Montee Ball is returning to the place where he found football stardom.
It's also where the drinking that destroyed his personal and professional life began.
Ball won’t be taking classes at the University of Wisconsin this summer as a gridiron hero. And even though he’s still young enough to play professionally at age 26, Ball has no interest in that kind of comeback.
Ball will be a regular student with completely different goals than when he left for the NFL four years earlier.
He isn’t just seeking to graduate.
He is seeking redemption while trying to warn others not to let alcohol take them down the same path.
While breaking rushing records for the Badgers, Ball was setting himself up for failure to come. The heavy partying that began during his 2011 junior season didn’t stop after he became a Denver Broncos second-round draft pick two years later.
The boozing continued throughout his time in Denver and after his 2015 release.
A domestic violence arrest in February 2016 left him watching his former Denver teammates win Super Bowl 50 from jail. New England, which had signed Ball to its practice squad, unceremoniously dumped him. Another domestic violence arrest followed after claims made to police by a girl he dated several years earlier; claimsthat Ball adamantly denies.
Ball still had not yethit rock bottom.
That moment came last April. One week following the birth of a son he didn't know was his until just three months prior, Ball was arrested for violating terms of his bond when spotted drinking inside a Whitewater, Wis., bar.
"I just couldn’t handle all this,"Ball told Sporting Newsin an exclusive interview.
Ball grew so frustrated that he took to Instagram to vent about how he was being portrayed in the media far more negatively than Johnny Manziel, another high-profile player who had his NFL career derailed by a reckless lifestyle and domestic-violence incident. Ball, though, knew deep down it would take more than words to not only change his image but get his life in order.
The process began after Ballsawhis son for the first time the week after the Whitewater arrest. It continued after Ball finally committed himself to confront the alcoholism and domestic violence that ran in his family.
Cory Devine, the addictions and mental health therapist who treats Ball through Connections Counseling in Madison, believes “he’s made a ton of progress"in doing just that.
"Around early summer last year Montee really shifted into a different stage,"Devine told Sporting News in a telephone interview. “He acknowledged being an alcoholic, which is a significant thing, and coming from a domestic violence background himself.
"He recognized, ‘This is a pattern I've got to stop. It's my responsibility to do so.'"
Ball is keeping track of the days he has remained sober and is determined to avoid another relapse while starting a new chapter in his life.
"I don’t want to whine or seek public pity,"Ball said. "But I do want to explain everything and give everybody some insight on what I’ve been battling."
Ball didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds for the substance-abuse issues hewould face were planted long before he ever donned a helmet and pads. Ball said his grandfather was an alcoholic, and that addiction was passed down to his father.
Research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that children of alcoholics are at greater risk of developing the disease themselves.
That’s what began happening with Ball in 2011.
"I started to drink a lot more and it started to pour into football,” Ball said. "If I knew we had a super-easy practice the next day, I'd go out and get drunk with a whole bunch of people. I'd wake up drunk, hit the steam room and go to practice."
The negative effects were notevident during his collegiate playing days. Ball became the most prolific scorer in Division I/FBS history with 77 rushing touchdowns and 83 overall scores. He won the 2012DoakWalker Award as the nation’s top running back after motoring for 1,850 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior despite having suffered serious injuries earlier that year during an on-campus assault.
Such success gave Ball no incentive to change his modus operandi when the Broncos made him the third running back selected in the 2013 draft behind Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard and Pittsburgh’s LeVeon Bell. Ball never started as a rookie but contributed with 559 rushing yards and four touchdowns. His rookie season ended with an appearance — albeit an unsuccessful one — for Denver in Super Bowl 48.
Rather than fuel his passion for an even better second season, Ball began to gradually lose his love of football.
"Ultimately, I didn't really enjoy the NFL as much as college,"Ball said. "It’s a business.
"All in all, I was very fortunate to play for the Broncos. They were my favorite team as a child. My ultimate goal was to play for the Broncos. But it wasn't what thought I thought it would be. It's a very lonely, lonely world. (The NFL)is a very money-driven organization that kind of takes away from the joy of the sport."
Ball began taking more and more solace in Denver’s club scene. Outside of the "good relationships"formed with his fellow running backs, Ball said the teammates he became closest with upon joining the Broncos were “gone within four or five months"after being released.
Taking their place were hanger-ons that didn’t have Ball'sbest interests at heart and abandoned him once the good times ended. Ball said he keeps in touch with just one friend from Denver.And the only football-related person to visit while he was going through his legal difficulties was former college teammate Chris Borland, who retired from the NFL after one season because of concussion concerns.
Ball admits he didn’t listen to warnings about avoiding lecherous associates and how an NFL career can be short-lived during regular seminars presented by the Broncos and NFL Players Association.
"I wouldn’t take any of it seriously,” Ball said. "I was naïve enough to think my playing days would last forever. I would literally sit in the back of the room texting or being on Instagram not paying attention to the professional explaining to me about preparing for life after football and how important it is.
"I failed to use my platform to help others and to use the NFL as a stepping stone in life. I surrounded myself with bad people, not on the team but in the city. I was naïve enough to believe I had all the answers.
"I’m still kicking myself in the butt for that."
