Forgotten Man: Will Ball See Ball at All? : UCLA Backup Running Back, Star of 1986 Rose Bowl, Is Battling Back

Times Staff Writer

It got so bad for Eric Ball last season that instead of ice cream, the UCLA tailback kept ice in his freezer to nurse his ailing left knee and right hamstring.

The knee and hamstring are fine now, but Ball might find another use for the ice this fall--to nurse his bruised ego.

While the Bruins have pulled out all the stops in their promotion of tailback Gaston Green as a Heisman Trophy candidate, Ball seems to be UCLA's forgotten man.

This is the same Eric Ball who, in one of the most dominant Rose Bowl performances of all time, ran for 227 yards and scored 4 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman on New Year's Day, 1986.

Only one person, USC's Charles White in 1980, has ever rushed for more yardage in a Rose Bowl game, and no one has ever scored more touchdowns.

But this is also the same Eric Ball who, bothered by nagging injuries, ran for fewer yards all last season than he did in the second half of his memorable New Year's Day performance against Iowa.

Asked to categorize a forgettable 1986 season, in which he missed 7 of the Bruins' 12 games and rushed for only 120 yards in 31 carries, Ball was succinct.

"The pits," he said.

And so, while Green is on the magazine covers and handles most of the interview requests, Ball starts over.

"I have to re-establish myself," he said Tuesday after a morning workout at UCLA. "At least for myself I have to do that. I don't know what everybody else is thinking, but to feel good inside, I have to come out and have a good season."

Coach Terry Donahue has said that he wants to get the ball into Green's hands as many as 30 times a game this season. Assuming that fullbacks James Primus and Mel Farr Jr. also will carry the ball once in a while and that the Bruins will pass to somebody other than Green on occasion, that wouldn't seem to leave many opportunities for Ball.

But Ball, who rushed for 703 yards two seasons ago to establish a UCLA freshman record, said he's not unaccustomed to playing a backup role to Green. In fact, he didn't even start in the Rose Bowl, getting his chance only after Green pulled a hamstring in the second quarter.

"It's kind of been that way since I've been here," said Ball, who signed with the Bruins out of Ypsilanti (Mich.) High in 1984, about two weeks after Green had signed. "I don't think the role has changed much. Gaston is up for the Heisman, so I'm sure they're going to be giving him more playing time than normal, but I will get an opportunity to play.

"You just have to perform. I'm going to compete regardless of the situation. As long as I can leave the impression that I am capable of playing, then I'm sure everything else will take care of itself. It's not like I'm going to be on the sideline all the time."

Donahue said he will use both Green and Ball in the same backfield on occasion. He also said that if he's healthy, Ball need not worry about playing time.

"There's nothing wrong with Eric Ball, other than he's rusty," Donahue said. "He needs more reps, he needs more work. He needs to get back on top of the game he once had."

He never got the chance last season, and part of that was his own fault, Ball said.

He was the toast of Ypsilanti after his record-setting Rose Bowl game. The town of 24,031 honored him not with a day, but an entire month. In his euphoria, Ball said, he may have relaxed a little bit, not focusing as much as he should have on football.

Last summer, he said, he overextended himself. He attended summer school and worked full-time as a lab assistant at TRW. Finding time to work out took a lower priority.

And when he reported to camp last fall, he said, he failed a team conditioning test.

His problems had only begun.

He bruised fatty tissue beneath his left kneecap in preseason camp and missed the opening game at Oklahoma. In the week before the next game, he strained his right hamstring. The injury limited him to 7 carries (and 27 yards) against San Diego State.

He started the next week against Cal State Long Beach, gaining 31 yards in his most productive game of the season, but while scoring on a 3-yard run, he severely pulled his hamstring, effectively ending his season.

He missed six of the Bruins' next seven games and by the time he was back at full strength, he had been reduced to a mop-up role.

The Rose Bowl--the Rose Ball, as some took to calling it--seemed a distant memory.

"I would say that probably the injuries were set up by Eric not really being ready for the season," Donahue said. "When he says he wasn't ready, I think he means physically as well as mentally."

This summer, Ball took a different tack. He worked fewer hours, taking a job on campus, and instead of returning to Ypsilanti for even a short time, he spent the entire summer at his apartment in Playa del Rey.

He worked out twice a day, running most mornings on the beach near his apartment--distance work along the shore and sprints in the soft sand. "Monsters," he called the workouts.

He also continued to be a monster in the weight room, where he holds "Bruin Brawn" lifting records (for backs) of 375 pounds in the bench press, 562 in the squat, 358 in the clean and a three-lift total of 1,179.

Donahue welcomed a livelier Ball to camp last week.

The need to re-establish himself, Donahue said, "is something that's more in Eric's mind than in my mind. I think Eric will re-establish himself and regain the form that he once enjoyed."

Ball said he's ready.

"I feel very good," he said.

And eager, obviously, to get his career off the rocks.

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