New Hampshire's Ball looms large on small stage
By Andy Gardiner, USA TODAY
David Ball routinely misplaces his wallet, car keys and cellphone — at the same time. He repeatedly out of gas because he never remembers to check the fuel gauge in his car.
But put Ball on a football field and he becomes as locked in. This focus has helped the University of New Hampshire senior evolve from an unwanted high school senior from small town Vermont into a legitimate NFL draft prospect who is within reach of breaking a handful of Division I-AA receiving records set 20 years ago by the player Ball emulated as a young athlete — the legendary Jerry Rice.
"I don't know much about him," admits Rice, who was inducted into the college football hall of fame this summer. "I'll have to pull this guy up on the internet now. You know, records were meant to be broken. If he breaks a lot of my records, I'll be the first to congratulate him."
New Hampshire opens the season Saturday at Northwestern and Ball's record chase will play out this fall against the backdrop of a run for the school's first national championship. The Wildcats, 11-2 a year ago, were ranked No. 1 in Street & Smith's and Lindy's preseason polls. The Wildcats return seven starters from an offense that averaged 42 points a game.
At the heart of that attack is Ball, a 6-2, 200 pound wide receiver who has caught 173 passes for 3,055 yards and 41 touchdowns the last two seasons. He is the active I-AA career leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, and could break three of Rice's career marks this fall.
Not bad for someone who couldn't attract a look from even Division III programs coming out of high school and arrived at UNH as a walk-on with no guarantee of a scholarship.
"For a kid to come out of a state like Vermont, football-wise, and end up being the player he is is amazing," says Villanova coach Andy Talley. "The odds were all against it. He's gone from very humble beginnings to become a superstar nationally."
The second youngest of four boys born within five years of each other, Ball grew up in the central Vermont town of Orange (pop. 965). He was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at Spaulding High School and still holds the state high jump record (6-8½).
But football was Ball's first love and football is the state's weakest sport. The University of Vermont folded its program in 1975 and only 33 high schools field varsity teams. Competing in Division II, Ball had three coaches in four years and played on teams that were a cumulative 14-21.
"I started as a 5-11,155 pound white kid playing a skill position in a program that struggled just to find enough guys to field a team," says Ball, who was a two-time all-state selection. "But it was an unbelievably good experience for me. I learned how to play through adversity."
Vermont football's most acclaimed native son is Bob Yates, who grew up in Montpelier, played on Syracuse's 1959 national championship team, and spent six years with the Boston Patriots in the American Football League. Yates also coached high school football in Vermont for nine seasons and knows just how improbable Ball's journey has been.
"Vermont kids get no exposure and college coaches just don't take them seriously," Yates says. "It's like we were playing touch football. You have to almost physically bring the kids to the coaches to get them a look."
With four boys who loved competing in everything, Ken and Kathleen Ball's house was always a maelstrom of activity.
"All you could do was throw some kind of ball in the car or in the yard and let them go at it," says Kathleen, a high school health teacher. "Elite camps weren't something we could really afford, so whatever the season was, that's what they played until the next season arrived."
Of all the boys, however, David was the one with a vision and the only one to play in college.
"I remember before eighth grade David took a huge calendar for the entire summer and planned his workouts and what he would do each day," Kathleen says. "His brothers were worried about him, but that was just David being David. Whatever he had accomplished, he always felt he could do better."
Ball was unable to draw any college interest after high school but at the last minute, Ball was offered a chance to attend Worcester (Mass.) Academy for a post-graduate year. The Balls had to refinance their mortgage in order to afford the tuition, a step they took willingly.
"David needed to get away from Vermont, he needed to prove himself," Kathleen said. "He felt it was the right thing and we have always trusted his judgment."
Ball played football, basketball and ran track at Worcester and was named the school's male athlete of the year. Football coaches remained skeptical, including New Hampshire's Sean McDonnell, despite the recommendation of his assistant, Steve Stetson, who raved about this lanky receiver with soft hands and a 37-inch vertical leap.
