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Neiron Ball’s story is one of sadness, resilience, and togetherness

A life with much heartbreak has been backstopped by a family forged by football.

NFL: Preseason-St. Louis Rams at Oakland Raiders
Yes, that’s Jonathan Dowling among those Gator Chomping.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost: I should have posted the GoFundMe campaign for former Florida Gators linebacker Neiron Ball here on Sunday or Monday, when I first saw it. I didn’t want to do that before I’d investigated at least a little — to be sure about its legitimacy, and be sure that my own donation was going to the right place — and got caught up not doing that.

But I also didn’t want to post it just to get clicks for doing something right, or as part of a Chomping at Bits where it would have equal stature to other items about facts and factoids and feelings on which Florida players are looking good in fall practice.

I wanted to help tell Neiron Ball’s story, because it is one about resilience in the face of unfathomable sadness, of light rising from deep darkness. Because, this week, it became a story of how we go so much further and faster together than apart.

And because it’s probably both a story of how football saved a life, and a story that shouldn’t be told to make football a savior.

Life’s odds were long against Neiron Ball from the beginning.

Eric Adelson wrote the story about Ball back when he was a Florida player in 2012, and I’m not going to rewrite it here. But the beats are ones it hurts to hear.

When Will Muschamp wanted to call Ball’s family as his player writhed in pain during his first flare-up of the brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) that has come to define his adult, he realized there were no living parents to call: Ball’s mother died on Mother’s Day when he was six, and his father passed three years later.

Football became a refuge for Neiron and his brother Neland, only for a car accident to sideswipe the elder Ball’s career.

Ball’s teammates — who loved the smiling, upbeat Ball, because his enthusiasm was infectious enough for fans to see, and who couldn’t? — worried about their brother. Trey Burton’s “Will he even be able to come back to say goodbye?” is haunting; so is Mack Brown realizing in retrospect that Ball was lucky to have had his brain rebel against him at a Florida practice — what if he’d been driving?

Ball got excellent care then, as a Florida player, because that’s just what was expected. Doctors at Shands Hospital diagnosed his malady correctly, and found a path back — including brain surgery — to not just health, but being cleared to play football.

And Ball played, eventually finding the joy that he’d always had.

Ball was never a star, not really. Fast and quick off the edge? Relentless in pursuit? Sure. But his skills were situational, and he had better teammates at Florida: He was eighth in tackles and 10th in tackles for loss among Gators as a senior, and tied for seventh with just two sacks. He had a pick in 2012, but was never a great coverage linebacker.

It was a bit of a surprise when he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, but a joy to see a player whose life had so much sorrow in the sun.

And Ball got to live an NFL dream, playing sparingly in 2015. He sacked Josh McCown once, and was mic’d up when he did it.

He had made it to the other side, to the place most athletes dream of, despite adversity few human beings could fathom.

He got hurt, like football players do. The Raiders put him on injured reserve. Then they did it again a year later. Then they released him with a non-football injury designation.

Then they announced he had had a brain aneurysm, and was in a medically induced coma.

And now we’re here, at this week, where Ball’s story is shadowed by dark clouds again.

“Neiron is currently fighting for his life,” the short GoFundMe description of his status reads. (That the “again” is omitted doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

But the longer description of his condition, from a letter written by his elder sister, Natalie Myricks, is the heartbreaking part.

Ball’s been out of a coma, the letter notes, for more than seven months. And his family has been fighting with him, fighting for him, fighting an insurance provider they say refuses to provide what they see as the proper care. They see a loved one who they say has been hospitalized due to inadequate healthcare. They plead for help that had not come “despite the public dedications and interviews that have been conducted in the name of Neiron Ball.”

I don’t know Natalie Myricks or Betty Coleman, Ball’s great aunt. But I know what I read in that letter is desperation overtaking hope, a person at wit’s end trying her best to do her best for someone and feeling like she’s failing.

