ANAHEIM, Calif. - During the 2010 season, Wisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball began to see his carries decrease. Eventually, Ball was third-string behind John Clay and Zach Brown.
'The other two guys were playing well,' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says. 'All of a sudden, he found himself in the third spot. It wasn't anything against Montee.'
The realization that he had truly been beaten out at tailback hit Ball in the seventh game of the season, when he did not play in Wisconsin's 31-18 win over Ohio State, then ranked No. 1.
'I wanted to contribute to the win, but I didn't even get a chance to step on the field for one play,' Ball says. 'That's when I knew that my spot had been taken.'
Ball's first reaction was to blame everyone but himself.
'At that time, I wasn't being honest with myself,' Ball says. 'I was doing more pointing the finger, saying 'coaches have their favorites.' That's extremely immature.'
Ball didn't consider transferring from Wisconsin, but he did think about switching positions and trying linebacker, which he had played in high school.
Then Ball had a long talk with his parents, who had moved from St. Louis to Madison, Wis., when Ball began playing for the Badgers.
'I went home,' Ball says. 'I was able to talk to them face to face, and what they told me is to be your hardest critic. What my dad told me is, 'You're a running back, you're not being honest to yourself, true to yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself what you're not doing right and get it done.' '
Ball made the change quickly. In the second half of Wisconsin's next game against Iowa, Clay was injured and Ball was inserted into the lineup. Ball wound up scoring the clinching touchdown on an 8-yard run with 1:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.
'Montee got his opportunity halfway through the Iowa game when John Clay got hurt, and he's never looked back,' Bielema says.
Ball finished the 2010 season with 996 rushing yards and 18 TDs on 163 carries.
The 5-11, 210-pound junior did not just improve his game in 2011, he set the world on fire. On the road to being a Heisman Trophy finalist, Ball had 275 carries for 1,759 yards and 32 TDs. He caught 20 passes for 255 yards and six TDs and even threw a touchdown pass.
What makes Ball even more lethal is that he gets stronger as the game wears on.
'Come fourth quarter I believe that I get stronger,' Ball says. 'That's my strength for sure.'
The main reason for Ball's endurance is how hard he practices.
'The thing I love about Montee is what you see on Saturdays is what I see during the week every day,' Bielema says. 'He's a tremendous competitor, very engaged in his preparation. And the things that you see on Saturday are the result of what he does during the week.'
There are times when Ball does not want to give his best at practice. On those days, Ball thinks back to losing his position and not playing against Ohio State.
'The days that I'm human, the days that I don't feel like going to practice and running, I look back on last year when I lost my position and that motivates to come out and practice extremely hard and play hard,' he says.
The next chapter in Ball's fairy-tale comeback story will be trying to lead Wisconsin to victory over the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl on Monday. Looking at the Oregon defense, Ball says that he and his offensive line will have to be ready for the different blitzes that Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti will throw at the Badgers. Ball must also account for Oregon's athleticism and the way the Ducks swarm to the football.
'They do a great job of disguising their blitzes,' Ball says. 'That's why we're attacking the film room, making sure that we'll be able to dissect those. Other than that, they do a really great job of rallying to the football and making plays on their feet and just being extremely athletic. They use their athleticism.'
As he waits to see what the 98th Rose Bowl will hold, Ball will continue to remember how losing his position led to rediscovering himself.
'I always look back on that,' Ball says. 'When I lost it, it stung, but I'm really grateful for it because it made me stronger. It made me a better man. After that, I just took off. I take each day for what it is. I don't take anything for granted. That's what's gotten me where I am.'