Game Ball

When Lion nosetackle Jerry Ball comes to play, somebody has to pay
October 18, 1992

Ball of Steal

The Governor of the tumultuous state of Michigan pro football extends his meaty hand and accepts his due. In this case it's two $50 bills from humbled Detroit Lion defensive end Marc Spindler. "Thank you," says Jerry Ball, sticking the cash into his cluttered locker at the Pontiac Silverdome.

This is how it works for the Governor: He decrees; his constituents pay. This time it was a simple bet. Would Ball's understudy at nosetackle, Lawrence Pete, weigh less than 280 pounds at his first preseason weigh-in? Spindler said no, which seemed a reasonable wager considering that last season Pete had eaten his way well past the 300-pound mark. Ball said yes. Based on what? "History, understanding, knowledge," said the Governor. Pete weighed a sleek 276.

Ball, who has been a three-time Pro Bowl selection in six years with the Lions, was named the Governor by Detroit coach Wayne Fontes. "Last season he was the Mayor," says Fontes. "This season he's the Governor. Next year, what? The President?" Why not? The 6'1", 315-pound Ball—who just might have the most appropriate surname in all of sports—is a Texan with an opinion on everything. He has a flaming desire to see things run the right way (his way); a snake-oil salesman's fervor (whether he's hawking T-shirts and his football camps, or demanding justice for the oppressed and support for his favorite charities); and an uncanny ability to outfox, outwork, outmuscle and outtalk anybody out of almost anything.

Ball's athletic ability is so remarkable that he has fleeced teammates with barely a twitch of his body. In August he stood with a football 25 yards from one of the goalposts in the Silver-dome and bet fifth-string quarterback Greg Jones $10 he could hit the post on his first throw. Better than that, he would hit whatever letter in the word LIONS on the goalpost padding that Jones desired.

"The O," said Jones.

Flick, whoosh, splat—bull's-eye. The Governor's till had a new deposit.

Feeling lucky today? Step into the Governor's office and pick a sport, any sport. Just pay on the way out. Ball has whipped quarterback Rodney Peete at golf, running back Barry Sanders at basketball, safety William White at racquetball, safety Bennie Blades at a variety of games and all the big guys at damn near anything you can name, including free-for-all, hide-the-children grappling. In training camp Ball went after tackle Bubba Paris so aggressively in a simple game of dominoes that Paris confessed, "I think he's crazy. Now I see why people get shot in Texas."

"Everything he does is competitive," says tackle Lomas Brown, who even dresses competitively with Ball. "I wouldn't tell him this, but he looked good the other day in a...what was it? Salmon? Yeah, a salmon-colored suit."

"He's just relentless," says Pete. "Everything is can-do with him. I don't think there's anybody else at 300 pounds who can do what he can do."

Of his constituency the Governor says sweetly, "They're all victims." (Wouldn't that be a nice bumper sticker?) He feels compelled regularly "to check the hearts" of his teammates, especially those of the rookies and the tough guys. And the underachievers. And the fast guys. And the cocky guys. And....

"See, I've always wrestled everybody on the team," says Ball. "But with a guy who knows I can whip him, like Cofer [Michael Cofer, a 6'5", 245-pound outside linebacker], I'll only go so far. The last time we locked up, I had a chance to break his back, but I held up."

Rumor in the Lions' den has it that Cofer has been working since last season to enlist 10 or more teammates to aid him in attacking Ball, taping him into submission and dumping him in a laundry hamper. "I'm waiting," says the Governor. "If it happens, I will...get...them...all. And Cofer, I will get triple." His eyes are as dewy as a puppy's, his voice east-Texas soft. "No sir. They don't want to start."

Ball of Fire

Jerry Lee Ball, who was named after his dad, not the lunatic piano player, was born in Beaumont, Texas, 27 years ago. As the saying goes, he was big when he was little. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he went a few blocks away to live with his grandparents Earlean and Eugene Ball, who later adopted Jerry. Though Ball is friendly with his biological parents, one of his lingering memories of them from his youth is that they were not there when he played sports. "I kind of have a complex about that," he says. "My grandparents supported me, but they were older and couldn't come to many events. I didn't play catch with my dad. I'd win a football game, and there wouldn't be anybody waiting for me, so I'd just get on the bus."

He was a standout in sandlot baseball and playground basketball, dazzling sleeker opponents with his agility, speed and jumping ability, a stellar shot-putter and a cannonball on the gridiron. He played fullback, defensive end and linebacker at Westbrook High and led the Bruins to the 1982 Texas 5A championship as a senior. As he rumbled over would-be tacklers, Westbrook fans would chant, "Ice Box! Ice Box!" Says Ball, "Got that name in 1973 from a buddy who said I got this gap in my teeth from running into an icebox."