“The family believes that all possibities need to be exhausted to give him a fighting chance to recover and live,” the letter concludes, “as Neiron gave his life selflessly to help others regardless of their circumstances.”

If there are any people in this world deserving of love and charity, Neiron Ball is certainly among them. And this week, he’s gotten it.

The GoFundMe asked for $50,000. That goal was reached swiftly; it then asked for $100,000, which has also been topped.

The list of names that have donated publicly ranges from Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh to Chicago Bears superstar — and former Oakland teammate — Khalil Mack. The donations range from a few dollars to several thousand. The chances that former Florida players close to Ball — like Trent Brown, who was Ball’s roommate and is now part of his former team thanks to a huge contract — will continue to help in ways both public and private would seem strong.

The odds may be long against Neiron Ball, but the ranks of those in the tide that is now lifting him are deep indeed.

And that tide has both everything and nothing to do with football.

Football brought Ball to Florida, and bonded him with a band of brothers that became the family for a young man with precious few living relatives. Football provided him with the care he needed when he needed it as a Gator, and may have saved his life, given that its structure was part of the reason his condition was caught and diagnosed when and where it was, instead of at a different and more deadly time, and that the care provided to a Florida student-athlete is going to be top-notch regardless of its cost.

And football provided Ball with the fame to be remembered and thought of fondly by not just friends but fans, and has provided some of Ball’s friends with the resources to help him in a time of dire need.

And if not for football, where would Neiron Ball be now?

But I’ve also thought a lot this week about how utterly destroying the path of Ball’s life — a life shorter than my own — would have been for me to handle had it been the path of a loved one. I’ve thought about Natalie Myricks and Betty Coleman, and how they aren’t fighting for a football player, but for a brother and a nephew.

“The family that spearheaded his upbringing has stepped in to try to get him the help that he desperately deserves,” that letter notes, “as he is not only a football player but a great person.”

The appeal to Ball’s character — unimpeachable by all accounts — is noble.

But shouldn’t it be unnecessary?

Shouldn’t anyone who sees the picture of Ball on the GoFundMe page, in an emaciated state as far removed as can be from his hale and halcyon playing days, want to help him? Shouldn’t a healthcare system care first and foremost about getting a patient the best care, and returning him to health? Shouldn’t good people and great people and even bad people be spared immense pain, if possible?

Shouldn’t a family wanting nothing but the best for their loved one not have to plead to the skies for mercy and to the world at large for charity to get that?

Football brought Neiron Ball opportunity, fame, money, family, and the realization of a dream. But working his job at the semi-professional and professional level, as most Americans do to get their healthcare, did not provide him with insurance good enough to cope with catastrophic illness. (One can wonder how much his school and employer are calibrating their care of Ball now, too. Florida’s first full acknowledgement of Ball’s plight this week came in a tweet just over an hour ago; the Raiders’ self-produced piece on Brown linked above is from March 2019 and suggests Ball remained in a coma then, which this week’s letter reveals as factually inaccurate.)

Football did many good things for Neiron Ball. But I wouldn’t be writing about a family crowdfunding a former football player’s medical care if it had done all the good things.

And, moreover, Neiron Ball deserves help not because he is a football player and a great person but because he needs help. Deserve should have nothing to do with it — and in a world in which good people had only good things happen to them, it would.

We do not live in that world. Not yet. But I believe we can make it, and should.

I have donated to the Ball GoFundMe, and I’d be happy to find a way to raise money through Alligator Army for more contributions; I encourage you to make yours individually, too, if you’d like.

What I would also encourage you to do is consider how we get to a moment like this, where someone like Neiron Ball can have their sunshine stolen by cruel fate and their continued existence complicated by systems that cannot adequately combat that cruelty, when any of us could be the unlucky one in his place in no time at all, and in which our charity to another comes partly through a for-profit crowdfunding company that solicits a tip for its part in helping us help others.

And I would encourage you to live your life — your one beautiful life — with that in mind.