I got a chance this week to talk with running back Lance Ball, the former north-south runner and pass-catcher for Maryland who is now a contributing player on one of the NFL’s most fascinating teams: the Denver Broncos.
After going undrafted in 2008, Ball bounced around the league mostly on practice squads with the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans. He saw his first professional action with the Indianapolis Colts in 2008, and now he has found a rewarding spot on a playoff team. In his second season with the Broncos, Ball, 26, has amassed 402 rushing yards and 148 receiving yards in 16 games. He scored his first NFL rushing touchdown on Dec. 18 against the New England Patriots and now he’s preparing to play in his first playoff game when the Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Here is a portion of my wide-ranging conversation with Ball:
Q: You’ve had a long journey to reach this point. Give me a sense of what that was like and how you approached it.
Ball: It was great. I didn’t take it as sour moments being released from teams. A lot of those were roster moves that they had to make because of injuries and stuff like that. I just had fun with it. Besides being a player, I am also a fan, so it was pretty cool being in the same meeting room with Peyton Manning, Steven Jackson, guys that you see on TV that do well for themselves. I just took it in a mature way and took it as a blessing to be able to have some NFL film and be able to show what I can do.
Q: What were your expectations about your career after coming out of Maryland and not being drafted in 2008?
Ball: It was a disappointment, because I got a couple calls on draft day. But just being able to play in the NFL is a great opportunity in and of itself, and that’s how I took it. I always knew I had the talent and the ability to play. It was just about getting an opportunity.
Q: Was there ever a moment of doubt through that entire process?
Ball: No doubt. I really had no doubt in my mind that I was going to be able to be successful. Every coach told me to be able to have good film and that that film carries you and that’s what it did.
Q: You’ve been a major part of this offense this season, how rewarding has it been for you?
Ball: It has been great. Every opportunity I get is great, especially being able to contribute to our offense and with everything that has been going on with the [Tim] Tebow stuff.
Q: Being on the same offense as Tim Tebow, what has it been like to be part of such excitement?
Ball: When we went on that six-game winning streak, it was kind of unreal. We’re part of this big thing going on and everybody is talking about you. Tim is a hard worker. It’s great to have someone on your team like that who wants to win and who wants to improve.
Q: You’ve been on the same team as Peyton Manning and now Tim Tebow. They have different skill sets, obviously, but are there any similarities between the two?
Ball: They are both quarterbacks (laughs).
Q: How about in terms of leadership or any intangible qualities?
Ball: Both guys lead by example, and that’s what you have to do. They both have different attributes and both are different quarterbacks. But they both want to lead by example, and that’s what they both showed and show their teammates.
Q: It’s been a remarkable season for your team with the winning streak. Now you’ve lost three in a row. Can you get that magic back?
Ball: Yeah, I think it’s just a mindset we have to have. We just need to play together as a team like we did in the six games that we won in a row. We played as a team on offense, defense and special teams. We played well. In the three games that we gave up, I don’t think that we played that well as a team.
Q: How would you describe the feeling of being on the field late in the game during that winning streak? Seemed like whatever team you played, you’d find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Ball: Going down on drives in the late fourth quarter was just something that usually doesn’t happen. It kind of just turns on at some point, and you don’t know where it came from, how it happens. It just turned on. We were just pulling it out. We got back to the locker room and it was kind of unreal. You had to sit down and say, ‘Did everybody go through that. Did that really happen?’ You know, after a couple days of seeing it on TV and ESPN, it was like, ‘Yeah, that kind of confirms it.’
Q: Wow, I can imagine. Now this last game must have been a wild swing of emotions. You lose to the Kansas City Chiefs, 7-3, and you need the Oakland Raiders to lose to clinch the division title. When your game ends, the Raiders-Chargers game is not quite over. What was it like in the locker room?
Ball: At first, everybody was upset, including myself. Everybody is a competitor and wants to win, and does not want another team to determine if you make it to the playoffs or not. So obviously we wanted to win that game. Didn’t happen. We were upset. When we went back in the locker room, everyone played their hearts out. We could have played better. They turned the TVs on and it was close to the end of the game and San Diego was up by about 13 points, something like that. When they won, it was kind of a bittersweet moment. Guys didn’t even wear their division championship hats. We kind of just let them sit in the locker. It was bitter sweet. But our season has been unique. A lot of hard work and time and effort that we put in, but that’s football. We kind of put it behind ourselves. We are in this tournament for the Super Bowl, so that’s what we are looking at now. We are trying to beat Pittsburgh.
Q: Outside expectations were not high heading into the season. But because of the way the regular season ended, you guys did not celebrate?
Ball: Right. There was not really a big celebration. It was like let’s get back to work, let’s focus on Pittsburgh. You can mope about it on Monday and Tuesday, but forget about it on Wednesday. And get ready to win the game.
Q: Did you monitor the score of the Oakland game during your game in any way?
Ball: No, I don’t think they even had it on in the stadium. We kind of heard about it at the end of the game.
Q: Now comes the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. What are your observations of their defense?
Ball: Typical Pittsburgh Steelers. They are big, they are fast. What stands out to me is that they are very disciplined as a defense. You’ve got to be able to match their aggression and be the enforcer. You can’t accept what they give you. You have to throw the punch at them [figuratively].
Q: Do you still follow Maryland football at all?
Ball: Being out West, I catch a little of their games. But I don’t really hear too much about it. I try to follow it. I know they had a terrible season. Like 2-10? That was kind of a big drop-off. I am a Terp for life, so I definitely want my Terps to win. I’m disappointed with how their season ended, but hopefully Edsall can get it going over there.