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Mental illness, alcoholism wrecked his NFL career; Now, Montee Ball helps others avoid the same fate

Posted at 9:31 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-29 00:54:49-04

DENVER — Montee Ball always wanted to be a Denver Bronco.

His dream came true in 2013 when John Elway drafted him in the second round.

"That's something I will never, ever forget," Ball said. "I'm still a die-hard fan to this day."

Ball's talent on the football field was undeniable from a young age. He graduated from high school in 2009 as the St. Louis area's all-time leader in rushing. But he became a star in Madison, Wisconsin, where he played running back for the University of Wisconsin.

"That immediate stardom was like a cultural shock in a sense," Ball said. "Everywhere you went, it felt like people were judging you, staring at you. At times, I really felt like I couldn't focus in class because people were all looking at me or asking me for autographs."

Ball set the NCAA record for career touchdowns during his time in Wisconsin. The team won the Big Ten multiple times.

But privately, Ball was struggling.

"Depression and anxiety," Ball said. "Significant depression, actually, because I paired that with self-medicating with alcohol. And as we all know, that's a slippery slope. There were many times where my running back coach at the time, named Thomas Hammock, would smell it on me that morning of practice, and he would pull me aside and chat."

Hammock, who is currently the head coach for Northern Illinois University, remembers those conversations with Ball.

"I wanted him to understand, everything you do matters, both on and off the field," Hammock said. "You have to understand, now is not the time to be coming to practice hung over. When he was in the building, he was the hardest working guy in the program, but obviously, he liked to have a good time outside the building."

"I really didn't know how to speak on it," Ball said of his mental health problems in college. "I really didn't know who to talk to. I didn't even know that I was suffering from it, you know what I mean?"

A few short months after Ball's last game with the University of Wisconsin — a 20-14 loss to Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl — the Denver Broncos selected him with the 58th pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

"[It was] as if I packed my alcoholism in a suitcase and took off to Denver," Ball said.

Ball came to the Broncos one year after Peyton Manning joined the team. Fans pegged him as a possible solution to the team's running-back-by-committee arrangement.

The team made the Super Bowl in Ball's rookie year, but he was barely a factor in the team's embarrassing 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. And rumors were swirling about how Ball's off-field antics were affecting his performance on the field.

"Without throwing him under the bus, they were saying there was stuff going on," said Troy Renck, a long-time sports reporter who currently serves as Denver7's Broncos Insider. "Not being able to maintain a healthy weight and a healthy outlook. You know, I had some guys tell me maybe his lifestyle choices were contributing to issues with him not being in condition."

"I was trying to manage my depression," Ball said, "but not knowing I was trying to manage it, or even knowing that I had it. Going years and years battling depression and not really knowing it, it only started to build upon itself, until it really started to tear me down mentally."

Years of mental illness and alcohol abuse had taken its toll.

"I became super withdrawn from all my friends," Ball said. "I started drinking four nights out of the week."

Ball's old coach, Hammock, remained an influence in his life even after the move to Denver, but there wasn't much Hammock could do to keep Ball away from the bottle.

"He's a grown man, right?" Hammock said. "And he's got a mind of his own. I was trying to be more of a support structure for him, as opposed to telling him, 'Hey, you shouldn't be doing this,' because they can shut you out, and I never wanted him to shut me out."

The Broncos named Ball the starting running back ahead of the 2014 season. He suffered a groin injury a few weeks into the season.

At the time, he did not realize the injury would mark the end of his professional career.

"When Denver released me, I actually had a conversation with Elway," Ball said. "And he shared with me that he's kind of heard around town that he heard I liked to party and that I liked to party hard. And he's not lying. He wasn't lying at all."

Ball joined the New England Patriots briefly after his release from the Broncos. But the Patriots released him when news broke of a February 2016 arrest for felony domestic abuse.

In arrest paperwork, the victim said she was on a hotel bed when Ball "grabbed her and threw her across the room." The victim said "it all happened very quickly and that once she was able to gain her composure, she was lying on the ground and she felt pain to the back of her head and to her leg."

When arresting officers told her Ball was in jail, she broke down in tears, according to arrest paperwork. She said "she never meant to get him into trouble, but stated that she understood why Ball was at the Dane County Jail." She told police it was not the first time he hit her.

"I literally was at rock bottom," Ball said. "That being my feet standing on the concrete floor of jail."

Ball, the life-long Broncos fan who achieved his dream of joining the team, sat in a jail cell as Peyton Manning led the team to a victory in Super Bowl 50.

"That really showed me, okay, this can not go with me into my future," Ball said. "I can not be drinking moving past this point, because that is not the Montee that I even know."

Shortly after his arrest, Ball found out he would become a father. He says it's the day he entered recovery.

"I want for him to understand that his father is not perfect," Ball said. "His father has made mistakes, and his father is a recovering alcoholic. And I also want him to know that if he ever, ever comes across a situation that he's confused about, that he can feel comfortable coming to me and talking to me about it.

These days, Ball is a force for mental health. He works with Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, mentoring people as they struggle with mental illness and substance abuse issues.

He also has a book coming out this summer.

"I'm a firm believer that football is not supposed to be the end of my journey," Ball said. "Football is just the start of it, to let me sort of grab everybody's attention and speak on something that impacts every single person in America, on the planet."