Montee Ball's 'low-key mentor'

Ron Dayne has been quick to offer advice to Montee Ball, who's been eager to receive it. Courtesy of Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- Montee Ball stood on the sideline Sept. 22 at Camp Randall Stadium, his eyes cast down, his helmet taken away from him, his day finished before halftime.

The Wisconsin running back suffered a concussion on a touchdown run against UTEP, his second head injury in less than two months.
Wisconsin had launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for its senior star before the season began, complete with the tagline, "This fall belongs to Ball."

Four weeks into the season, it had been anything but. Wisconsin's offense had stumbled out of the gate and Ball, a Heisman finalist in 2011, literally had nowhere to run.

Midway through the second quarter, a familiar figure wearing red approached Ball and sat down next to him on the Badgers' bench.

"He was telling me, 'This happens,'" Ball recalled. "'You just have to make sure you shake it off and come back and practice harder, and do a good job the next game.'

"He's always been there for me."

It was on the same bench in 2009 when Ball first met the man he now calls his "low-key mentor."

"Someone was patting me on the shoulder," Ball said. "I turn around and it was Ron Dayne. I was shocked."

Ball has had a strong support system during his college career. In addition to coaches, teammates and friends, his parents, Montee Sr. and Melissa, left their home in Wentzville, Mo., and moved to Sun Prairie, Wis., to be close to their son.

Yet none of them knows what it's like to be a Wisconsin superstar running back living both in the national spotlight and in the Madison fishbowl. Only one person in Ball's life can truly relate, and that's Dayne, who starred at Wisconsin from 1996-99.

"Any time we get young guys that come in who are in big roles, I love talking to them," Dayne said. "With Montee, he got to go to all the awards [shows] I've been to. My phone's open. I'll call him, check on him, see how he's doing.

"Whatever questions he shoots at me, I'll probably have answers for him."

Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, helped the Badgers to Big Ten titles in 1998 and 1999 and set the NCAA's all-time rushing record with 7,125 yards. He has lived near Madison since finishing his NFL career in 2007, and he's a regular presence at Badgers games and practices, counseling other Wisconsin backs like former Badgers P.J. Hill and John Clay.

He formed a unique connection with Ball, who has sought Dayne's advice throughout his career, even sometimes on the sideline during games. During a record-setting 2011 season, Ball came to expect text messages from Dayne after every contest.

"It's the perfect person you want to talk to in the situation I'm in because I'm in the same shoes he was," Ball said. "Why wouldn't you listen to him? The man did it all in college, and went to the league. That's my dream, so I'm most definitely going to listen to what he has to say."

Dayne never force-feeds advice on Wisconsin players, cognizant that some don't want to listen to "an old guy." But if they seek him out, he's there.

"He's the first [running back] who has been like, 'Yo, I really need to talk to you,'" Dayne said of Ball. "He's a good guy. He's a quiet guy. He doesn't brag. He doesn't talk trash. He's just a good football player, a good teammate. There isn't too much you can tell him that he doesn't know.

"And if he needs me, I'm here."

Ball is still hoping to have a long talk with Dayne about what happened the night of Aug. 1. While walking home, Ball was attacked by a group of men, who began punching and kicking him. Ball suffered a concussion and was briefly hospitalized.

Police say the attack on Ball might have been precipitated by an earlier fight involving Badgers football players. Three Wisconsin students have been charged in the attack.

"I remember that morning when Montee was attacked, I got a text from Ronnie," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "It must have been before 9 in the morning, as soon as he heard about it. So I know he genuinely cared."

Dayne was also concerned about how such an attack could have happened.

"We never even had walk-ons get jumped, let alone our star player," he said. "There'd be times somebody started fighting and guys would stand up in front of me or hold me back."

Dayne didn't go out much during his final years at Wisconsin, cognizant of the attention he'd draw. He didn't attend the annual Mifflin Street Block Party -- an event at which this spring Ball, along with hundreds of others, received a citation for trespassing -- until he was in the NFL.

For Dayne, life in Madison was football, study hall, spending time with his young daughter and relaxing with teammates. When Dayne did venture out, he always went with a large group.

