LINDALE, Ga -- Coming into his freshman year at Lindale (Ga.) Pepperell, the season did not start out the way Dakota Ball had hoped. Used to playing on both sides of the ball and rarely sitting out, playing third string varsity and barely getting any playing time to start the season did not sit well with Ball.
That is when his mom first knew she was witnessing the beginning of something special.
"I knew his drive was there because when he did not start at the varsity at the beginning of the season," said Lynn Ball, Dakota's mother. "He would play some at the end of the game, and he would cry on the way home because he wanted to play with his older brother Cameron, who was a senior. He came home and told me he was going to work twice as hard to start because he hated being on the sidelines."
"In ninth grade, I hated the people that were ahead of me, because even though they were good, I felt that I could do everything they could do," Ball said. "That ticked me off, so I started working extra hard and in practice I was not friendly to the guys in front of me. Some guys are able to accept defeat, but I am not like that. If you are going to beat me, I am going to go up against you again and again and make a habit of beating you. I tried to beat them every day and by the sixth game I earned the start. I got to play with my brother, who was a senior that year, and we went 11-2. It was exciting."
That drive has helped him become of of the top prospects in the country. He's the nation's No. 25 defensive tackle and received his Under Armour All-America Game jersey on Wednesday in front of his family, classmates and coaches, the latest stop on the American Family Insurance Presents the Under Armour All-America Game selection tour.
"This is all very exciting, and I am truly blessed to be in this position, and it is a big honor," Ball said. "I am going to do my best in the game to prove I was worthy of the invite."
He's always found a way to make others notice and prove he belongs with the best. Case in point, his sophomore year in high school. He entered the season high hopes, but saw a broken leg end his year in just the third game.
"Immediately I was thinking about trying to get back before the end of the season, but it did not heal in time. Then I was worried about whether I would ever get a chance to play again," he said. "I did not know of any colleges that were really looking at me then."
One program had watched film of Ball's freshman season and first three games as a sophomore, and invited the 6-foot-2, 280-pound lineman up for a visit the following February. The trip to Alabama would be an experience the Ball family would never forget.
"We thought when Dakota broke his leg that it was the end of the world," Lynn Ball said. "We went up to Alabama the next February for a junior day, and Nick Saban brought us into his office to talk, which was a shock in itself. We were not expecting that at all, but then he offered my son a scholarship. It is always ever boy's dream to play football in college, but when someone like Nick Saban tells you that you are worthy of playing here, and that dream is about to come true, we were just awestruck."
Ball was likewise caught off guard as he watched one of college football's most successful coaches offer him an opportunity to play for one of the premier programs in any sport.
"I did not expect Coach Saban to offer me at all, and at first I did not think he had the right guy," Ball said. "It's pretty special that he was the first one to notice I could play at that level, and I still think about that now. I was a Georgia and Tennessee fan growing up, but as soon as I went there and saw Alabama, I liked them so much that I just forget about every other program."
Clemson, Georgia and several other schools followed suit with offers, but even with Ball and his father being Bulldogs fans, that time in Tuscaloosa stuck with Ball and his family. Ball became one of the first commitments for the Crimson Tide in the 2012 class, announcing his intentions to sign with Alabama over a year ago in October.
"My husband was a huge Georgia fan, but he went down there to Alabama, and he told Dakota afterward that is where you need to be," she said. "Even though we know we are being recruited, it is a very loving environment there. Nick Saban and the coaching staff are like family, but you always know he is in charge of everything there, and I like that."
Even though he missed the majority of his sophomore year, Pepperell coach Jeff Shifflett has definitely gotten good mileage out of his star lineman. Ball has played on both sides of the ball as well as some fullback and tight end throughout his career. On defense, Ball had 73 tackles, 48 of them solo, seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 38 quarterback hurries, deflected two passes, caused three fumbles, and recovered two fumbles, taking one back for a touchdown.
"Dakota is one of those kids that just does everything right," Shifflett said. "He worked extremely hard in the classroom and he has a 3.8 GPA. He works extremely hard on the practice field, and he is the first one in the weight room every day. He is going to be extremely successful in whatever he wants to do, and as a head coach it is great to have somebody like Dakota that the other kids can learn from. We have always had kids with ability, but Dakota shows them the intangibles as well. He should be an example to all of us in that whatever it is that you want, it is attainable if you do what it takes to be successful."
There is no debate in how strong Ball's commitment to Alabama is, but there has been rampant discussion by analysts and fans on message boards as to where he will play at the next level. Ball is aware of the different projections, but there has only been one message given to him by Alabama, and it has come straight from the top.
"I have heard a lot of stuff about me going in there as an offensive lineman, but Coach Saban has never even mentioned offensive line to me at all," Ball said. "It has always been defense, so I really don't worry about what everyone else says. I think I can play with the defensive line because I like going up against people who are bigger or supposed to be better than me. That is when I do best. If I do end up going there and playing offensive line though, I will play just as well there."
His coach says fans need not worry about position.
"Alabama is going to get a team player that will do whatever they ask of them," Shifflett said. "If they want him to play defensive line, offensive line, tight end, he will do it. He just wants to play."
Kipp Adams has covered University of Georgia recruiting since 2006. He can be reached at KippAdamsESPN@gmail.com or on Twitter @KippLAdams.