Though Ball still brags about his prowess running with the ball—his 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings this season becomes more remarkable with each retelling, and he once insisted that Sanders watch videotapes of him trampling bodies for old Westbrook—he knows he was meant to play nosetackle. A position likened by former Cleveland Brown Bob Golic to that of a fire hydrant at a dog show, the nose, says Ball, can only be played by a man "with a neurological disorder."

The coaches at SMU decided that Ball was such a man, and he subsequently put on 40 pounds and developed into a 285-pound All-America groundhog. Detroit took him in the third round of the '87 draft, and he started every game as a rookie. Ball is unique among nosetackles because of his combination of strength, weight and quickness. He lines up with his helmet almost touching the center's. Then on the snap, says Lion linebacker Chris Spielman, "he creates a lot of havoc."

Ball can make tackles from sideline to sideline, and no center can block him one-on-one. "It's impossible," says Spielman. "If the center tries to, Jerry will make every play, and the center will end up three yards in the backfield."

Which was what happened last season against the Indianapolis Colts when Ball mowed over center Brian Baldinger and tackled running back Eric Dickerson in the end zone for the only safety of Dickerson's 10-year pro career. "And I said I was going to do it," says Ball.

Growing up in Beaumont, Ball worked summers in his grandfather's railroad car-cleaning business, hauling trash and sweeping up debris for $2.50 a car. By age 14, he was keeping the books and learning a sense of financial responsibility that still guides him today. Ball likes to point out that even though he's making more than $1 million a year with Detroit, he gets most of the things he purchases for himself, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Faren, 6, and Lindsey, 2, through deals and trade-offs and bargain-hunting. His Detroit-based clothing company, Ice Box Sportswear, is frugally run yet poised to leap into the expanding market of NFL products. "We don't give a lot of licenses," says Mike Ornstein, a senior marketing director for NFL Properties. "And it's unusual to give one to an active player, but Jerry's product is good. Plus he's such a nice guy."

Says Ball about his decision to start Ice Box Sportswear earlier this year, "I'd like people to know I'm not just a knuckle-head making tackles."

Ball of Confusion

The big guy wasn't always so together. When his predominantly black high school merged with a predominantly white one to form Westbrook High in 1982, Ball discovered that racism was a big factor in the workings of the world. Indeed, racial politics threatened to derail Westbrook's march to the state football title until, after a 0-3 start, the players, black and white, all got together and told the bickering adults to leave them alone and let them play. "That changed me," says Ball. "That was my first exposure to politics in action."

He decided then not to be anybody's patsy but to speak up for whatever he thought was right and to ask for whatever he thought he deserved. That's why he reportedly took under-the-table cash from SMU boosters and why he accepted money from notorious sports agent Norby Walters. If the system was going to use him, by god, he would use it, too.

A tempering element has been provided by Michelle, who fell for Ball in the seventh grade and married him while they were in college. "He was cute and gentle," she says. It doesn't matter to her that, at 112 pounds, she equals about one third of her hubby's mass. "When I fell in love, it was head over heels," she says.

Fortunately for Ball, Fontes loves him, too. Ball's contract has no weight clause. "If he thought he was heavy, he would do something about it," says Fontes. Ball still thinks of himself as a lean machine, even though in recent years he has "buried" the needle on his home scale at times during the off-season. The scale goes to 330.

Ball of Fun

"I love fun," says Ball. But he hates chop blocks. Last December he was set up by New York Jet center Jim Sweeney and then blocked on the right knee by running back Brad Baxter. The severely sprained knee sidelined Ball for the Lions' last two regular-season games plus their first trip to the playoffs since 1983. Ball was furious after the Jet game, but the block was legal, and Baxter said he wasn't trying to hurt Ball. In March the NFL instituted the so-called Jerry Ball Rule, which outlawed the type of block that injured him.

This season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ball was continually wham-blocked on the legs. The wham is a legal block by a man in motion that is usually delivered above the waist, and the Bucs' hits on his legs frosted Ball royally. Afterward, Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry said the whams were necessary because Ball is so good. "It's unfortunate for him," said Mayberry, "but he's earned it."

It could all end at any time, anyway, out there in the middle of the scrum. That's why Ball likes to have a good time wrestling with people, toying with them, conning them, whipping their butts, while he still can. All the woes of the world disappear when you're going full tilt, you've got a headlock on your roommate, 281-pound defensive tackle Kelvin Pritchett, and you pin him to the floor of your hotel room for 10 minutes—until assistant coach Jerry Wampfler comes by for bed check—just because Pritchett has been a little uppity and, well, says Ball, "he's got to be taught."

Ball was such an agreeable rookie that he volunteered to sing for the veterans at mealtime. "It got to the point where they'd say, 'All right, we need a rookie to sing—Ball, sit your ass down!' " he recalls sadly. That was, after all, the one thing he has never wanted to do.

PHOTOCARL SKALAK PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USAEven three Bears can have trouble stopping the 315-pound Ball once he gets rolling. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThe Ice Box (far left) oversees his eponymous sportswear business.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)