"I just thought it was too much," he said. "I was able to drink, so it wasn't like I was sneaking around. But I would go in somewhere, and everybody was watching what I'm doing. I always had people around me to say, 'You're getting too drunk,' or 'You're getting too mean.' Whenever I'd be with my guys and they'd be like, 'We're going home,' I'd be like, 'OK, no problem.'"

Wisconsin tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner, a former Badgers running back, was part of Dayne's crew in the late 1990s. Faulkner remembers Dayne being "larger than life," particularly during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, but the spotlight back then was different.

"You didn't have Facebook and Twitter and all this, so there's more attention and more pressure on Montee than what Ron went through," said Faulkner, who remains close friends with Dayne and is the godfather of one of Dayne's sons. "Some of it, Montee has managed to figure out himself, but I know Ron is a great sounding board. Ron's going to give him good advice. Ron likes to see people succeed."

The days after the attack saw Ball take to Twitter to defend himself against a TMZ report that he had been involved in the earlier fight. The concussion kept Ball off of the field for the first two weeks of fall camp.

He struggled in non-league play, at least according to his standards, averaging 90 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. After tying Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record with 39 touchdowns in 2011, he reached the end zone just three times in his first four games.

Before leaving the UTEP game with the concussion, he had lost the first fumble of his career -- on his 656th carry. Although he scored three times in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, Wisconsin squandered a lead in the second half and lost. Ball fell off the Heisman radar and was labeled by some as a major disappointment.

He acknowledged that his balance, cutting and timing were off after the lack of practice time in August.

"I was kind of down on myself," Ball said. "I really looked at myself in the mirror and told myself, 'This is just adversity striking. This is a test for me, and I've got to come out of it. I've got to overcome it, and it will make me a better person.' Looking back on that, I believe it did."

Ball has turned his season around in the past three games. After a strong fourth-quarter performance against Illinois, he rushed for a career-high 247 yards, including a whopping 194 yards after contact, and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's blowout win against Purdue. Ball's third touchdown broke the Big Ten record of 71 held by Dayne.

Ball needs five more touchdowns -- of any kind -- to break Travis Prentice's NCAA record of 78.

"He [Dayne] sent me a tweet congratulating me, and I made sure to contact him back," Ball said. "Like I told him, records are meant to be broken, and soon mine will be broken. But Ron is most definitely not forgotten."

Despite the slow start, Ball ranks 12th nationally in rushing (122.8 ypg) and needs just 18 yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season. He's averaging 155.5 rush yards through four Big Ten games with 10 touchdowns.

Off the field, Ball's life is quiet.

"It's a difficult situation to be a 21-year-old, a 22-year-old and keep yourself in a shell," he said. "I most definitely have learned I live my life in a fishbowl, and it's something I have to deal with."

Ball, whose practice habits are legendary, continues to push himself. Several weeks ago he started participating in 6 a.m. weightlifting sessions with Wisconsin's development crew, a group of younger players who conduct more frequent and intense lifting sessions than others. Bielema isn't counting out Ball for another Heisman run, noting that many of Ball's best performances in 2011 came in the second half of the season.

"Whenever he's had some adversity, he comes back stronger," Bielema said. "I'll just reference what the NFL scouts have been telling me. They've been blown away by what they see in practice, what they've seen on film the last couple weeks. He's a very, very good football player who's getting stronger."

There are other records likely to fall for Ball, but he's more concerned about helping Wisconsin win another Big Ten title and get back to the Rose Bowl for the third straight year. The Badgers have won three straight and are in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders Division on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.

"You don't see him being selfish," Dayne said. "You've never heard him saying anything like, 'I'm the best running back, I did this or that.' He's just like, 'This is our team.'"

Ball still hopes to have that long talk with Dayne, perhaps next week when Wisconsin has a bye week. The senior wants to "go out with a bang." Not surprisingly, there's no better example than Dayne, who ended his career with 200 rushing yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, earning his second consecutive bowl MVP honor.

"He realizes his days here at Wisconsin are numbered," Bielema said. "There's no more decisions after this year. He's on to the next level, and he's going to leave behind here a legacy that goes way beyond records on the football field."