Raiders rookie LB Neiron Ball loving life after nearly losing his
By Vic Tafur October 17, 2015Raiders linebacker Neiron Ball (58) puts the pressure on Denver RB C.J. Anderson (22) in the fourth quarter in a game the rookie played 36 snaps and shut down tight end Owen Daniels. Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images Raiders linebacker Neiron Ball (58) puts the pressure on Denver RB C.J. Anderson (22) in the fourth quarter in a game the rookie played 36 snaps and shut down tight end Owen Daniels.
Neiron Ball came out of nowhere, which is to say he has overcome many obstacles that would have stopped most people. On this particular day, in a game three weeks ago against the Browns in Cleveland, the seldom-used Raiders rookie linebacker burst through the line to sack quarterback Josh McCown.
“It felt really good,” Ball said. “My eyes got really big when I saw it coming, And then when it happened, I knew I had to celebrate, gotta make it cool.”
So Ball proceeded to dab, a dance move in which he swings his arms up while taking small steps forward and what looks like sneezing into the inside of each arm.
“That’s what you do when you are dripping in sauce,” Ball said.
Ah yes, dripping in sauce. According to urbandictionary.com, that is “when one walks around with such an abundance of flavor, swag, style, and extravagance, that they are literally dripping sauce.”
Ball, 22, is soaked in sauce now, after shutting down Denver tight end Owen Daniels in a larger role last Sunday. And for him, he is also walking around with an abundance of perseverance, heart and a feeling of raw thrill jus tot be on the football field. Or walking around at all.
“At one point, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to die,” Ball said. “I was very scared.”
Ball started getting headaches four years ago, during his sophomore season at the University of Florida. Then he felt a pain in his neck. And a loss of balance.
Coaches sent him home from the spring practice, and before the day was out, Ball was in an emergency room at the hospital. A CAT scan showed that he had a rare medical condition known as arteriovenous malformation (AVM), where the brain’s blood vessels get knotted and rupture.
Ball could have died from the bleeding on his brain, and underwent surgery involving radiation.
He sat out the 2011 season, which wasn’t a big concession considering playing football again wasn’t high on his list when he was in the hospital.
“Football wasn’t even a thought in my mind then,” Ball said. “I just wanted to live, and enjoy my life.”
When he first got out of the hospital, Ball still had some balance issues as well as being very sensitive to light. He focused on academics the year that he sat out, and the Florida trainers slowly brought him back.
“I know it was tough for him to watch the games he missed,” Florida trainer Anthony Pass said, “but Neiron is a guy who you always see smiling. He doesn’t stay down for long ... if at all.”
Ball credits his sister, Natalie, and the rest of his family for being there for him. They helped him stay patient.
After six months, Ball resumed weight-lifting and a year after he had left practice that February day in 2011, he returned to the practice field.
Ball was cleared for the 2012 season.
“One of the greatest days of my life,” Ball said. “To go from the emergency room wondering if you are going to live, to working hard to try to get football back, to being cleared. … It’s something I think back on often.”
Unfortunately, Ball had a lot of perspective to draw from as even at 18, he had long been hardened to life’s unexpected attacks.
When he was 6 years old, Ball’s mother, Johanna, died of a heart attack on Mother’s Day. She had been dealing with cancer.
When he was 9, Ball’s father, Ronnie, was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery on his throat. He died one night, hours after Neiron, feeding his father through a tube, saw him have a sudden seizure.
Ball said his grandmother, Josephine White, didn’t let him fall from the tragedies.
“She made sure I never gave up, worked hard and gave me all the values to help me get where I am today,” Ball said. “What happened to my parents was a terrible thing that I had no control of, but I had control of a lot still.”
Ball pushed to get back on the football field after his surgery (doctors say there is a very slim chance of a recurrence) and his senior year, he had 49 tackles and two sacks in the first nine games. That’s when he tore up his knee..
“That was nothing compared to what I had been through,” Ball said.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder came back once again and turned some heads at the NFL combine this year with a 4.50 40-yard dash and 34.5-inch vertical leap.
Florida teammate Dante Fowler Jr., who was picked third in the first round, wanted to yell at scouts and coaches to draft Ball.
“Neiron is freakishly athletic,” Fowler told reporters at the combine. “Any coach would love to get him. I know he’s going to be a surprise.”
The Raiders agreed and drafted him in the fifth round — “great character kid, with a lot of speed and upside,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said — and Ball has been brought on slowly but surely at all the linebacker spots. After playing only a handful of snaps in that win over the Browns, Ball played 36 snaps, 14 more than starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, against the Broncos as he took over tight-end-coverage duties.
Oakland had allowed career highs in receptions to tight ends in each of the first four games. Daniels had zero catches on five attempts last Sunday.
“We see the skills that he brings and the work ethic that he has every day and the way that he prepares, so we increased his role,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “He did a nice job in his first extended activity.
“He’s got speed and athleticism. He’s a very instinctive guy. He can really run, has a good feel for the game.”
Ball weighed 215 pounds last season and has added 15. He plans to get up to 240 pounds after a full offseason in the weight room.
“Until then, I am just playing with what I got,” Ball said. “Speed.”
And one other thing.
“Playing every play like it’s your last,” Ball said.