Ball was trashing his body and mind at the same time he was ignoring the NFL's outreach. He would usually drink to excess on four nights (Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday) during a normal in-season week featuring a Sunday game.
Ball said Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville suspected something was wrong when he askedBallto stay following onerunning backs meeting.
"He talked about how he could smell the alcohol on me and that he thinks I may have a problem with drinking,"Ball said. "He said if I needed any help with that he could reach out to people I could talk to.
"I didn't listen to him."
Ball opened the 2014 season as Denver’s starting running back but suffered a Week 5groin injury that landed him on injured reserve. The stat line from what proved to be his final NFL regular-season game —six carries for seven yards playing as a backup —was reflective of his off-field problems.
Ball was cut by Denver just before the start of the 2015 regular season and went unclaimed despite his lofty draft status. At the time of his release, Ball sent out a tweet thanking the Broncos for a "fun ride … many lessons learned (and) met some great lifelong friends!"
The reality was far different than what was written.
"The disease had spread through my entire life,"Ball said of his alcoholism. “I was super depressed and didn’t have anyone I could speak to out there."
Montee Ball (28)is helped off the field after an injury during the Broncos' 41-20 home win over the Cardinals on Oct.5, 2014. (Getty Images)
When a new team didn't quickly materialize, Ball gained weight and reportedly was 30 pounds heavier than his listed size of 213 pounds for what proved to be an unsuccessful tryout with Green Bay. New England gave Ball a shot on its practice squad in December 2015, but that stint would prove to be short-lived after a domestic violence arrest two months later, following a late-night fight with his then-girlfriend.
Ball vehemently denies her claim in the police report that he tossed her through a table: "I’m a strong man but not physically capable of that,"he said. Ball does admit to shoving her when an argument escalated.
"I take full responsibility and will take that to my grave,"he said. "I was intoxicated and pushed her out of my way while trying to get my stuff and go to another hotel."
Had the Patriots beaten the Broncos in the AFC championship game in January 2016, Ball probably wouldhave spent Super Bowl 50 weekend in the Bay Area with his New England teammates. Instead, he watched Denver capture the Lombardi Trophy from a Madison, Wis., jail cell following his Feb. 5 arrest.
"It brought tears to my eyes,"he said. "At one point, I was on top of the world and now watching the team that cut me a few months prior from a jail cell, that stung a lot."
The Patriots didn't wait to see whether Ball would be exonerated or even ask for his side of the story. Shortly after the season, hewas releasedwithout ever being personally informed by a team official.
"I read it on the internet and then got a phone call from my agent,"Ball said. "That was fine. It was actually the least of my worries."
As he dealt with that fallout, another domestic violence accusation that was made by a woman he had dated two years earlierled to more charges. Ball said what he was accused of never happened. Hepossesses documentation that casts those claims into question, and he shared the information with Sporting News under the condition it was not publicly released.
"The entire second case, I can prove she was lying on every single statement,"Ball said.
But rather than state his case in court, Ball accepted a plea dealfor both cases last August that resulted in a 60-day jail sentence (served as house arrest), 18 months probationand mandatory alcohol and domestic-violence counseling.
The reason: Ball doubted he could receive a fair jury trial based upon his race and the negative perception of NFL players toward domestic violence following the well-publicized case of Ray Rice. Under that circumstance, Ball said the plea deal was his best option considering he was facing six charges that included two felonies.
"It's a sensitive topic,"Ball said. "With the whole Ray Rice situation at the forefront of people’s minds, there's no way I could come out of that trial without being convicted of at least one felony. I believe I would have to prove my innocence in court rather than the prosecution having to prove guilt without a reasonable doubt.
"I don’t want to live life as a black convicted felon. I never want to throw the race card in there because it’s not my motto, but I can't ignore it, either."
As his legal situation was unfolding last spring, another bombshell hit. Ball received a phone call from a girl he had dated in Denver telling him she was six months pregnant. A paternity test would confirm he was the father.
Montee believes Maverick Ball’s birth was his saving grace.
"That was the turning point,"Ball said. "I finally realized I have a purpose —to raise that kid. That's a responsibility I will take."
As he grew a greater understanding about alcoholism through counseling, Ball began to rebuild the relationship with his father that had crumbled in his second NFL season. He worked with a non-profit health organization.
Ball has started to look toward a post-NFL career that will keep him close to sports while also giving him a platform to tell his cautionary tale to young athletes.
This month, Ball will participate in a mental wellness program offered by Richard Davidson, the renowned founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at Wisconsin. He also will fly to Cleveland for an NFLPA-sponsored"Brain and Body"screening to determine the extent of physical carnage suffered while playing.
In the long term, Ball wants to start a charitable foundation. He already is in the process of writing a book about alcohol awareness and his personal struggles.
He is anxious to resume work on his old campus,finishing a sociology degree before pursuing a master's program. Fiercely loyal to his alma mater, Ball is taking advantage of a Wisconsin reentry program that allows former athletes to finish their degrees.
"I'm really focused on improving my image and relationships that I destroyed,"he said. "I let down the fans, the entire University of Wisconsin and my family. I want people to know I am deeply sorry.
"I feel way better now. I feel like I’m free."
And determined to stay that way.