Saints safety Marcus Ball chasing his dream

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Saints safety Marcus Ball has shown coaches a thing or two since his team’s training camp opened in late July.

At an intrasquad scrimmage, Ball intercepted a pass and nearly returned it for a touchdown, and got a sack on the day’s final snap. He forced a fumble and recovered it in a punt-return drill on another occasion.

His reward has been to occasionally line up with the first string, such as on the Saints’ opening defensive series in their 26-24 victory at St. Louis in an Aug. 8 exhibition. Yet those are all moments Ball could not imagine himself living through less than three years ago.

For, back then, Ball came within inches of surrendering his pro football aspirations — before he was talked out of it by the two most important women in his life: his mother and his girlfriend.

It’s thanks to them Ball is in position to convince coaches he deserves consideration for a roster spot under those that will almost certainly be occupied by safeties Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush. It’s thanks to them the two-season Canadian Football League veteran and NFL newcomer will have the chance to play in his first Saints home game when New Orleans hosts the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 7 p.m. Friday.

“Those women in my life kept me focused and kept ... the fire burning inside,” said Ball, who’s mainly competing with talented rookies Vinnie Sunseri (a fifth-round draft selection) and Pierre Warren (undrafted) to join a defense that deploys more safeties at a time than many do. “A few times I got down — really down — and wanted to just throw it all away maybe. But they never let it get to that level.”

Ball’s problems began in 2008, two years after starting his college football career at Florida State. Ready to stand out for then-Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden as a linebacker, Ball was among 61 athletes to be ensnared in an academic fraud scandal in which players were accused of illegally getting access to test questions and having tutors take their exams.

Ball gave up his scholarship, left the Seminoles and transferred to tiny Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Mississippi, for one season. He subsequently moved on to the University of Memphis to play defensive back in 2009 and 2010, deflecting eight passes and picking off four in 19 games and 12 starts.

Nonetheless, Ball’s NCAA career didn’t end smoothly. He drew a suspension toward the conclusion of his senior campaign at Memphis for an undisclosed team policy violation.

Ball graduated from Memphis but then failed to find any NFL opportunities at the beginning of 2011, when the league was temporarily locked out as it finalized a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players union. And he confided his feelings with his loved ones: Maybe he really didn’t want a future in pro football.

Ball’s mother, Catherine Geiger, and girlfriend, Ashley Jackson, were skeptical. Football was essentially his whole life. He had been the pride of his Atlanta-area prep school, where he was once the state of Georgia’s Class 5A Defensive Player of the Year.

He said they told him, “Don’t let anybody or anything or any action or any circumstance dictate where you want to be in life. ... Continue chasing your dream. If it’s football, it’s football. If it’s being a lawyer, go be a lawyer.”

Ball recalled, “But (they) knew it was football. So (they) said, ‘Go chase your dreams.’ ”

Ball maintained his physical shape working out with his friends and father, Reggie, an athletic trainer. He received motivation from his older brothers, Reggie— ex-quarterback for Georgia Tech and the Detroit Lions — and Raeshon, a former defensive back at Chattanooga.

That paid off when the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts held an open tryout in Atlanta. Ball attended and demonstrated some key abilities: rushing passers from areas patrolled by both defensive backs and linebackers, snatching the ball away from opponents, and snuffing out kick returns on special teams.

The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Ball landed a contract. He amassed 142 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions, two touchdowns off picks and three fumble recoveries from 2012 through 2013. He and Toronto became CFL champions by winning the Grey Cup his first year there, a height that perhaps seemed unattainable when he departed Florida State in disgrace.

“I had a few pieces in my puzzle that helped me and kept me going,” Ball said.

Having acquired in one form or another at least four players with ties to Canada since 2012, the Saints reviewed Ball’s game film, saw plenty they could use to their advantage and signed him in early April.

“He’s instinctive,” coach Sean Payton said. “I would say ... his ability to tackle in the open field (is a strength). ... The ball kind of finds him, and it did a lot when we watched the tape.”

Though that didn’t immediately happen when Ball participated in voluntary offseason workouts and a mandatory minicamp, it did not long after the Saints launched training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

The scrimmage and that one punt-return drill served as evidence of that.

Such progress wasn’t all that surprising to one of his closest teammates.

“Perseverance is something he’s accomplished in his career,” said Bush, Ball’s fellow safety. “He’s very passionate about the game — I love that about him.”

But such progress wouldn’t have occurred had it not been for a support network Ball can’t talk about without cracking a smile.

“They,” Ball said, “didn’t let me kill the dream.”