The Way I Am
This article appears in the September 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
The biggest battles of Marcus Ball's young life took place every night at the dinner table several years ago.
Seated beside two older brothers with healthy appetites — Reggie, now a 20-year-old junior quarterback at Georgia Tech, and Raeshon, now a 19-year-old sophomore cornerback at Central Michigan — Ball had his hands full just trying to shovel his fair share of food onto his plate.
"That was the greatest competition anybody has ever seen," says Ball, a 6-foot, 205-pound blue-chip senior linebacker at Stephenson. "Fighting over food was a big deal. My mom had to look the other way. You know, only the strong survive."
It seems Ball must have come away with his fair share of grub. And then some. He already outweighs 200-pound Reggie and 180-pound Raeshon.
More to the point, Ball may end up outperforming both siblings on the football field.
Coming off a junior season in which he recorded 136 total tackles, 73 solo stops, eight sacks and three fumble recoveries, Ball is rated the nation's No. 56 recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. And he plays with a hunger more potent than anything he encountered at the dinner table growing up.
"Marcus has what I call field speed," says Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell, who led the Jaguars to the Region 2-AAAAA title and the state quarterfinals in 2003, Ball's first season as a starter. "He runs the field as well as anyone I've ever coached. Side to side and goal to goal. That's what makes him so dangerous. The play can start away from him or at him, and he can make the play either way."
Ball's personality mirrors his play. Unwavering. In your face. He's 18 years old and never hesitates to speak his mind. With Marcus Ball, it is what it is.
For example, his favorite athlete is controversial Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis, and he readily confesses to what may be an abnormal fondness for the rhymes of equally controversial rapper B.G.
"People don't even understand how big he is for me," says Ball, who is undecided and wide open as far as picking a college destination. "I listen to so much B.G. He keeps it real."
Ball also refuses to sugarcoat the downside of being a top recruit. Even when he's speaking directly to someone he considers part of the downside.
"Talking to reporters is already so old," says Ball, who also gets snaps at running back for Stephenson. "You guys ask the same things over and over. I'm getting used to the whole thing. You just can't get hyped up about it."
Like we said, it is what it is.
But surely this guy can't just brush off the pressure and expectations that go along with being a player of his stature. After all, Ball has been in the spotlight ever since earning meaningful playing time on a 12-1 regional title team as a freshman. Somehow, though, Ball takes everything in stride.
"Man, I don't care what people say," he says. "I might have a bad game, but that might be somebody else's good game, so I'm not going to stress about it. As long as we win, anybody else can say anything else they want. My own team knows what I did."
Ball's seemingly invincible attitude isn't lost on Gartrell.
"When you talk about a freestyle, freelance type of kid, this is it," Gartrell says. "Marcus says what's on his mind and goes about his business. You have to give him credit for that. A lot of adults don't do that."
True enough. Not to mention, most peeps can't play football at the level Ball does. Yet, somehow Ball draws little satisfaction from what he's done. He's more interested in — check that, obsessed with — what he has yet to do.
If Marcus Ball had a crystal ball, he'd stare right into its core and say there's no way to predict the future. The only thing a fella can control is how hard he works.
"You can never be satisfied," Ball says. "If you're good, you can't do nothing but get better. There'll always be somebody out there who's bigger, faster and stronger. To get where I want to be, I gotta work every day.
"I've been trying to prove myself all my life," he adds. "You have to prove yourself somehow. If you want to be the best, you have to go up against the best."
These days, teams trying to block Ball are the ones going up against the best. Some opposing coaches even plan their entire offensive schemes around containing him.
"We run into a number of teams that either don't have the personnel or the type of scheme that can control him," says Gartrell, who's in his 10th year at the helm of the Jaguars. "Of course, the better teams do a better job with him. But he has such great field speed and vision, he can overcome. A lot of times, he doesn't do things that are fundamentally correct, but his athleticism makes up for his mess up."
For his part, Ball says you can analyze and dissect his game all you want, but his effectiveness boils down to a pretty basic principle — resolve.
"My strength is that I don't stop, plain and simple," Ball says. "I'm a very visible player on the playing field. I'm not going to disappear and sneak in somewhere. I catch a lot of double- and triple-teams, and the key is to keep moving. Keep running. You might luck out and get me one play or the next, but I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to lay down. Sooner or later, you're mine."
"He's gonna play to the end," Gartrell says. "There's no quit in him. He trains that way and he plays that way."
That's because once upon a time, he had to eat that way.