Florida linebacker Neiron Ball will get an NFL shot — the Oakland Raiders drafted him in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, with the round's 25th pick and the 161st seletion overall.
Ball's story cannot be told without first mentioning how close he came to having it cut short, and how difficult it was early. Both of his parents died before he turned 10, leaving him to be raised largely by his grandmother. And then he had to fight for his own life, as an arteriovenous malformation — loosely, blood vessel trouble causing bleeding in his brain — in February 2011 forced doctors to operate on his brain.
He wouldn't play football in 2011, and spent it recovering. But he returned to the Gators in 2012 — and played in 32 games over the next three seasons, including starts in the last six games of his career. When he played, Ball combined speed and burst as a pursuer, and demonstrated the ability to be a sound tackler.
But he got hurt in Florida's loss to South Carolina last fall, and had to have microfracture surgery to repair his knee. His chances of impressing NFL scouts over the final few games of the Gators' season were dashed.
So when he was able to perform (and impress) at Florida's Pro Day in early April, just under five months removed from that surgery, it was a welcome sign.
Ball played mostly outside linebacker for the Gators, and should slot into a similar role with the Raiders, who might have the best coaching staff for linebackers in the NFL: Jack Del Rio is Oakland's new head coach, three-time Super Bowl winner and linebacker savant Ken Norton, Jr. — who coached Clay Matthews, among others, at USC — is the Raiders' defensive coordinator, and longtime Nick Saban assistant Sal Sunseri is the team's linebackers coach.
Ball is the first Florida defender ever picked by the Raiders, and the first Gator drafted by Oakland since Louis Murphy in 2009.