Colorado Europe's Kris Evans spoke with former Denver Broncos running back, Montee Ball.
As the world continues the struggle to contain COVID-19, many people have spent the large part of the year in lockdown. For individuals with addiction issues, this period of social isolation has proved especially challenging.
Addiction is a non-discriminative problem. The cycling of negative patterns of behaviour and a lack of engagement in appropriate support can lead anyone to suffer. Someone who speaks passionately about their problems with addiction and the impact this had on their life, is former Denver Bronco Montee Ball. He endeavours to spread the message that anyone can experience addiction and mood problems, and that anyone can make developments to promote their own recovery by engaging with the right support.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Montee via video call to discuss his journey. For Montee Ball, Recovery, 'a return to a normal state of mind, health or strength' , is an ongoing process. He has developed himself as a person far beyond what he could have imagined when this path began.
Montee starred in the Wisconsin Badgers Football team alongside Russell Wilson, ex roommate James White and J.J. Watt from 2009-2013. Ball, a Heisman trophy finalist and scorer of a record 39 touchdowns in the 2011 season, headed into the 2013 NFL draft already struggling with problematic alcohol use.
The Missouri Man had arrived on campus in Madison, Wisconsin in 2009 and was introduced to a culture of alcohol use far removed from his previous life. Montee explained ' Wisconsin as a state is a big drinking state' and the college campus was no exception to this rule, young students have an array of Bars and parties to attend. However, Montee was not living the usual care free college life - he was also performing on a national level on a weekly basis for the Badgers, combining this with his studies.
Montee reflects that people should recognise the pressure student athletes are under with regard to balancing their college lives, whilst also continuing to perform at an elite level. Ball used to drink regularly in college and found that he forged an identity as being good company who was always the instigator of fun.
'I was always the life and soul of the party, joking and being told I was funny the night before by teammates'
Montee found that he was using drinking as a coping mechanism to forget his concerns, ranging from escaping online critics, avoiding internal demons or to forget the usual problems that arise in life. Alcohol was easily accessible to block out his worries. Due to Montee's continued run of excellent performances, there were no consequences for his escalating alcohol use while at college.
' I wish I hadn't performed as well at college, because then I wouldn't have entered the draft process and would have had time to evaluate my life and where I was going'.
Montee acknowledged that he was able to ignore his increasing Alcohol use due to his impressive performances. He described feeling that the transition between college Football and the NFL was entirely focussed on the business side of the game. No one paid attention to Montee the individual as he entered the combine, a brutal and intrusive method of measuring a rookies athletic ability.
Finance plays a huge part here. Ball paints a picture of young athletes (even younger in the case of the NBA) being exposed to a lot of money and fame with few skills to cope.
' Think back to when you were 21 or 22 years old... Imagine if someone told you that you were going to be paid a million dollars and then earn 50,000 dollars a week, how would you have reacted then?.... add in the fact that you are living in the public eye and are exposed to temptations in many forms, you can get into whatever party and go anywhere you want in the world'
Montee feels that the negative stigma of speaking out about mental health issues needs to change and that it should be mandatory for players to engage in wellbeing programmes. The Broncos have hired Dr Nicole Linen as a behavioural health specialist to encourage players to disclose and discuss their problems. Montee sees this as a big step in the right direction in normalising conversations around wellbeing, but also highlights the persisting barriers that need to be broken down to encourage players to open up about addiction and their wider mental health.
'I think some players would feel vulnerable in disclosing their problems, as they would fear coaches feeling they were showing a weakness'.
'This is an issue that isn't unique to athletes. Many people suffer in silence as a fear of being judged by family or friends prevents them from disclosing their problems. Every single family is affected by addiction, whether it's sugar, soda or even Alcohol and substances'.