"Looking at David on tape, he was obviously at athlete who could catch the ball at any angle and catch it in a crowd," McDonnell said. "But I kept looking for that burst of speed when he would run away from people and never saw it. We'd already taken a receiver who was faster than David. I had my doubts."
It was only after watching tapes of Ball playing basketball that McDonnell encouraged encourage him to walk on at UNH with the promise of a scholarship if he made the team.
"In the prep school playoffs against Craig Smith (a future Atlantic Coast Conference all-star) and a bunch of good players David just made this monster dunk," McDonnell says. "We do a lot of evaluating of athletic ability through watching kids play other sports and that told us a lot. After about the third day of fall camp we knew we had a player."
Ball played in 11 games and caught 38 passes as a slot receiver as a freshman, a year in which he struggled to adjust to the college game.
"It was confusing trying to read all the defenses. I felt like I was going in slow-motion in a fast-paced game," Ball says. "I had enough assets to keep me on the field, but the majority of my freshman year I didn't feel I belonged there."
Over the next summer Ball added 20 pounds and worked continually on refining his routes. He was shifted to wide receiver for the opening game against defending I-AA champion Delaware and caught a 44-yard touchdown pass for the winning points in a 24-21 victory. The next week Ball caught nine passes in the second half for 132 yards and two touchdowns as the Wildcats stunned I-A Rutgers, 35-24.
"I really loved playing the wide receiver and the Rutgers game was a turning point," he says. "I did well against a Division I-A defense and I needed to prove myself against that level of competition."
With redshirt freshmen Ricky Santos taking over at quarterback that season, Ball ended with 86 receptions for 1,504 yards and 17 touchdowns as the Wildcats went 10-3 and reached the NCAA playoff quarterfinals. Last year he had 87 catches for 1,551 yards and 24 scores as UNH again advanced to the quarterfinals.
"If the ball's in the air, it's his ball," Santos says of his favorite target. "That's his mentality no matter where I throw it."
Ball was a consensus first-team All-American who finished seventh in the voting for I-AA's Walter Payton outstanding player award (Santos was second). The Wildcats were second in total offense (493.5 yards), third in scoring (41.69) and fifth in passing offense (300 yards).
"His growth has been as great as any player I've seen in this league," says Massachusetts coach Don Brown, who Ball burned for nine catches for 199 yards and four touchdowns last year. "I felt we had a very strong secondary and a very strong defense but we couldn't handle him."
Ball says the last time he was timed in the 40-yard dash was as a sophomore when he was clocked at 4.6 seconds (identical to Rice's time as a college senior). But Brown warns against thinking Ball is slow.
"He's faster than he looks and if he has a step on you, he's not going to lose that step," Brown says. "He's competitively fast, which in my opinion is the most dangerous type of speed because it's enough to make you successful at whatever level you're playing. Can that level be professional? Without question."
Following Rice's model
Growing up, Rice was the receiver Ball admired most.
"Not so much for Jerry Rice the athlete, but for the way he was off the field," Ball says. "He was always easy-going and level-headed, a true competitor and professional. I've tried to model myself after him.
Reaching some of Rice's records "is something that has kind of snuck up on me," Ball says. "I'm not going to argue with the outcome, but it all seems surreal. It's certainly nothing I ever expected. I've always considered myself very, very lucky because things fell into place for me."
Rice used his senior season at Mississippi Valley State to earn an invitation to the Blue-Gray all-star game, where he was named MVP and wound up as a first-round NFL draft pick (16th overall). Ball isn't at that level, but could follow the same path to the pros.
"I fully anticipate him breaking some of Rice's records and that could help him in the all-star games, which are hugely critical," says Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLdraftscout.com. "Quarterback and receiver are the two positions where smaller-program guys can show how they can perform against Division I-A talent."
Rang says Ball could go as early as the third round off a strong final year.
"This is a kid who's had people telling him his whole life he's not big enough, not fast enough, not talented enough to play with the big boys and he's just kept coming. Long odds won't scare him."
Still, is on pace to graduate next summer with a degree in kinesiology that will lead him to teaching physical education.
"I love working with kids, especially in an athletic environment," he says. "That's what I want to do, whether pro ball works out or not."