Florida duo's long road back
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ronald Powell's initial burst started in the center of the field. His job was to fly through Toledo's offensive line and get his hands on the quarterback.
As the pocket started to collapse, Toledo's Terrance Owens sprinted to his left, hoping to find a seam. Powell fought off a block, headed right and locked on. His teammates pursued, but not before the linebacker/defensive end launched his 6-foot-4, 240-pound, chiseled frame at the scrambling Owens. Two yards shy of the line of scrimmage, Powell had corralled his prey.
The play commanded roars from the announced crowd of 83,604 inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Four plays into the season, Powell had his first official tackle in more than a year and a half.
In the second quarter, linebacker Neiron Ball would make his way onto the stat chart when he broke up a first-down pass from Owens. Six plays later, Ball helped end the Rockets' drive with a midfield tackle on third-and-17.
Three very ordinary plays from two unique people. They finished their first starts of the year with a combined four tackles, one sack, three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
The true significance of their play didn't appear on paper. To know how much Aug. 31 meant to these two, you have to know how far they'd come.
Feb. 14, 2011, started as any Valentine's Day for Florida's football team should -- with more sprints and sweat than chocolate and flowers. It was coach Will Muschamp's first year with the Gators and it was a team workout.
Ball, a true sophomore at the time, was going from drill to drill. After sprints, he hit jumps. A very natural movement for any athlete, but as the jumps continued, Ball started to feel stiffness in his neck. Slowly the stiffness transformed into excruciating pain as it crept to his head.
"It was the worst feeling ever," Ball said.
"When it went up to my head it felt like someone was smooshing my brain. I knew something was wrong because I know what a headache feels like, and it wasn't a headache. It was way more severe."
Medicine didn't ease the pain so Ball alerted the trainers and was taken to Shands Hospital. There, the pain continued. More squeezing, more screaming. Morphine didn't.
At around 9 p.m., Muschamp, who had just returned from an out-of-town speaking engagement, received a text message that said Ball was in the hospital with blood in his brain and that surgery was possible. Muschamp rushed to Shands.
"I was scared," Muschamp said. "I had a doctor explaining it to me and I'm talking to his family, trying to get his family down [from Locust Grove, Ga.], and I didn't know [what exactly was going on]."
The unknowns plagued the doctors, too. Muschamp called Ball's brother-in-law, and father figure, Dary Myricks. Myricks recalled being in bed when the phone rang around 11 p.m. Myricks woke Ball's sister, Natalie Myricks, and headed south to Gainesville at around 2 a.m.
"That ain't good, especially when you're four and a half hours away," Dary Myricks said. "The entire ride you're wondering how bad is it, what is it?"
In the morning, doctors diagnosed Ball with a congenital condition called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Ball was born with two tangled blood vessels in his brains that had ruptured.
"I didn't know what was going on," Ball said. "I didn't know if I was going to live or what. It was scary."
Doctors decided to radiate the blood vessels, hoping for a clot to stop the bleeding. Ball went with family to Georgia before the procedure, but another painful episode sent him back to the emergency room. A week later, he returned to Shands for surgery.
Myricks was told it would take two years for Ball to recover. A year later, he was back on the football field.
Powell arrived at Florida in 2010 as the nation's No. 1 recruit. Ball was in his class, but was a mere dot on the class' radar compared to Powell's presence.
A part of Urban Meyer's last official class at Florida, Powell was the prize and he admits it went to his head. The five stars that were attached to his name by every recruiting service blinded him at times. He figured he'd continue to be the baddest thing around in Gainesville just like he was in California.
But after two years filled with more off-field drama -- like locker room disputes, transfer rumors and rumblings of disobedience with coaches -- than sacks, Powell found himself in a very humbling experience.
Powell was clicking in the spring of 2012. He was focused, hungry and more coachable. Ironically, it was that fire that changed everything when he chased running back Mike Gillislee down from across the field and landed awkwardly, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee in Florida's spring game.
Months later, Powell, who was eyeing a comeback for the LSU game on Oct. 6, re-tore his ACL while cutting during rehab with his trainer before the season opener against Bowling Green.
Everything Powell had worked for was gone, but his second chance helped him more than he could have imagined. "All I can think of is it's a blessing, man -- happy, man," Powell told ESPN.com this spring.
For both, recovery was unbearable. Powell was starting over after being so close to the finish. For Ball, his life was starting over.
They would have to learn to walk again. Shortly after being back on his feet, Ball was stumbling, losing balance and even falling at times. His concentration would come and go.
There was no thought of football until after his procedure and multiple MRIs. While researching AVM, Myricks found that many people with it have deficits with speech and motor skills. Some even sustained partial paralysis. But Ball didn't fear that. He envisioned a return to the Swamp.
"I have faith in God, and God has showed me a lot, man," Ball said. "He made me stronger through that. I had to stay positive because I had teammates looking at me. I had people back home looking at me and seeing how I react to the situation.
