After Battling Addiction, This Former NFL Player Is Looking to Give BackNone By Matt Alesevich
Montee Ball lived the dream of most, if not all, young American athletes. In April 2013, the small-town Missouri native was drafted by his favorite childhood team, the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
The surreal moment followed a surreal college football career at Wisconsin. During his breakout junior year in 2011, Ball broke or tied three NCAA records, including most touchdowns in a season, and was a finalist for the nation’s top individual honor, the Heisman Trophy.
As wins and accolades piled up, however, so did late nights out and, subsequently, regrets. Like both his grandfather and his father, Ball began struggling with alcohol abuse. After just two lackluster years in Denver, plagued by his addiction, Ball was released before the start of the 2015 season. Rock bottom followed in 2016 when the former star faced three arrests—two for domestic violence and another for violating bail.
The same year, Ball had a son, and the child’s birth foreshadowed Ball’s rebirth. Now a year sober, Ball is looking to be a game changer off the gridiron. The 26-year-old is currently finishing his degree at Wisconsin, volunteering at a community health clinic, and penning a book about the lineage of addiction. (In fact, research has shown that writing about the good that came out of a bad experience can have beneficial psychological effects, like reduced stress and long-term improvements in mood.)
As Ball looks forward to another year of service and sobriety, we caught up with him to talk addiction and acceptance, as well as his past and future.
How do you feel when looking back on your career?
To be completely honest, I feel pride. I’m very content with how my career went. It ended with an unfortunate situation for myself, but I look on the bright side. I'd wanted to be a running back for the Denver Broncos since I was eight, and that’s what I accomplished.
What was your relationship with alcohol growing up?
I never cared for alcohol in high school. I promised my family that I would get a scholarship [to play football]. Once I started playing well [at Wisconsin], I started to lose sight of who I was and where I came from. I let all the fame get to my head, and it kicked me in the butt later down the road.
Did more success correlate with more drinking?
It absolutely correlated. With big wins and great performances came parties and being the life of the party. I was always the life of the party—but in hindsight, this is not a good thing. Once times got difficult in the NFL, [drinking] is what I fell back on.
What did alcohol provide an escape from?
There was so much denial and depression and social anxiety. It was a social thing. I’d take five, six, seven, eight shots to feel comfortable before talking to people. I thought everyone was always watching me—what I’m drinking and who I'm talking to.
What are you doing now that you’re done with football?
I’m back at school [in Wisconsin]. I’m 30 credits short of graduating, so the first thing is finishing my bachelor’s degree [in sociology]. I’m focusing on building a relationship with my son. I have a book coming out early next year—it’s a dedication to my son to break the chain [of alcoholism]. My father and grandfather were alcoholics.
What do you say to those people who will look at your past mistakes and write you off?
I’d tell them I’m owning up to my mistakes. I’m the one who did it, and I know I did. I would explain that we all make mistakes. I do say I committed a violent act. They can judge me, but I’m doing the proper therapy.
While playing, did anyone pick up on your struggle or try to help?
My running back coach senior year. The same thing happened in the NFL. I would hit the steam room and then shower and drink coffee and chew gum [to mask alcohol]. One day [Denver’s running back coach] told me to stay after practice, and asked me if I needed help or someone to speak to. It’s so unfortunate when you don’t see those warning signs.
What warning signs should people in denial be aware of?
If you truly believe you don’t have a problem, see if you can think back to someone who has said something to you. You never hear [anyone] say someone drinks too much if they’re [genuinely] not drinking too much.
When you admitted you were an alcoholic, was it a relief?
Absolutely. It’s hard to say. Once I said it and put it out in the open, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I want everyone to know what I struggled with and be an advocate for alcohol awareness.
What advice do you have for those in the early stages of recovery?
Don’t over-pile your plate. Don’t try to fill every hour of every day to try to stop yourself from thinking of your drug. You’ll be overwhelmed, and percentages show you’re more susceptible to relapse.
What interests or hobbies has sobriety inspired?
I used to shut myself off. I used to think everything was boring except for clubs or partying. Now I tell myself that that’s the boring life. I go to art museums. I travel. I surf. I love going for walks. Oh, and I love to color, which is super-weird. [Laughs.]
Are you worried about the inevitable challenges to come?
My one year [of sobriety] is August 1. I never thought it would happen. I don’t want to make it sound easy, and I’m not naive [enough to think] that cravings won’t come. To answer your question, I’m not worried. I’m ready for the situation to come up. I’m ready for when that addiction is going to push me. When it comes, I’m going to find a different route. When I see people drinking, I tell myself to work while they play. It’s what I said when I played football.
We heard you recently started using Happify as a supplementary recovery tool. What brought you to it?
One friend in Denver uses it—he got in trouble in sort of the same situation—and mentioned it when he saw a post I made on Instagram about how many days I’ve been sober. I did my research. It’s like therapy in your pocket.
What do you like about Happify?
What I love is that it’s extremely interactive. I love playing the minigames and typing sentences on what I plan to do. I love reading other people’s stories—it keeps me actively engaged. If I get frustrated, I take it out and do an activity. Whether you want help with relationships or work, or to stop singing the financial blues, you can tailor it to what you want and take it wherever you go.
One powerful positive psychology intervention is known as the "best possible self" exercise, where you envision your ideal version of your life a few years down the road. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself being 6 years sober, living with my son and my beautiful girlfriend-turned-wife. I see myself with a bachelor’s degree, being a voice for an advocacy program—for people who need someone to listen to who understands. I want to own my own addiction center. I hate how much stigma there is around addiction—that’s why people are so quiet. I want to break that stigma.
Matt Alesevich is a New York–based journalist and travel writer. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.
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