Montee is passionate about encouraging people to speak out and discussed 'Badger recovery', which has established a 'safe place' on campus in Madison. Students can drop in and speak about their problems without fear of judgement, Ball has organised sober tailgates for Badgers games and works as an outreach worker for Wisconsin Voices of addiction. He also noted that he finds this role immensely fulfilling and he also finds this provides him a therapeutic outlet, where he constantly develops his skills in managing his own issues.
Of course, Montee needed to be ready to address his Alcoholism. We spent some of our call discussing how an individual needs to be at the right point in their life to change their behaviours, in order for their recovery to be successful.
'Football had been a huge part of my life, but I needed it to be out of my life for me to truly discover myself and address my issues'
Ball acknowledged that he needed to change as he foresaw the end of his NFL career, being cut from the Broncos before a stint on the Patriots training squad. Montee feels he has developed considerably as a person since then and noted that he now wants to be a helpful person in society. He is able to do this without playing Football, whilst being able to use his Football past to educate people on his experiences with addiction.
'I believe I was tapped on the shoulder by a higher being to play on a big stage and then use that stage to help people in the future'
To get to this point, Ball needed to embark on a period of transition much greater and more significant than his transition from college to the NFL. Athletes are totally immersed in their sporting world and often directly associate their self esteem, with their ability to perform in their chosen field. When this outlet is removed a void remains, which can result in an athlete struggling with a loss of self, a sense of rejection and significant levels of pent up frustration and anger. This can directly impact on the mental and physical well-being of the individual.
'I definitely struggled with that... When Football was gone I thought 'wow, what am I going to do now?...My identity (as a Football player) was everything, how people associated with me, how I introduced myself. I freaked out, I drank a lot and took it out on someone who didn't deserve it'
Montee addressed the chaotic spiral his life took, after being arrested for a domestic violence charge which saw him watch Super Bowl 50 from a jail cell - a huge fall from grace after appearing in Super Bowl 48 for the Broncos against his good friend Russell Wilson'. This moment was rock bottom for Ball, but triggered his journey to recovery. Montee sites his family as being extremely supportive during this time and explained that whilst his grandfather and father have experienced issues with Alcohol use they have periods of 30 and 22 years sobriety respectively, a huge source of inspiration for Montee.
Montee explains that he does not judge people who consume Alcohol, but wants to supply people who are struggling to control their use, with the knowledge of organisations who can support them with their issues.
What does the future hold for Montee?
He continues to record the Untapped Keg Podcast with his Brother in Law RJ, who himself is 7 years sober. They talk about their journeys into sobriety and also discuss college football and NFL.
'I find the whole process of recording the podcast extremely relaxing and therapeutic, it has allowed me to rediscover my passion for Football, which I had lost after my career'.
There is also a book in the works which Montee started writing in 2017 and is planned to be released next year. Ball will tell stories of his time at Wisconsin, playing with Russell Wilson as well as his recovery journey. This will be a fascinating read for football fans as well as people who interested in stories of controlling addictions and dependence.
'The Million Dollar question is what happened to Montee Ball?.... I answer that in my book'.
During our conversation Montee told me that he sat down with his father when he was eight years old, watching the Broncos win the Super Bowl and told him that he wanted to play in a Super Bowl, as a running back for the Denver Broncos. Ball achieved this in his rookie season after having an extremely successful college career. He then fell into a spiral of low mood and poor decision making, which cost him his career. He has since flourished as a person and has diligently worked on his own skills, which he now uses to help others. He has a son who is Four years old and was Montee's major inspiration for sobriety. Ball expressed finding joy in helping others.
Montee managed to achieve things in Football that most people can only dream of, but his achievements in overcoming and living with his addiction issues provide great inspiration for addiction sufferers and non-sufferers alike. He has left behind the hangers on from his time in Denver and surrounds himself with good people who care about him as a person. He has put the hard work in to owning his past behaviour, helping others and raising awareness of the pitfalls of excessive alcohol use. Montee's promotion of open, non judgemental communication regarding alcohol use and mental health is especially inspiring. If anyone can suffer, anyone can recover being the resounding message.