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THERE'S A SINGLE-MINDEDNESS TO MONTEE BALL. YOU HEAR IT IN THE WAY THAT HE speaks—measured, straight-ahead, efficiently and confidently summing up his thoughts—and see it in the way that he runs. The focused approach can be traced back to when he was eight years old. That was when Ball told his second-grade teacher in Wentzville, Mo., that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His teacher tried persuading him to envision something more attainable, but he would not change his mind.
"Montee's mother [Melissa, a customer-service representative for an electric company] and I have helped him along the way to make sure he's going after that dream," says his father, Montee Sr., a graphics designer. "If you truly know who you are in your heart, you know the decisions you have to make."
More than a decade after brushing aside that grade-school teacher, the younger Ball had a junior season at Wisconsin that was one for the ages. He led the country with 1,923 rushing yards and tied the record set by Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988 for the most touchdowns scored (39) in an FBS season. No one would have blamed Ball for promptly interrupting his studies as a sociology major and entering the 2012 NFL draft.
Yet there he was, three days after Wisconsin's 45--38 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, telling a national audience on ESPN that he would be returning to Madison. "Montee is a guy who goes by a plan," says Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "He decided that if he was a projected third-round pick or lower he'd come back, and that's what he was."
Ironically, the factor that scared off NFL front offices was the one that allowed Ball to enjoy a record season. In an effort to break more shoestring tackles and be lighter on his feet, Ball dropped a dozen pounds during the summer of 2011. He ate lean meats, ran the 3.1 miles each way between his off-campus apartment and the football facilities, and traveled everywhere else on his scooter. That dedication helped make his '11 season possible while simultaneously raising red flags among scouts.
"They thought I lost a lot of power when I slimmed down," Ball says. "Being 203 or 204 pounds and not being a speed back hurt me. I want to get back to 215 this season and bring more power." Ball's NFL dream is not his only motivation. Several school and NCAA records are within his reach. He'd also like to return to New York City as a 2012 Heisman finalist after finishing fourth in the voting last year.
Two years ago, Ball's goal was not college football's most prestigious award; it was a starting job. Early in that season the frustrated runner briefly pondered leaving Wisconsin in search of a lead-back berth. That was after Ball didn't play a snap during the Badgers' 31--18 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Week 7. "It was the first time since age eight that he didn't step on the field," Montee Sr. says. "It's been great to see him grow and mature as a football player since then. He got in the Iowa game [the following Saturday]"—catching five passes, scoring a touchdown and being named the team's co--offensive player of the week—"and has carried it through to today."
It won't be long before Ball will be carrying it through to Sundays. For now he has one more year in Madison, where he'll be charging ahead and burnishing his legacy as one of the best running backs in Wisconsin history. After that, he can go back and tell his second-grade teacher, "I told you so."