Ball Returns With Surprising Start

Neiron Ball didn't know when he would get on the field after Darrin Kitchens beat him out for the starting SAM linebacker spot. After Kitchens got injured on the first kickoff of the game, Ball was forced onto the field sooner than expected. There was a quick moment of nerves, but after 20 months away from a college football game, it came back quick once Ball got back on the field.

The first few plays on the field were about shaking the "whole lot of rust" that Ball thought was hindering him. Ball was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), where the brain's blood vessels tangle and rupture, and missed the entire 2011 season with it.

Saturday was about more than the win or the one tackle Ball was credited with. It was about being back on the field.

"I was definitely nervous but excited at the same time," Neiron Ball said.

Sitting in his hospital room in the spring of 2011, Ball questioned if Saturday would ever happen. Before those questions even entered his mind, there were other questions—ones about his life and whether or not he would survive and make it out of the hospital.

It's that perspective that made Saturday even more special for Ball.

"It was a head injury. Of course, I think that would run through anybody's mind," Ball said about never playing football again. "Forget football. I'm thinking about living. After I found out that I was okay and got out of the hospital, it wasn't a thought anymore. I just knew I would be back."

Once he got out of the hospital and was eventually cleared by the Florida medical staff, Ball had another hurdle to clear. He had to convince his family and friends that he was okay and prepared to play college football again. That might have been the hardest part.

Sitting in a hotel room with doubt about how serious his brain injury was, it took some extra work for Ball to convince everyone he was okay to play.

"Some of my family and even some of my friends would be like, ‘be careful, protect you first and make sure you're healthy.'"

Ball said he played okay but knows there's still work that will go into his game. His pass rush skills weren't a feature against a West Coast style of offense that got the ball out of the Bowling Green quarterback's hands in a hurry.

None of that mattered to Ball after the game. His ear-to-ear grin signaled the crossing of a hurdle bigger than stopping an offense or making a tackle.

"It was amazing," Ball said. "It was an amazing feeling. I couldn't believe it. I'm so thankful for it. Today means to me that I should take advantage of every opportunity I get and always thank God."

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