This story is part of our series Unhealthy Wisconsin, which examines areas where Wisconsin falls short in well-being.
At the peak of his powers, Montee Ball was a star running back for the Wisconsin Badgers; a Heisman finalist in 2011 who was setting records and getting drafted by the Denver Broncos. Yet, along the way, Ball succumbed to a vice all too familiar to Wisconsin: alcohol.
Ball got cut from the Broncos and then the Patriots and was arrested for domestic violence driven by his alcoholism. Since reaching those lows, Ball has published a memoir and worked in alcohol-addiction support and outreach programs. He visited his alma mater in March to speak to current Badgers.
Ball was introduced to football at an early age. Football took a toll on his body, which meant turning to alcohol at an early age.
“There is this medication out there that will help me to relieve some stress. That’s when the seed was planted, right there in high school,” Ball said.
Ball’s collegiate career brought him and his family to Wisconsin, home to a drinking culture that was tough to fight.
“The drinking culture here was a cultural shock. We all know where this school is ranked when it comes to partying. Coming onto campus wide eyed, ready to hit the ground running, I did not prepare for those stressors,” Ball said.
The warning signs appeared in his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but Ball neglected them.
“It was very difficult to see those red flags because I was still having success on the field,” he said. He covered up his alcoholism by jogging extra miles and skipping meals to prevent noticeable weight gain from consuming alcohol.
After his storied four-year career as a Badger, Ball’s family was thrilled when the Broncos drafted him in 2013
However, Ball continued to conceal his alcoholism as a professional, sometimes entering training facilities early to shower and use the steam room to rid himself of the smell of alcohol.
“Just unfortunate that that plan didn’t become a red flag for me in the moment,” he said. “I literally would never sacrifice the bottle for my dream, and I lost my dream.”
By 2015, the Broncos cut him from their squad. He joined the New England Patriots’ training squad, but the Patriots released during a dark turn in his life. In February 2016, Ball was arrested after his girlfriend told police he had drunkenly thrown her across their Madison hotel room. A previous girlfriend later told police that Ball had assaulted her two years earlier.
Ball said he spent three days in jail while the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. An inmate pointed out during the game the life he had thrown away, and Ball could no longer mask his emotions. “I turned around and faced the wall, and I started crying,” he said.
After pleading guilty to two charges of disorderly conduct and one charge of battery, Ball was sentenced to 60 days in jail and 18 months in probation. He was released on bail but later found guilty of bail jumping in Whitewater as he visited a bar when his bail conditions prohibited it.
Ball said his life changed with the birth of his son Maverick. He realized how his actions would directly affect another person. Ball said his parents encouraged him to join therapy. He stressed the importance of acceptance and therapy to the audience. Taking these steps and making these realizations propelled Ball to sobriety and stability.