Ball and Wilson

The recent photo in the Wisconsin State Journal was almost haunting. As the caption notes: “Montee Ball celebrates his 15-yard TD run with Russell Wilson during UW’s 48-17 win over Nebraska on Oct. 1, 2011 at Camp Randall Stadium.”

With the 2016 NFL Draft now completed, it brings back some bittersweet draft moments involving Ball and Wilson.

Wilson, after a great 2011 season with the Badgers, was a third round draft pick of Seattle in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was only the 75th player taken – too short to play QB in the NFL some pundits said.

Ball, a four-year player for the Badgers, was draft in the second round by Denver in the 2013 NFL Draft. He was the 58th player selected. Expectations were high for Ball, who rushed for 5.140 yards for Wisconsin and set an NCAA record with 83 career TDs.

Turn the page to 2016 and the paths of Wilson and Ball have gone in completely opposite directions. Wilson, who seemed like he was preparing his entire life for his NFL moment, is now one of the league’s highest paid players – signing a four-year $87.6 million contract extension with the Seahawks. Ball is no longer in the NFL, having been waived by the Broncos in 2015 and the New England Patriots this past February. Since his return to Madison, he has been charged with felony assault and felony bail jumping. Ball’s fall from grace has been quick and disappointing. At age 25 his NFL career already seems to have ended and a word no athlete wants to hear is now attached to him: a “bust.”

As exciting as the NFL Draft always is for hundreds of college players, what follows is equally unpredictable and filled with many opportunities to both succeed and fail.

As shown so often with their hugs and tears, the players are about to undergo a major life transition. The big question and challenge: How will they handle that transition? Not only is playing in the NFL a huge difference from playing college football, but many other situations confront the new NFL draftees, and confront them very quickly, often in an unforgiving manner.

Many players discover they are neither good enough or prepared enough on or off the field. Often hundreds of thousands of dollars, or for first round picks, millions of dollars, are involved for these new NFL players. Some players (WIlson) are the rare ones who are prepared for both and quickly reach lofty heights. Others (Ball) are prepared for neither and unemployment and crime may follow.

Until this year, the NFL’s Rookie Symposium brought every drafted player to a central location for an orientation related to off-field issues, etc. That Symposium has been replaced by a “Rookie Transition” program. The new program will be hosted by each of the league’s 32 teams. It will provide resources at the local level for each of the team’s rookies. It will also include drafted players and free agent rookies.

Each NFL team will have its mandatory rookie orientation June 20th to 22nd. According to the NFL, issues that will be discussed with players: social responsibility, respect at work, mental health, character and values and player engagement resources.
Hopefully, these rookies will also be prepared to handle their financial affairs; and their teams and the NFL Players Association will continue to be helpful resources for them.

Valuable life and football lessons can be learned by the new players from both Russell Wilson and Montee Ball.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if, like that State Journal photo, Wilson and Ball were reunited once again for presentations at June’s “rookie” players’ seminars?!

John Finkler

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