November 25, 2017

On eve of Grey Cup, Argos leave ball in emotional leader’s court

“I don’t talk all the time,” says Marcus Ball, perhaps the prime spiritual leader of the current edition of the Toronto Argonauts. “I don’t want this thing to get overreacted to.”

Ball was referring to the attention he’s been getting during the run up to the 105th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. Known in Toronto as a team heartbeat kind of guy, Ball’s reputation as a fire and brimstone force has been getting a good amount of attention from all corners of the CFL media this week.

His demeanor is subdued as we talk and that is nothing new. The 30-year-old is a study in contrasts; on the field he is energy personified and that includes vocally. In a casual setting, like a quiet corner in the East team media availability suite, he is soft-spoken and humble, in direct contrast to the video we’ve seen of him delivering a “clear eyes, full hearts” kind of speech in the Argos’ locker room.

“I’m just a player and a guy in the locker room, trying to do whatever he needs to do to help the team to win,” he says, explaining that there is no master plan involved. He just lets a love of football and his teammates take over when it naturally does.

 

“I think he’s the energy of the team,” says Defensive Coordinator Corey Chamblin when asked to describe what Ball is to these Argos, outside of a pretty fine linebacker.

“There’s different types of leaders and I think, energetically, Marcus Ball is that leader,” Chamblin says. “He knows when to raise the team up, knows when to get us to that next level, to get us where we need to go.”

Ball’s impact on the Argos is in its second act. The first came in 2012, when he lit up the league with a sensational rookie season, named the team’s defensive player of the year on the way to a Grey Cup ring. The Argos had plenty of what you would call spiritual leaders on that team, including receiver Chad Owens, defensive linemen Ricky Foley and Adriano Belli and linebacker Ejiro Kuale, who made a habit out of being the man in the room who would set things ablaze with his high octane pre-game monologues.

After a second season in Toronto, Ball chased his NFL dreams, signing with the New Orleans Saints for a year and then heading to Carolina where he played nearly two more, before making his way to San Francisco for the final five games of the regular season.

This past spring, he decided to come back north, because, as he said earlier this season, “I just wanted to go somewhere where I appreciated it, somewhere where it was fun. Where I was appreciated.”

There can sometimes be a drop off in performance when CFL players spend time down south and then head back here but that was not the case with Ball. He has looked every inch the terror he was before exiting after the 2013 season, tallying 57 tackles and two interceptions, along with a forced fumble. Those are numbers that would be bigger had Ball not been forced to miss the last four games of the regular season with a foot injury.

What might be different in Ball’s second stint in Argoland is the front and centre spot he has taken up in his role as a leader. It isn’t scripted, he insists. There’s no master plan. It’s just that those moments come when those moments come.

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“I never wake up planning on being somebody other than the best Marcus Ball, for this team, that I can be,” he says, making it clear that he has a secondary role when it comes to words of wisdom and inspiration.

“Coach (Marc) Trestman addresses the team every pre-game, every halftime, every post-game. That does not change. What I do and what my team does, that’s our thing, that’s what we do, that’s who we are.”

There is little doubt that Trestman has had a big impact in Toronto. The CFL’s coach of the Year relies on messages of togetherness and respect to get his points across. He also doesn’t mind relinquishing the floor to Ball, even when his linebacker isn’t there. Trestman told a story, this week, about how the injured Ball had texted him some words of encouragement for the team and Trestman read them before a game.

“He’s certainly a leader,” says Trestman, when asked what Marcus Ball means to the team outside of football skill. “We voted for captains and he got the most votes. You get forty votes, that means guys are seeing it, both sides of the ball.”

 

“He’s also a guy who holds the meetings after practice, for the players,” continues Trestman. “You walk down the hallway and he’s got
(Terrance) Plummer in there, and Bear’s (Bear Woods) in there and they’re just talking ball. He’s very serious about his business.”

Serious, yes, and as Ball tells it, naturally so. He reiterates that he has no grand scheme afoot. He’s just guided by an exuding energy around the sport. He doesn’t feel some kind of responsibility or pressure to speak up.

“I wouldn’t say so,” he says after a few seconds of consideration. “I’m honoured to be in this locker room with these tremendously high character guys. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”

“I love football,” he says, quietly, staring at the floor. Then he looks up and repeats the sentiment two more times for emphasis. “I love this game. I love this game.”

“Anytime I have the opportunity to go out there and play it, it’s an exciting time for me.”

That’s the Marcus Ball that we’ve seen on television, on the field and in the locker room.

Will he speak before the Grey Cup game? Again, that will or will not happen just naturally and Ball is adamant it will happen only if it serves the greater good, not just himself.

“It’s always for the team,” he says. “Everything is team first with me.  If I speak, if I don’t speak, whatever the case may be, I always have the team first in mind.”