disappoint us, he doesn't like to disappoint fans. He doesn't like to disappoint anybody," Ball's father said. "That hurt him to that extent because he doesn't want anybody to think of him in a bad light. He's the type of kid that does everything he can to do the right thing."
Even growing up, his father can only recall one time he or his wife needed to discipline their son. Ball, his sister and a cousin were wrestling in the basement and put a hole in the wall. The hole was patched up, and the kids were warned not to do it again.
A week later, there was another wrestling match. And another hole.
"We never had problems with any of our children because we put in place rules," Ball's father said. "They're not strict rules, but we don't bend. You break the rules, you get the consequences."
Ball cooperated with the police, and apologized to his teammates for being a distraction — an apology they said wasn't necessary. He has willingly — and repeatedly — answered questions about the attack, as well as the earlier trespassing fine.
He admits, though, there were times he felt sorry for himself, wondered if he'd made the wrong decision coming back.
"I've always been taught that the definition of a man is how you overcome adversity," Ball said. "I made sure to keep telling myself, 'I've just got to overcome this, got to stick with the plan.' That's basically what I did. Stuck with the plan, kept fighting, kept working harder. And I believe that made me better."
Though Ball has already topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark, he is not on the same torrid pace as last year and has largely been left out of the Heisman conversation. His 4.7 yards per carry is below his average the past two seasons (6.3, 6.1), and he was held to just 46 yards against Michigan State, his lowest total in two years. He has "only" 13 touchdowns, and twice this year has failed to score any.
But Ball had been picking up steam before the Michigan State game, rushing for 418 yards and five TDs against Purdue and Minnesota, and November has traditionally been his best month. With 74 career touchdowns, he needs only five more to break Travis Prentice's FBS record.
"It's something I really want," Ball said. "But I also have my team goals."
Despite a 6-3 record that includes two Big Ten losses, the Badgers can all but lock up a spot in the conference title game with a win over Indiana on Saturday. Wisconsin trails Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division, but both teams are ineligible for the postseason.
A record and a shot at a third straight Rose Bowl, not a bad way to end to what started as a very bad year.
"No regrets at all. I'm glad I came back," Ball said. "Obviously I wish our record was better. But I feel, right now, we're capable of making it to Indianapolis. We're going to make some big noise still this year."