TORONTO - Marcus Ball has carved a career that has taken him from Stone Mountain, Georgia, along the high roads to the U.S. college football factories, and down more than a couple of dead-end alleys.
So far, in his brief tenure as a Toronto Argonaut, it has been more of the former.
Ball has been one of the more impressive new faces during the first week of training camp. How far he’s able to carry both the goodwill and his game remains to be seen.
A linebacker and defensive back, the 24-year-old has made a career of trying to take the ball away from opponents. Last year, he had it taken away from him.
For the first time in his life, nobody wanted him to play football.
A year out of the University of Memphis, where he had 66 tackles and two interceptions in 10 games, he was left sitting at home.
It didn’t seem to matter that he once had been rated as one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects when he starred at Stephenson High School, which itself sends more players to major U.S. colleges on football scholarships than any other high school in the U.S.
No NFL. No Arena League. Nothing. Just a dead-end kid.
Like when he left Florida State under less-than-ideal circumstance after a suspension and amidst a scandal over academic fraud.
His tenure at the University of Memphis didn’t exactly end under ideal circumstance either, when coach Larry Porter suspended him in November of 2010 over the nebulous “ team rule” violations.
Perhaps it was Father Fate tapping him on the shoulder and reminding him that football, on a professional level, is more than about what happens between the lines. It is also about what happens between every player’s ears. It is about business. It is about growing up. It is about equal amounts privilege and responsibility and a dozen other things that never show up on a stats sheet — but might show up in a scouting report.
There may have been those who questioned Ball’s ability to skirt trouble. Less questioned is his football ability.
And, now, with the departure of Kevin Eiben, there may finally be a nice fit for both Ball, and for the Argos.
“There’s going to be some great competition there,” head coach Scott Milanovich said Thursday of filling his linebacking corps. “He’s very athletic. Today, he intercepted a pass and he’s been great in coverage the whole camp. He’s going to have to show he can do it in the pre-season games though and prove that he can cover the run game.”
If he turns out as good as former Stephenson High School grads Byron Parker, Anthony Cannon, Michael Grant or Sean Lucas — all of whom found success in the CFL — Milanovich may have found a piece to the linebacking puzzle, and Ball, perhaps, may have found a haven.
“A couple of things happened,” Ball said of last season’s forced hiatus. “First it put a chip on my shoulder and made me more hungry to find a place to play. Second, it made me more appreciative of the game.
“I went through a whole year of waiting and wishing. Football is all I’ve ever done. Every year you go to school, play football; school, football; school, football. Then, wham! There’s no school. No football. Nothing. It’s a mental as well as an emotional shock.
“I felt down on myself at first but it also motivated me to work out harder so that I’d be ready when an opportunity did come up.”
Ball already has the look of football success: Dreadlocks, a mega-smile, and a reputation as a world class trash talker. But this is a foreign land, a new experience and a game that has unfamiliar nuances. So, while Milanovich had him playing with the first team this week, there was little cockiness.
There was an evident joy. A grin that could light up the clouds surrounding a career turned storm-tossed, and a genuine thankfulness to once again be part of an oft fickle fraternity.
“I don’t really pay attention to whether coach has me in the first group or the second group, or whatever. I just know I have to go out there and perform to my limit every play. Hopefully that keeps me here.”
Hopefully, back on the high road.
“There are a lot of good players here, not just at my position, so I don’t know. I’ve become my own worst critic,” Ball said.
Sometimes the biggest lessons learned don’t come from textbooks, or playbooks. They come from turning a page in life. Maybe Marcus Ball just turned one.
HURST RISES ABOVE SHORTCOMINGS
When it comes to Quincy Hurst, good things evidently do come in small packages.
The former Manitoba Bison is listed at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds in the Argonauts training camp guide — and, in his dreams!
“I know my shortcomings physically,” said the slightly built receiver Thursday, “so I have to make up for it with speed, footwork and technique. As long as you are fundamentally sound, it’s possible to make up for size.”
The club’s fourth-round pick in the Canadian draft has impressed with his explosiveness and ability to create space. Thursday he took a hard hit at the boundary, but popped right back up. There’s toughness. He has needed it, mentally and physically.
As well as being small, Hurst has struggled with academic requirement. It cost him a Division-I scholarship, he didn’t meet standards at College of the Desert, near Palm Springs, Calif., and he finally lost eligibility at the University of Manitoba last year. “I wanted to go to a Divison 1 school out of high school but I just didn’t have the grades. That’s always been the issue. I’ve had schools interested in me to play football ... just never had the marks.”
What he does have is a 4.31 timing in the 40 and in 2010 with the Bisons he was third in the Canada West Conference in all-purpose yards. “He’s got things to learn,” Milanovich said, “but he’s shown some quickness. The thing that has impressed me is that for a rookie he hasn’t been intimidated.”
Hurst is just 21 and while he might not have a long resume, it is a resume that has some in Argonauts’ management believing he could develop into the multi-faceted player coveted by CFL clubs.
“In the end it’s worked out perfectly. I’m exactly where I wanted to be,” said Hurst, of his first CFL training camp. “I just took the road less travelled to get here.”