NEW ORLEANS — The question wasn’t whether Neiron Ball was going to play again. It was whether he would walk again, talk again, function as a normal human again.
Whether he would even live.
Ball did play again, as a fully functioning linebacker. He will be on the field with the rest of the Florida Gators when they face Louisville in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
He’s a long way from Valentine’s Day 2011, when the 6-foot-3, 231-pound redshirt sophomore fell out of a team workout with what turned into paralyzing pain in the back of his lower neck. As he tried to fight through it, the dull but stabbing sensations worsened.
“It got bad,’’ he recalled. “Real bad.’’
All Ball could say to curious teammate Ronald Powell was, “Bro, something doesn’t feel right.’’
Ball went into a hop drill and, when he came down on one leg, it buckled beneath him, bringing on a fresh wave of pain that engulfed him.
Head trainer Anthony Pass had to go to coach Will Muschamp and tell him Ball would have to leave the workout. Muschamp thought it was odd because Ball was normally a hard worker, the kind who stayed later than he had to in order to work on anything he needed to improve. Muschamp gave his OK.
Hours later, Ball was still in excruciating pain — “It was like someone was squeezing my brain,’’ he said — and in the hospital, hooked up to a morphine drip, begging for more pain-killers and puzzling doctors who thought it might be a muscular-skeletal condition. They did know their patient had bleeding in the brain.
Muschamp’s first reaction was to call Ball’s parents. Both had died before Ball was 10, his mother of a heart attack and his father of lung cancer.
A grandmother, Josephine, and Ball’s high school coach, Dary Myricks, at Jackson (Ga.) High, were the best anyone could do. The coach and a sister, Natalie, drove 41/2 hours down Interstate 75 to get to him — fearing they would not arrive before it was too late.
“When there’s blood on the brain,’’ Myricks remembered telling Natalie in a later recounting of that night, “it’s not good.’’
When the condition was diagnosed, Ball had a congenital condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM), in which the brain’s blood vessels get tangled and rupture. Many of the 300,000 Americans with AVM never know they have it, but it can be fatal.
“I thought it was my time,’’ Ball recalled.
He eventually was scheduled for surgery, with a brace screwed on his head, and slid into a radiation chamber so physicians could clot the blood. Ball said later that, as he entered the machine, he thought, “I sure hope this works.’’
It did, though it took months of difficult rehab, a time when occasionally he couldn’t balance himself and would tip over. As he progressed, there was the realization his football career might be over.
“They said I couldn’t play and that I needed to worry about my health instead of football,” he said. “But I wanted to play, too.”
Taking the 2011 season off, Ball spent his time weight-lifting, playing basketball, rounding back into football shape — and standing on the sideline as his teammates competed on the field.
“That year off was hard — very hard,’’ he said. “But I got constant encouragement from my teammates, coaches, the staff until I was cleared (in June).’’
Ball was given a starting assignment in the season opener against Bowling Green.
“He’s really a good player,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that missed football for a year. It’s a development game. When you miss that much time, it doesn’t come back as easily as it does for others. It’s come back very quickly for him.’’
That start wasn’t just a nice gesture. Ball played a role in Florida’s vaunted defense, making 10 tackles and recovering two fumbles — one against LSU that helped turn the tide against the Tigers in a 14-6 victory — and was a rare bright spot in the Gators’ only loss, to Georgia, by posting an interception.
“I wasn’t happy about the loss to my home-state team, but I did play well,” he said. “And I at least had that pick-off to show my home folks in Georgia.’’
Now with the goal of becoming a nurse, Ball has enjoyed contributing to one of the best teams in the land.