Marcus Ball knows a little something about the importance of family.
That might be part of the reason he’s such a good fit with the Argonauts defence.
When the rookie linebacker left his home in Atlanta to begin life as an Argonaut, he left one family behind and joined a new one.
“Most of our defence is brand new – a lot of rookies, a lot of young guys,” says Ball, who joined the Argos back in December. “We have to morph together and be there for each other, because a lot of these players have never been in Canada or the CFL.”
Scott Milanovich understands that it is never easy without your starter but states that the reason the Argos pursued an experienced backup was for situations like this.
“It’s all family-oriented.”
Whatever it is, it’s working for the Argos this season, playing their best defensive football since Rich Stubler led one of the most intimidating, star-studded groups the Boatmen have ever had.
The current group isn’t quite there yet, but with five starters in last week’s loss to the Als being rookies and a unit that was virtually built from scratch over the off-season, Chris Jones’ unit has turned heads.
“Defensive backs are pushing linemen, and linemen are pushing linebackers,” continues Ball. “We all know where our goals are, what we need to work for, and we just enjoy each other and come together and play.”
Unity has been the key to success for Ball and the Argos this season, and when it comes to family values, there may be no bigger expert than the Argos starting weak side linebacker.
Ball was raised with two older brothers, two younger half-brothers, and a younger half-sister by his mom Catherine and father Reggie, all of whom meant more than anything to the 25-year-old native of Atlanta, Georgia.
His brothers, who played football just like him, he could never be separated from. His mother, meanwhile, was and still is his biggest fan.
One time back when he was at Stephenson High School, located in Stone Mountain just 10 minutes from Atlanta, Catherine went to all three of the brothers’ games in a single weekend.
“That weekend she traveled to see all of us play, all of our teams won and all of us had a big game that weekend,” says Ball. “I had one of my biggest high school games career wise, and my brothers had one of their biggest college games.”
“That was one of my proudest moments to be my momma’s son, and I speak for my brothers also, because I know they were very proud. That was a very special weekend.”
That’s exactly the kind of sacrifice and support that makes a family bond so special – and it’s the same type of bond the Argos look for on a defence that continues to grow together as the season progresses.
It’s exactly the kind of sacrifice and support Ball brings to each and every last practice, game, and meeting, too.
Speed is the name of the game
Jones sure loves speed, especially when it comes to his linebackers. That’s why he knew he had a fit when he first laid eyes on Ball. “Not only does he run fast on the field, he plays extremely fast. He’s fearless,” says Jones, who’s in his first year as defensive coordinator with the Boatmen.”
Ball played safety through most of college, but with his speed and coverage skills along with his instincts and ability to make the big hit, Jones had a pretty good idea from the start of camp who his new weak side linebacker was going to be.
“He reminds me of some of the will linebackers we’ve had in the past,” says Jones, who compares Ball to former Alouettes linebacker Stefen Reid, and current Stamps linebacker Malik Jackson, among other great linebackers the accomplished coach has worked with.
Jones first saw Ball play at Pearl River back in 2008, the junior college where Ball spent a couple of years following a stint with Florida State. The coach there, a good friend of Jones’, said the linebacker is one of the most instinctual players he’s ever seen.
“So I followed him from there to Memphis and I kept track,” says Jones. “He had some bumps in the road with injuries in college, but instinctually he’s a great player. He plays with a lot of energy, plays extremely fast, and ends up in the right place a lot.”
After a tumultuous college career that included three stops, Ball found himself looking for work through all of last season. He never did get a shot in the pros in 2011, and as time went on with no chance to play the game he loves, the frustration built.
“Not being able to play ball for a whole entire year broke my heart,” he says.
That’s when his old coach at junior college talked to Jones, setting the young linebacker up with a tryout.
“Chris told me to come work out, and that was December 17th at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta last year and I’ll never forget it,” says Ball. “I worked out for him, I had a pretty decent workout and it’s been uphill ever since.”
When he received word he had been invited to mini-camp and would be receiving a contract, Ball was on his way to his girlfriend’s college graduation.
“I was kind of down because I wasn’t there already to see her walk across the stage, but on the way there when I got the call, I was ecstatic,” says Ball. “I almost broke out in tears, I couldn’t explain it. Everybody said ‘keep working, calm down’.”
“It was a dream-come-true, as simple as that.”
Then, there was the matter of coming into training camp and earning a spot on the roster – something even Ball knew was far from guaranteed.
“I knew I had been out of football for a year and this is pro ball, guys have been doing this for 10 years and for me to not be playing for a year and just coming out of college, never having played in Canada before – to be honest I didn’t expect anything but to have to work the hardest.”
Suddenly, he’s gone from training camp hopeful coming off a full season without playing professional football, to starting weak side linebacker for the Toronto Argonauts.
“I started at the bottom of the totem pole and worked my way up, and to be one of the starters of this defence, I take pride in it, I’m humbled by it,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for me each and every day to know I’m one of the guys that’s looked up to each and every day on this defence, and I accept that role and embrace it.”
There’s little doubt he’s rewarded his coach’s faith, playing a major role in the Argos success defensively, and giving the team an exceptional talent from that spot on the field.
Measuring in at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, Ball’s chipped in with 48 tackles and three sacks so far this season. And as he continues to gain confidence and play a larger role in each and every game, there’s no telling what the ceiling is for the crushing linebacker.
Still, the biggest thing for Ball is and always will be winning football games. The rookie linebacker knows that if everyone on the defence continues to support each other, just like a family, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.
“We’re very strong, we’re very athletic, we’re very fast, and we’re very smart,” says Ball. “We’ve got guys across the board, offence and defence, who have rings, who have cups. We just have to be more consistent and perfect our craft in what we do and get better at what we do.”
As Ball hopes his family on the field will continue to grow, his family off it won’t stop either.
The young linebacker and his girlfriend are expecting their first child in mid-November – right around the time Ball’s field mates will be fighting for the team’s first Grey Cup championship since 2004.
While the timing might be a little inconvenient, he says he couldn’t be happier with his predicament. “It’s going to be a very exciting time, it’s going to be tough but at the same time I’m very happy to be in this kind of dilemma,” says Ball.
If anything could make such a dilemma worth it, it would be winning a Grey Cup – something Ball says he knows his team can accomplish.
“What you all see on the outside doesn’t even compare to what we know we’re capable of,” he says. “We know what we can do because we’ve seen it on the practice field, we’ve seen it in the meetings, answering questions and drawing up schemes and everything.”
“We know we can do all these things, we know we can be undeniably the best.”