CHICAGO -- Had we known earlier, those 39 touchdowns last season would have made so much more sense.
For the entire 2011 season, we thought a tailback named Montee (pronounced Mon-TEE) Ball scored all those points for Wisconsin. It turns out the guy invading end zones across the Big Ten is named Monteé (pronounced Mon-TAY) Ball. What's the difference?
For that, we'll turn to Steve Rushin, the chair of SI's Department of Advanced Athlete Nomenclature. In 2000, while referring to Arizona Cardinals receiver MarTay Jenkins, Rushin typed the finest sentence ever composed regarding the subject of athlete names. "The difference," Rushin wrote, "between a Marty and a MarTay, it goes without saying, is the difference between a party and a partay."
So now you understand. Admirers of quality names realize the gulf between a Montee and a Monteé Ball is about as wide as the one between a Monty and a Montay Hall. (Montay Hall, by the way, would have been far too cool to wheedle some chicken-suited schmoe into taking what's in the box.) Montee Ball probably would have been a serviceable backup fullback. Monteé Ball tied Barry Sanders' record for touchdowns in a season, and he needs to cross the goal line 18 times in 2012 to break the NCAA record for career touchdowns. "It's an honor," Ball said. "I mean, come on, to be in the same sentence as Barry Sanders is unbelievable." So how did we get this far thinking an ordinary, accent mark-free Ball dominated so many games?
Blame Ball himself. When he arrived in Madison from Wentzville, Mo., in 2009, everyone called him Mon-TEE, and he didn't correct them. Badgers coach Bret Bielema understands Ball's reasoning. "When you're an 18 year old and your coach is calling you something," Bielema said, "you don't correct him out of respect."
Still, Bielema wishes Ball had spoken up. Bielema understands his player's plight. His name gets butchered constantly. Once, at a banquet, the emcee asked Bielema twice how to pronounce his last name -- it's BEE-lim-a -- and then headed to the mic. "In a two-paragraph intro," Bielema said, "he said my name five times, five different ways." Heck, when Bielema was nine, his own parents got into an argument in the grocery store checkout line when the clerk asked how to pronounce the family name. Because he'd had the name longer, Bielema's father won the debate.
On Friday, Ball pointed to a placard bearing his name. "It goes right there," he said, his finger hovering over the second "e." That acute accent mark, which appears on Ball's birth certificate, makes all the difference. Ball never cared enough to speak up until his girlfriend -- her first name is Annemarie, making them one of Madison's moniker power couples -- met his parents and heard the correct pronunciation for the first time. Upon learning she had fallen for a Mon-TAY instead of a Mon-TEE, Ball's girlfriend suggested he stand up for his accent mark.
As the Wisconsin contingent arrived in Chicago for Big Ten media days, Wisconsin sports information director Brian Lucas asked Ball if he would like Lucas to police the pronunciation. "What do you want it to be?" Lucas asked. Though he still doesn't consider any of this a very big deal, Ball opted for the correct pronunciation.
Now that we know he's a Monteé, we know those 39 touchdowns were no fluke. They weren't good enough to win Ball the Heisman Trophy, but Ball is at peace with this. Asked how he would have voted last year, Ball said he would have voted for Baylor quarterback (and eventual winner) Robert Griffin III No. 1, while he would have had Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Alabama tailback Trent Richardson in some order in the second and third spots. Why would he give himself short shrift after such a historic season? "The games that we lost, I didn't play my best," Ball said. "In the Ohio State game, I had something like 87 [actually 85] yards. They outperformed me."
Given the high standards Ball sets for himself and Wisconsin's habit of restocking its bulldozing offensive line no matter how many starters move on to the NFL, Ball might run his way into another invitation to New York in December. The Badgers have already launched his Heisman campaign with a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a far-too-long Twitter hashtag (#ThisFallBelongsToBall) that leaves only 118 characters for describing Ball's exploits.
Of course, another season like 2011 will have everyone searching for the key combination to correctly sing the praises of Monteé Ball. It may even train his coach to remember the difference between a Mon-TEE and a Mon-TAY. "I'm getting pretty good at it," Bielema said. "I've been training. I told my wife to let me know anytime I get it wrong."