The life journey of former UW–Madison football star Montee Ball took a surprising and inspiring turn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one that Ball says he will remember for the rest of his life. In April when the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded funds to Dane County to house homeless individuals in area hotels, Ball committed himself to keeping those men and women safe. Six days a week, he lives in the hotel, where his room is small and sparsely furnished.
“Right now at this hotel, we have 58 residents, so it’s pretty busy. It can get pretty hectic,” says Ball. “But I studied sociology, social work, in school, and it’s honestly something that I didn’t see myself getting into, but as I started to really think about what I’m good at, what I really want to do, this was it. Giving back is something that I thoroughly enjoy.”
Ball works hard to make sure the residents’ needs are met. “The goal is to provide them with that wraparound service to help them to overcome their mental health barriers and to provide them with hope that they may have lost.” He adds, “Every day is different. You never know what to expect the next day.”
Most of the people Ball works with are considered chronically homeless. “They’ve been in and out of shelters for 10, 12, 15 years. So it’s a lot more in-depth work that is required, a lot more patience because, we’re trying to break some habits.”
Ball is coy when it comes to talking to his clients about his gridiron success. At Wisconsin, he was twice recognized as the best running back in the Big Ten Conference. He was also a consensus first-team All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball once held the NCAA record for most career touchdowns. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and he was also a member of the New England Patriots. “Once [the residents] started hearing my name, they started to tilt their head a little bit, and then they come back and they say, ‘Oh, I Googled you. I thought it was you, I knew it was you.’ ”
The hotel residents also quickly learn about his personal life: his battle with alcohol addiction and domestic violence charges. Ball doesn’t shy away from those issues. He faces them head-on and shares his ongoing recovery with the residents. “They really open up to me because they know that I’m outspoken about my mistakes. I’m outspoken about owning my mistakes and then realizing that I need to stay away from alcohol,” he says. “So the proof is in the pudding, like literally right in front of them. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m one who has made mistakes and gotten back on track, so I provide them with that hope that they can do it, too.”
Ball continues his work remotely as an outreach specialist for the Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, which is under the UW’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. He is looking forward to the day when he can again share his story of recovery across Wisconsin. With pride in his voice, Ball says, “I’ll be four years sober on August 1. So I’m doing pretty well.”
Ball is committed to sticking with the hotel residents through December 31. “I plan on staying put because I’ve already helped so many individuals get housing, get connected to certain agencies that are going to help them with certain things that they’re looking for. That has been extremely beneficial for me in my stage of recovery. I’m extremely grateful to have been picked for this opportunity,” he says. “This is a project that I’ll think back on for the rest of my life.”