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THE LOST SEASON OF ERIC BALL : After Great Rose Bowl Show, Nothing Could Stop Him, Right? Wrong

November 06, 1986|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

Eric Ball has this recurring dream. He experiences the peculiar sensation that he is actually falling in a spiral, like a punted ball, falling right out of the sky. Then, just before he hits the ground, he wakes up.

There is another part of this dream. Ball can see something. It's always the same, odd vision. While he's falling, the football season passes before his eyes.

For Ball this season, no one called a fair catch.

"This year's not a total washout yet," he said. "But it's sure a washout compared to what I expected it to be."

Think back to New Year's Day and the Rose Bowl game. Ball, then a UCLA redshirt freshman tailback, ran for 227 yards and scored 4 touchdowns in one of the most dominating Rose Bowl performances of all time.

No one ever scored more touchdowns in the 72-year history of the Rose Bowl.

No one except Charles White, who had 247 yards for USC in 1980, ever rushed for more yards in a Rose Bowl game.

Ball made such an impression that the Rose Bowl was quickly renamed the Rose Ball. Nothing could stop him. Certainly Iowa could not.

Now, think about this year. So far, after eight games, Ball has rushed for exactly 80 yards and carried the ball just 18 times.

Eric Ball, a Rose Bowl sensation, has fallen upon hard times. About the only thing that Ball hasn't had any problem with is his eyes.

"I've seen the whole season go," he said.

"I'll tell you how bad it's gotten. Instead of ice cream, I keep cups of ice in my freezer at home for my knee and my hamstring."

Even so, Ball remains upbeat. "People might think they'll see me around with my lower lip dragging on the ground, but I'm not like that," he said. "This year has to be treated like a learning experience, and you know something? I've learned quite a lot."

The Rose Bowl game in which Ball bolted into prominence seems to him to have happened a very long time ago, perhaps because the only place he has been a hit this season is the training room. He has been a frequent visitor there.

The only known picture of Ball in action this year is an X-ray. And only now, nearly six weeks after he hurt his hamstring for the first time, does Ball feel strong again. Actually, he has had that hurt feeling for nearly the entire season. He bruised fatty tissue beneath his kneecap in preseason camp and missed the opening game at Oklahoma.

Ball returned against San Diego State but strained the hamstring during practice the next week. When he tried to play against Long Beach State, he felt the hamstring pop.

That meant he had fully pulled the hamstring. It also meant he would not be able to play for an extended period of time, which turned out to be a month. Ball missed the Bruins' first four Pacific 10 games. He finally returned in the fourth quarter last Saturday at Portland against Oregon State, where he was a mop-up tailback in a 49-0 wipeout.

What is Eric Ball doing, mopping up?

"Trying to get 100%," he said. "Right now, I've only got three games left. The whole season is over if I pull it again."

Bruin Coach Terry Donahue left the decision to play up to Ball, who said it was important mentally for him not to waste one more game. It turned out to be a good choice, although the way things have gone for him this year, it easily could have backfired.

Ball said his hamstring stiffened slightly after the game and was swollen on the plane ride home from Portland but it also seemed to respond to ice treatments.

During practice this week, Ball has been wearing sprinters' tights under his uniform to support his hamstring. He also intends to wear them Saturday against Stanford at the Rose Bowl and probably for the rest of the season, how ever long it may last.

It won't last long enough for Ball. He knows he cannot possibly make up for his sophomore season, which could have been a showcase season.

"I had so many expectations of having a good year, and it's all been taken away from me," he said. "I really haven't been able to even practice the whole year. First it was my knee, and once my knee healed, then it was my hamstring.

"I put so much pressure on myself to get 100% in a hurry and get back out there to play," he said. "I just tried to come back too soon. I rushed it. I was too anxious. If I had not tried to get it going so early, I'd be healthy now. If only I had rested it.

"I finally got to the point where I know that healthy is not something you can rush."

Perhaps the people at UCLA were a little spoiled by Ball because of what he did in his first year. Ball ran for 703 yards, a UCLA freshman record and second only to Gaston Green overall. His average of 5.8 yards a carry led the team. His 11 touchdowns also led the team.

But that was last season. "I could have been a senior and had all these things go wrong," Ball said, working hard at positive thinking. "At least I'm only a sophomore. That's a small consolation. All I can do is come back, I guess."

The Bruins have three more games with Ball, and maybe he can get through them in good shape. That would be a good place to start. After all, this certainly will not be a 1,000-yard year for Ball, who might find it difficult to finish the season with as many yards as he gained in that first, historic Rose Ball.

Ball thought that perhaps it would be better to set a modest goal.

"I at least want to play one whole game this season," he said. "Is that too much to ask?"

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