MADISON — The day that changed Montee Ball's path from just another guy playing college football to one of the must-see guys playing college football is oddly antithetical. Because it was a day in which Ball did not actually play college football at all. Not in the physical sense, anyway.
It is a story Ball has shared often. Last season, in a game against top-ranked Ohio State, Ball didn't gain any yards. As Wisconsin's third-string running back coming off two sub-par performances, he never even left the sideline.
That night, Ball sat in his apartment and gave himself a critical self-evaluation. Now or never, he told himself. He needed to become more serious, watch more game film and change his diet if he wanted to see the field, let alone become an elite, Heisman Trophy-caliber running back.
So, he steadfastly set about accomplishing those goals. In the offseason, he lost 26 pounds (from 231 to 205) to attain more quickness, running four miles daily from his apartment to the football stadium and back. He also worked like a maniac in the weight room so the loss of body mass wouldn't sap his strength.
When this season began, he looked like an entirely different player. He ran like one, too.
In 13 games this season, Ball rushed for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdowns and added six receiving scores. His 38 touchdowns are 12 more than any other FBS player has scored this year and rank second in NCAA history behind only Barry Sanders' 39, set in 1988 at Oklahoma State.
Those statistics were simply too gaudy to be ignored. On Monday, Ball was announced as one of five finalists for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding player in college football. The other finalists were Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
Ball, the 5-foot-11 junior from Wentzville, Mo., returned on Monday to last year's game against Ohio State as the driving force in his transformation.
"At that time, I would never have thought that I'd make it this far," he said. "But I'm glad to see myself stick through it and fight through that situation and just stay the course."
Ball, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, said being a legitimate Heisman candidate did not enter his mind until about three weeks ago, when it became clear that he was having a special season.
He emerged as a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman midway through the year, taking that talk from teammate Russell Wilson, the Badgers' quarterback who captivated the country with his one-year transfer story from North Carolina State. During the course of Wisconsin's current five-game winning streak, Ball rushed for 906 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Ball's nomination as a Heisman finalist comes on the heels of a four-touchdown performance during Saturday's inaugural Big Ten championship game, in which Wisconsin nipped Michigan State 42-39 to advance to a second straight Rose Bowl. It provided Ball one last chance to affix himself to the minds of the 926 Heisman voters, who had until Monday at 5 p.m. CT to cast their ballots.
"Going into that game, I knew I had to have a great game just to get the win," Ball said. "But I wanted to make it to New York, so I knew I had to put some numbers up and come out with a win."
Wisconsin (11-2) plays Oregon (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.
Ball is the first Wisconsin player to be a Heisman Trophy finalist since running back Ron Dayne, who won the award in 1999, and he is the ninth Badgers player ever to be up for the honor.
Ball said he found out he was headed to New York by watching TV when the finalists were announced in alphabetical order on Monday night, also his 21st birthday.
"Best birthday ever," Ball said. "I was sitting there, I was like, ‘I have to make it. I have to make it. I had a great season.' But then I also had my doubts. Maybe I didn't do good enough. Thank God I made it."
Ball has a whirlwind next few days ahead of him. He'll fly out Wednesday to Orlando as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. On Friday, he'll then fly to New York City to participate in the Heisman Trophy ceremony, which takes place Saturday night.
"It's just an honor to make it there," Ball said. "That's enough for me, just to make it there, sitting next to all the other great players in the country."
Clearly, Ball is no longer just another guy playing college football. He ranks right there with the best players in the game.
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