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UCLA Wins With a Pair of Jokers

October 22, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

No one really wants to think about it right now, with UCLA in the middle of a promising season in which the Bruins have won four consecutive games and prompted talk that they'll contend for the Pacific 10 Conference championship.

But some time this winter, after the final whistle has blown on their college football careers, twin defensive ends Dave and Mat Ball will graduate from UCLA with degrees in history and -- for the first time in their lives -- go their separate ways.

Dave Ball -- a three-year starter who leads the nation with 11 1/2 sacks and is on the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the best defensive player in college football -- appears headed for the NFL.

Mat Ball is in his first season as a full-time starter at defensive end, having moved from end as a freshman to linebacker as a sophomore and back to end as a junior. Although he has NFL aspirations, he's the first to admit he's not as advanced or experienced at the position as his brother.

So, barring the unlikely possibility of the same NFL team drafting and keeping these twins, who share the same reddish blond hair, freckles and affinity for a good laugh, Dave and Mat Ball will soon begin charting their own paths in life, like Abbott without Costello, Laurel without Hardy, Burns without Allen.

"I've thought about it sometimes," Dave said. "We've been living together our whole lives -- I don't think we've been apart for more than a week or something -- so it's going to be different, you know?

"I don't know how it's going to be. We're just going to be living on our own. I'll be with my girlfriend, off by myself wherever I go, he'll be by himself or with his girlfriend, so ... we'll be two loners."

Mat, a 6-foot-6, 280-pound senior, and Dave, a 6-6, 270-pound senior, grew up playing football and basketball in Dixon, Calif., a semirural suburb about 35 miles from Sacramento. They have roomed together and taken classes together for all of their five years at UCLA.

"We can't live together our whole lives, nor would we want to, but I don't know ... " Mat said. "I guess it will be kind of like when we came here, a whole new experience. It's something we'll get used to, I'm sure. We won't cry too much ... I think."

Weep for UCLA, though, because when the bouncing Balls leave campus, Westwood may never be the same.

Who will crack the one-liners that bring levity to tense situations? Who will ride a coach mercilessly the day that coach makes the fashion faux pas of wearing purple pants?

Who will call teammates in the middle of the night with high-pitched voices, pretending to be Grandma, saying they've just baked cookies, or spend a day at practice emitting primal screams?

Who will organize the pre-practice baseball games, featuring burly defensive linemen whacking tennis balls with a plastic pipe and rumbling around make-believe base paths?

Who will come up with the post-game gems in the locker room, such as the one Dave Ball delivered Saturday while ruminating on the UCLA sack record?

"It means a lot to me," he said. "I just want to be remembered for something, you know? Two years ago I wouldn't have thought [I had a shot]. I'm just getting better, I guess, getting more experienced, going through puberty."

"They bring everything -- skill, intelligence, the knowledge of the game, and, when you least expect it, they find some humor to lighten the moment," defensive line coach Don Johnson said. "That's important. It's a game we work hard to be successful in, but you've got to have fun.

"I mean, these are student-athletes who are up at 6 a.m., lifting weights. They sit in class all day, they come out and watch film, study the opponent for a few hours, they practice hard for two hours and then they go to study hall. You've got to have some relief at some point in time."

For instance, there was the time Johnson was chewing out Bruin defensive tackle Ryan Boschetti during a defensive line meeting.

"You know how you have a nose tackle?" Mat Ball said. "We were in a meeting room, watching film, and Coach Johnson was ripping us a little bit, yelling at Boschetti. Coach says, 'Where's my nose at?' And so I say, 'It's on your face, Coach.' "

Or the time Dave was a freshman and a big offensive lineman was hanging on him a little too much in practice.

"So I pushed him," Dave said. "He was an older guy and wasn't having any of that. He was kind of big and slow, so he came charging at me, reached his hands out and tried to grab me. I ducked under him and he fell on his face. That was probably the biggest laugh I've ever gotten here."

The Ball brothers aren't big on detailed stunts that require a lot of planning. They're more spur-of-the-moment, one-line specialists.

"We just like to point out what's funny, what's unique, about stuff," Dave said.

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