"If I don't stay positive then they're going to be worrying about me."
It was easier for Ball to say he wanted to play again than for those around him to accept it. Pass told Muschamp that there was a chance Ball could return to the football field, but Muschamp thought it was more wishful thinking than anything.
"I didn't think he'd ever play again," Muschamp said. "If it were my thoughts, and I view these kids as my own, I wouldn't have let him play again."
Myricks was conflicted. On one hand, he was concerned about what the sport would do to Ball's brain. On the other, the doctors had cleared him and said he couldn't do any further damage.
"There was a lot of fear in there, but I told him that if he was going to do it, do it," Myricks said.
"He wanted to play so bad."
Nine months later and 20 pounds lighter, Ball was training again. He used basketball to help get his balance and coordination back, but the weight room was a major hurdle because of the lost weight and strength, Ball said. Lifting was now his biggest struggle.
Ball said he leaned on his family for support, especially his grandmother, Josephine White, who Myricks called Ball's "rock."
Ball said his grandmother, who was battling cancer during Ball's rehab, was a major fixture in his life. When Ball was nine, she took he and his older brother Neland in after his father, Ronnie, who was suffering from lung cancer, died one night after a seizure. When Ball was six, his mother, Johanna, died of a heart attack while battling cancer.
Ball's grandmother encouraged him to return to football when he felt healthier. She pushed him during his training and Ball said he owes most of his courage to return to football to his grandmother.
"I would do anything she told me to do," Ball said.
Last summer, Ball's grandmother passed away from her fight with cancer.
"I just try to remember everything that she taught me and I try to live and let her legacy build on me," Ball said.
Though he felt healthy enough to play in 2011, Ball didn't take contact until fall of 2012. However, his return was met with more complications. He played in 10 games, mostly as a reserve, but an ankle injury and a concussion frustrated Ball.
Powell had to rebuild his left knee again. The redundancy of his rehab was frustrating, but he stayed motivated and positive.
"I had to wake up and be positive every day, even when I didn't feel like being positive," Powell said. "I had to overcome that stuff and be positive when I wasn't feeling up. I still came in and showed smiles and was positive to my teammates."
His more personable attitude came from his newfound devotion to his faith. Scarred by a rough upbringing that he said caused him to ditch his trust, Powell turned to his faith for guidance after his injuries.
In the process, he found new ways of letting people into his life, like Eian Schnoor, whose sister-in-law, a friend of Powell, introduced the two shortly after Powell's second knee surgery.
Unlike many UF fanatics, Schnoor didn't follow Powell's high school career. He described his first encounter like meeting Peyton Manning after his neck surgery. The hype was down, but he knew that he had been a star on a different day of the week.
"He had the humility of a nobody, but he obviously had the paperwork and ability of a superstar," Schnoor said.
Their faith brought them closer. Every once in a while, Powell reached out to Schnoor for guidance, but their spiritual talks created a deeper relationship.
Schnoor had heard stories about Powell and his guarded, sometimes arrogant persona, but saw a deep thinker -- someone who analyzed everything and found meaning in anything.
"It definitely gives you something else [to think about] because it's been taken away from you," Powell said. "All those years you've been playing the game, you never expect the game to be taken away. At that very moment, it was taken away and I was sidelined and I couldn't do those things I wanted to do."
Seeing Powell hobbled crushed Ball. Just as he was making his return to football, Powell was leaving it. After receiving a year's worth of support from his former roommate, Ball was now there to help carry Powell.
"It hurt me to see him get that setback because I'm think he's going to be back soon," Ball said. "I told him like my grandma told me, 'You gotta stay strong and you gotta believe that you'll be back and you'll be good.' He took it well because look at him now."
Sitting in the stands of Sun Life Stadium two weeks ago, Schnoor kept his eyes on Powell.
Turning to a defensive walk-on who didn't dress for the game, Schnoor asked who the team's hardest hitter was.
"Hands down, Ronald Powell," the walk-on said.
More than a year away from the field, Powell was starting in his second straight game. With a little less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Powell spun his way through two linemen to drag Miami quarterback Stephen Morris down for his second sack of the season.
Alongside him was Ball, who also made his second straight start. While Ball had played in 10 games in 2012, this was different. He was healthy and confident. No nagging injuries, no pain in his head.
Ball would have another modest day in the Gators' 21-16 loss to the Canes, but his coach saw much more. Ball, who moved from Sam linebacker to Will this year, jumped off film. He nails assignments. He's a new player with new responsibility and his work ethic is impeccable.
Saturday, Powell and Ball will both have family members inside the Swamp to cheer them on against rival Tennessee. With so many emotions flowing, this game will serve as another reminder for how far they've come after almost losing so much.
"It's guys taking a small portion of what's happened to them and made it a positive," Muschamp said. "They've battled adversity and overcame adversity. It's a testament to their resolve in life."
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