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August 3, 2017

Landry: Marcus having a Ball in second CFL stint

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

It was right in the middle of a game still in doubt. Right in the middle of a contested moment between the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night. Tension all around as a TSN camera operator plunked their camera down on the ground to get an artful, tight shot of a yellow challenge flag laying on the turf.

All of a sudden, a player’s head was seen intruding sideways in the shot, a bright and friendly “hello” chirped into the open microphone.

Even in the middle of the building stress of a game on the line, Argos’ linebacker Marcus Ball was going to take time for a little levity.

“I just wanted to send a quick hello,” the 30-year-old veteran chuckled as we chatted a few moments after he and his teammates had put in some prep time for Thursday night’s home game against the Calgary Stampeders. “This game is fun,” he added. “It’s a fun game. If it’s not fun then we’re out here for the wrong reasons.”

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In his second stint with the Argonauts, Ball has collected 30 total tackles and one interception in six games so far this season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

With apologies to better writers who would not go down this path, here it is anyway: Marcus is having a ball in his second stint with the Toronto Argonauts.

With 28 tackles – two more on special teams – and a key, late-game interception against the Ottawa REDBLACKS a couple of weeks back, Ball has picked up where he left off with the Argos, rejoining the team after three seasons in the NFL. “I hope I’m better,” he laughed when asked if he’s a different man, a different player, this time around.

If not better, Ball is certainly similar, showcasing the same kinds of talents that popped eyes back when he wore a younger man’s clothes. A veteran-laden defence – with many new faces nevertheless – has looked much sharper than the double blue defence of 2016, and Ball’s persistent antagonism of opposing offences has been a big part of that improvement.

He has found a happy place and a happy scheme in which to play, insisting that the here and now is all that matters, with the “here” being an important part of his happiness.

“I’m a happily married man, I’m a father of two,” said Ball, referring to his wife, Ashley, and his children, Marley and Blaise, who were very likely the intended receivers of his sideways camera moment. “I’m a blessed individual.”

Marcus Ball is having a good time and the league that’s embraced him not once but twice, now, is a big reason why.

“I just wanted to go somewhere where I appreciated it,” Ball said of his reasons for returning to the CFL. “Somewhere where it was fun. Where I was appreciated.”

“Now, when it came to which team, it was no question I was coming to Toronto. I love Toronto. Toronto loves me. I love it here. It’s getting better than last time.”

After NFL tours with New Orleans, Carolina and San Francisco, Ball decided to no longer play a waiting game down south, signing with the Argonauts shortly before training camps opened. While a fondness for the city played a big part in his decision, so too did head coach Marc Trestman’s faith in veteran quarterback Ricky Ray. Ball was adamant; Ray had made a big impact on him when he first arrived in Canada five years ago.

“We developed a great relationship,” said Ball. “I know Ricky and he’s a great competitor. He has a huge heart. He’s a great team guy, he’s a leader. Once I’d seen Ricky was still doing it… I’ll play with Ricky Ray any day of the week.”

If Ball’s first stint with Toronto was notable for him because of the impression Ray made, it was notable, too, for football fans who were taken aback by Ball’s impact. As a 25-year-old, he joined the Argos in 2012 and immediately impressed with his closing speed and backpedaling prowess when it came to dropping into pass coverage. He racked up 75 tackles during his rookie season, adding three sacks and picking off a pass that he returned for a touchdown. Ball was named the team’s defensive player of the year and he added to his resume by picking off three more passes during the playoffs and adding six tackles on Grey Cup Sunday, the Argos besting Calgary by a score of 35-22.

“It’s a fun game. If it’s not fun then we’re out here for the wrong reasons.”

Marcus Ball

Ball and Bear Woods have a combined 64 defensive tackles so far this season as both linebackers have made it difficult on opponents offences (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

His sophomore season was strong, too, with slightly fewer tackles (69) but three interceptions and four sacks on his tally sheet that year. That led to a chance south of the border, one Ball insists he wasn’t looking for at the time, nor is he looking for now.

“I was just fortunate enough to be playing the game and getting an opportunity, my first time around (in the CFL),” he said. “That led to another door opening and another opportunity, so I took that opportunity as well.”

“I’m not playing for anything but a Grey Cup,” Ball continued, when asked what his future goals are all about. “I’m not looking forward to what I could or can’t make from this. Only thing I’m trying to make from this is a championship ring. Honestly, that’s the only thing I’m focused on.”

There has been work to do, of course. Like most every professional football player, Ball takes nothing for granted. “We’re still learning,” he said of the Argos’ defence. “I’m still learning.”

Moreover, he’s had to adjust to a new way of covering pass catchers.

During his first go round, defenders could be more physical with receivers. The newer regulations, he admits, are messing with his head. “Arrgh,” he groans, comically. “Aww… I just wanna… aargh.”

Like pretty well any defender you could point to, Ball would welcome permission to be a little less polite on pass coverage. He says the CFL doesn’t look a lot different to him outside of that and he’s adapting.

“It is what it is, man. You just gotta learn the rules of the game and apply ‘em to your game.”

He’s applied them well thus far. Ball is the Argonaut leader in pass knockdowns this season with six, and although he trails teammate Bear Woods in total defensive tackles by two, Ball actually leads the team with 41 defensive plays made, including three quarterback pressures. He hands the credit to head coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin.

“They put together great game plans and with their longevity in this league, they obviously know the formulas to win,” he said. “We just try to bring it to life with a lot of fun. We just try to bring a lot of excitement and lot of energy out there.”

Might be a chicken and the egg thing when it comes to energy and excitement with Ball. Is he bringing it to the game or is the game bringing it to him?

“This is a kids’ game,” he said. “We can’t forget the energy and excitement that you get by playing in this game.”

And even in the tense moments, you can still find a smile, like laying your head on the field in front of a camera in order to say “hi” to your loved ones.

First time was a charm for Marcus Ball. So far, the second time is too, and he is lapping up all of it, enjoying his obvious football successes as well as those little moments that might come along during the course of a game.

“You can never have too much fun out here,” he said.