Growing up in Beaumont, Ball worked summers in his grandfather's railroad car-cleaning business, hauling trash and sweeping up debris for $2.50 a car. By age 14, he was keeping the books and learning a sense of financial responsibility that still guides him today. Ball likes to point out that even though he's making more than $1 million a year with Detroit, he gets most of the things he purchases for himself, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Faren, 6, and Lindsey, 2, through deals and trade-offs and bargain-hunting. His Detroit-based clothing company, Ice Box Sportswear, is frugally run yet poised to leap into the expanding market of NFL products. "We don't give a lot of licenses," says Mike Ornstein, a senior marketing director for NFL Properties. "And it's unusual to give one to an active player, but Jerry's product is good. Plus he's such a nice guy."
Says Ball about his decision to start Ice Box Sportswear earlier this year, "I'd like people to know I'm not just a knuckle-head making tackles."
Ball of Confusion
The big guy wasn't always so together. When his predominantly black high school merged with a predominantly white one to form Westbrook High in 1982, Ball discovered that racism was a big factor in the workings of the world. Indeed, racial politics threatened to derail Westbrook's march to the state football title until, after a 0-3 start, the players, black and white, all got together and told the bickering adults to leave them alone and let them play. "That changed me," says Ball. "That was my first exposure to politics in action."
He decided then not to be anybody's patsy but to speak up for whatever he thought was right and to ask for whatever he thought he deserved. That's why he reportedly took under-the-table cash from SMU boosters and why he accepted money from notorious sports agent Norby Walters. If the system was going to use him, by god, he would use it, too.
A tempering element has been provided by Michelle, who fell for Ball in the seventh grade and married him while they were in college. "He was cute and gentle," she says. It doesn't matter to her that, at 112 pounds, she equals about one third of her hubby's mass. "When I fell in love, it was head over heels," she says.
Fortunately for Ball, Fontes loves him, too. Ball's contract has no weight clause. "If he thought he was heavy, he would do something about it," says Fontes. Ball still thinks of himself as a lean machine, even though in recent years he has "buried" the needle on his home scale at times during the off-season. The scale goes to 330.
Ball of Fun
"I love fun," says Ball. But he hates chop blocks. Last December he was set up by New York Jet center Jim Sweeney and then blocked on the right knee by running back Brad Baxter. The severely sprained knee sidelined Ball for the Lions' last two regular-season games plus their first trip to the playoffs since 1983. Ball was furious after the Jet game, but the block was legal, and Baxter said he wasn't trying to hurt Ball. In March the NFL instituted the so-called Jerry Ball Rule, which outlawed the type of block that injured him.
This season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ball was continually wham-blocked on the legs. The wham is a legal block by a man in motion that is usually delivered above the waist, and the Bucs' hits on his legs frosted Ball royally. Afterward, Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry said the whams were necessary because Ball is so good. "It's unfortunate for him," said Mayberry, "but he's earned it."