Tuesday marks the first day of what Neiron Ball hopes will be many minicamps in his NFL career.
Four years ago, the idea of practicing football suddenly became insignificant in Ball’s world.
“Football wasn’t on my mind much, I was just trying to live,” Ball said in a telephone interview Monday after working out at the Oakland Raiders’ facility. “I just wanted to live.”
After dealing with unspeakable tragedy as a child, Ball, a high-energy outside linebacker, was preparing for his sophomore season at the University of Florida when he had to stop a workout.
"I developed a headache and was feeling off balance,” Ball recalled. “I was sent home to rest and I never felt any better. I was taken to the emergency room and then everything was discovered and it all got kind of fuzzy after that.”
Ball underwent emergency brain surgery after physicians discovered that he was bleeding on his brain. Ball was diagnosed with a rare condition called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). It's a congenital condition in which the brain's blood vessels get tangled and rupture.
It was another in a series of shocking, life-altering events for Ball, then 18-years old.
When he was 6, Ball’s mother, Johanna, who was fighting cancer, died on Mother’s Day after suffering a heart attack.
Three years later, Ball’s father, Ronnie, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Soon after, Ball watched his father have a sudden seizure. He died that night.
“When Neiron had his brain surgery, it was so tough to see,” said Dary Myricks, Ball’s brother-in-law. Myricks, who entered Ball’s life when Ball was a toddler, was a high school football coach in the Atlanta area. Myricks also became a father figure to Ball after his dad died.
“This is a kid who has gone through a lot in life -- a lot,” Myricks said. “He’s seen so much death. … For him to be dealing with an uncertain future, it was just so hard to watch.”
However, the surgery was a success and physicians assured Ball and his family he eventually would be able to resume a normal life. Ball sat out the 2011 season. Physically, he focused on regaining his balance and dealing with some sensitivity to light. Myricks credits the Florida coaching staff for sticking with Ball and helping him focus on his academics while he recovered. A year later, he was cleared to resume playing football.
“I will never forget the day I was cleared,” Ball said. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I will always cherish it.”
Doctors told Ball and his family that while there is a small chance of a recurrence of his AVM, it’s highly unlikely. Myricks said physicians assured the family that football presents no specific danger because of Ball's condition, and if he were to have a complication, it would be just as likely to occur if he were mowing the lawn as if he were running on a football field.2
Once he resumed football, Ball continued to excel for the Gators. Even though his 2014 season was cut short with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery, Ball was closely scouted. He had an excellent showing at the Florida pro day and he visited about a dozen NFL teams prior to the Raiders taking Ball in the fifth round on May 2.
“NFL teams did their homework on him medically,” Myricks said. “It was an emotional day when the Raiders took him. It was such a long road.
“But to me, what I think the Raiders are getting in Neiron as much as a good football player, is a great kid. He’s a great kid. The Raider Nation should feel good that he is going to represent them and the people who drafted him well.”
Myricks said Ball’s ability to get through the hard times of his life has made him a stronger, more mature person. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Ball continues to make strides after having microfracture surgery, which can come with big complications.
Ball has his sights set on contributing on special teams early in his Oakland career. He is thankful for getting this far.
“I try to get stronger every day in life,” Ball said. “I thank God every day for getting me this far and allowing me to function through all of this.”