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Game Ball
Rick Telander
October 19, 1992
When Lion nosetackle Jerry Ball comes to play, somebody has to pay
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October 19, 1992

Game Ball

When Lion nosetackle Jerry Ball comes to play, somebody has to pay

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Of his constituency the Governor says sweetly, "They're all victims." (Wouldn't that be a nice bumper sticker?) He feels compelled regularly "to check the hearts" of his teammates, especially those of the rookies and the tough guys. And the underachievers. And the fast guys. And the cocky guys. And....

"See, I've always wrestled everybody on the team," says Ball. "But with a guy who knows I can whip him, like Cofer [Michael Cofer, a 6'5", 245-pound outside linebacker], I'll only go so far. The last time we locked up, I had a chance to break his back, but I held up."

Rumor in the Lions' den has it that Cofer has been working since last season to enlist 10 or more teammates to aid him in attacking Ball, taping him into submission and dumping him in a laundry hamper. "I'm waiting," says the Governor. "If it happens, I will...get...them...all. And Cofer, I will get triple." His eyes are as dewy as a puppy's, his voice east-Texas soft. "No sir. They don't want to start."

Ball of Fire

Jerry Lee Ball, who was named after his dad, not the lunatic piano player, was born in Beaumont, Texas, 27 years ago. As the saying goes, he was big when he was little. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he went a few blocks away to live with his grandparents Earlean and Eugene Ball, who later adopted Jerry. Though Ball is friendly with his biological parents, one of his lingering memories of them from his youth is that they were not there when he played sports. "I kind of have a complex about that," he says. "My grandparents supported me, but they were older and couldn't come to many events. I didn't play catch with my dad. I'd win a football game, and there wouldn't be anybody waiting for me, so I'd just get on the bus."

He was a standout in sandlot baseball and playground basketball, dazzling sleeker opponents with his agility, speed and jumping ability, a stellar shot-putter and a cannonball on the gridiron. He played fullback, defensive end and linebacker at Westbrook High and led the Bruins to the 1982 Texas 5A championship as a senior. As he rumbled over would-be tacklers, Westbrook fans would chant, "Ice Box! Ice Box!" Says Ball, "Got that name in 1973 from a buddy who said I got this gap in my teeth from running into an icebox."

Though Ball still brags about his prowess running with the ball—his 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings this season becomes more remarkable with each retelling, and he once insisted that Sanders watch videotapes of him trampling bodies for old Westbrook—he knows he was meant to play nosetackle. A position likened by former Cleveland Brown Bob Golic to that of a fire hydrant at a dog show, the nose, says Ball, can only be played by a man "with a neurological disorder."

The coaches at SMU decided that Ball was such a man, and he subsequently put on 40 pounds and developed into a 285-pound All-America groundhog. Detroit took him in the third round of the '87 draft, and he started every game as a rookie. Ball is unique among nosetackles because of his combination of strength, weight and quickness. He lines up with his helmet almost touching the center's. Then on the snap, says Lion linebacker Chris Spielman, "he creates a lot of havoc."

Ball can make tackles from sideline to sideline, and no center can block him one-on-one. "It's impossible," says Spielman. "If the center tries to, Jerry will make every play, and the center will end up three yards in the backfield."

Which was what happened last season against the Indianapolis Colts when Ball mowed over center Brian Baldinger and tackled running back Eric Dickerson in the end zone for the only safety of Dickerson's 10-year pro career. "And I said I was going to do it," says Ball.

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