The path to athletic stardom is a sinewy one, and sometimes people fall off it.
Take the case of Toronto Argonauts linebacker Marcus Ball.
Heavily recruited as a high school player in Georgia, the 25-year-old Ball ultimately settled on Florida State University, one of the NCAA’s leading football factories.
But in 2008, just as he was about to feature as a starting linebacker for celebrated coach Bobby Bowden, Ball became one of 61 athletes at the university to get caught up in an academic fraud scandal (the violations ranged from having tutors take tests to gaining access to exam questions).
He gave up his scholarship, quit the team and headed to tiny Pearl River Community college for a season before transferring to the University of Memphis, a Division One minnow.
There were no takers when he graduated in 2010
“During all that, you kind of lose focus, you lose sight of where you think you’re going to be. A couple of goals, a couple of dreams start to fade away and you lose confidence in yourself,” he said. “But I had the right people around me, a great family a great supporting cast that kept pushing while I was out of it.”
Two years after leaving college and a year after being out of the game, he finds himself at centre stage for a championship stage, a brand new father, and a player who’s now firmly in control both on and off the field.
After last Sunday’s East Final, in which he recorded two crucial second-half interceptions, he flew back to his home in Florida to attend the birth of his daughter Marley.
“My baby girl was born Monday night, she’s so beautiful man, and it hurt to leave her, but she told me to come up here and win this Cup and bring a ring back to her,” he smiled.
If Toronto succeeds in winning in Sunday’s 100th Grey Cup, Ball will surely have played a central role.
In his first year he’s been a revelation on the Toronto defence, logging 73 regular season tackles (good enough for second on the team), three sacks and an interception.
Teammate Jordan Younger said Ball’s remarkable athleticism and speed - he’s six-foot-one and 218 pounds - suggest he is destined for great things.
“He’s probably capable of playing three or four positions, he has crazy versatility, he can play in the box, he can play in space, on special teams, he’s an exceptional dude, the sky’s the limit,” said Younger.
He may want to claim a little credit for that.
Ball say the 34-year-old veteran safety has helped him become a better pro and a better man since taking him under his wing at training camp.
“He’s taken me from some rookie off the street who has completely no idea what I’m doing out here to at least having a small idea,” Ball said.
It’s no accident that Younger has made a point of looking out for Ball.
Former Argos defensive back Byron Parker and one-time Toronto linebacker Anthony Cannon attended the same Atlanta-area high school as Ball, and urged Younger to mentor him.
“I was looking for him when he got here in training camp, they talked about how talented he was . . . seeing how enthusiastic he is about the game, and not just that, but how excited he was to learn about it. A lot of guys come up here and play hard, but they don’t have the ability to listen. He has that ear,” said Younger.
Lots of players carry reputations and Ball’s Argo teammates had heard about his problems in college, but Younger said he’s drawn the appropriate lessons.
“He shared some of his stories with us about his past, but he seems to have taken wisdom from those experiences and kind of changed his temperament,” he said. “He’s not the hot-head we thought he might be, he’s very level-headed, the only time you see an explosion is in between the white lines.”