|Police have only said that Ball was present at a July party where an altercation took place. (US Presswire)|
Montee Ball has to know this is it. He's done, he's finished.
All of it is over -- the All-American legacy, the Heisman and Rose Bowl chases, his career -- if he's not telling the truth.
"If I found out there was an indication he was involved in it, he would be handled like everybody else," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said this week.
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The subject was whether the fantastic tailback and a respected teammate did anything to provoke an Aug. 1 attack by five assailants that left Ball with a concussion.
It's hard not to like Montee Ball, so we do. He's humble, soft-spoken, hard-working. The perfect Badger. But Bielema made his point firmly as camp opened this week. His All-American tailback would be risking a spot on the roster if he wasn't totally forthcoming about the events that led -- or didn't lead -- to the events of early Aug. 1. That night, Ball was beaten while walking home from a Madison establishment at 2:15 in the morning.
One assailant reportedly ran from the Ball assault saying, "nine more football players to go."
Since then we have discovered that perhaps the attack wasn't random. TMZ reported that Ball may have been involved in a July 27 altercation at a party that could have led to his ambush. Ball took to Twitter to say the accusation was "totally false."
Police have said only that Ball was present at the party. No charges have been filed. Bielema said he believes and trusts his star, but added that if Ball wasn't being truthful ... "anybody who has a [doubt] of what I will and will not do, go back on my personal record."
The coach then referred to 2009 when he threw starting safeties Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant off the team in the preseason "for things I felt strongly about, and didn't blink an eye." No reason was ever given for the players' dismissal.
Ball probably doesn't need to ask.
This has been a brilliant and troubling year, the latest product of Wisconsin's 1,000-yard tailback machine. Ball is the nation's leading returning Heisman vote getter for the defending Big Ten champs. His 39 total touchdowns last season tied Barry Sanders' single-season record. He was one-half of the first backfield combo to produce a 3,000-yard passer (Russell Wilson) and 1,900-yard rusher since Rutgers' Mike Teel and Ray Rice in 2007.
During the offseason, we learned that his first name is really pronounced Mon-tay, not Mon-tee. Cute. Ball then endeared himself to Badgers everywhere when he refused the lure of the NFL and returned for his senior season.
The decision to come back was basically made for him. Ball admits to being somewhat insulted that he was given only a third-round grade by NFL evaluators.
"It was a shock to me," he said. "I thought it would be a little higher than that. I was still shocked they would say I would go in the third round, that they would take that many backs before me. I hear a lot that I'm a product of the offense, the offensive line. I told myself, it's a mindset I have to break."
But the main subject in Badgerland -- the subject, lately -- is whether Wisconsin's All-American runner has been a victim of circumstance or is just another college knucklehead affixed with a false halo by fans and media.
Since May, Ball has been ticketed ($429!) for trespassing during an annual Madison bacchanal called the Mifflin Street Block Party, where they don't exactly hold prayer meetings. Eight days ago he was jumped, and not just the college football world sympathized. To be physically violated by a mob strikes to one of our base fears.
But did he, in the minds of the assailants, have it coming?
"I'm fairly confident the young man I've known for the last seven years of my life has been pretty straightforward ... " Bielema said. "How much potential hate can be driven toward him in a short amount of time by so many people?"
Until recently there would have been no reason to doubt Ball's character. The family is from Wentzville, Mo., a rural patch just far enough outside of St. Louis not to be called a suburb. Ball misses his friends who still drive up to visit. Parents Montee Sr. and Melissa moved to Sun Prairie, Wis., north of Madison, to be near their son.
In December, the Balls were awed by the New York skyscrapers during the Heisman visit like any first-time out-of-towners. Montee himself became close to fellow finalist Trent Richardson of Alabama, a quiet father of two.
"I would love to get back [to New York] and win it," Ball said during the Big Ten media days, which concluded shortly before the assault.
Chris Huston weighed in, having already established himself as one of the most knowledgeable Heisman experts before joining CBSSports.com this year.
"I don't think this issue will sink him unless something more tangible comes out that he did something bad, or lied about it," Huston said. "Obviously, if that happens, he'll get suspended for a game or more, and his Heisman hopes will be pretty much done."
At stake is nothing short of Wisconsin's reputation and season. The program isn't used to scandal. The embarrassing 2001 probation involving shoe discounts given to athletes was long ago. Wisconsin is emerging in the new 12-team Big Ten as the conference's best program with consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. It is a dark-horse national championship candidate this season.
Bielema, only 42, represents a young, articulate, upwardly mobile group of BCS-level coaches whose best days are ahead of them. Think of Urban Meyer without the national championships.
Still recovering from the concussion, Ball missed the start of camp this week. He is scheduled to participate in non-contact drills next week and is on track to be available for the Sept. 1 opener against Northern Iowa.
Sure, Bielema has plenty of tailback depth. If Ball can't go -- or isn't around -- the offense doesn't figure to suffer much. Junior James White has almost 1,800 yards in two seasons. Free-agent quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien figures to fit in nicely after the success of Wilson last season.
With Ohio State and Penn State banned from bowls, the Badgers only have to finish third in the Leaders Division to get to the Big Ten title game. But that's not the goal. For now, it's to eliminate the distractions. To keep the eyes on the Pasadena prize.
To believe the best player on the team.
"He hasn't give me any indication [to think] otherwise," Bielema said.