RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : Eric Ball Trying to Fill Bengal Void

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fullback Ickey Woods of the Cincinnati Bengals crossed the goal line and broke into the Ickey Shuffle. A folk hero bedecked in a ponytail and gold jewelry, he danced his way to Super Bowl XXIII and into the American consciousness.

Fullback Eric Ball of the Cincinnati Bengals crossed the goal line and handed the ball to the referee. He went over to thank the offensive linemen and trotted to the sideline to catch his breath. Ball may run as well as Woods, but he doesn't try to shuffle.

"Since Day 1, everybody has asked me if I had a dance for when I made a touchdown," Ball said. "I guess after Ickey came in, they expected everybody to have a dance. I don't have one. I think I spiked the ball for the first time in my career last week."

A rookie from UCLA, Ball moved into the starting lineup after Woods sustained a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season. Ball has rushed for 238 yards and two touchdowns in 67 carries.

"I'm sure there was a lot of pressure on Eric to replace Ickey," said Anthony Munoz, the Bengals' all-pro tackle. "He had to come in and carry the load and he's done a great job."

Quarterback Boomer Esiason has taken Ball under his wing. "I feel it's important that he knows the quarterback is on his side and is pulling for him," Esiason said. "I genuinely really like Eric Ball. He's got his head screwed on straight."

Ball flourished in his first two games, rushing for 149 yards to lead the Bengals. But he has struggled since, rushing for just 99 yards in the last three weeks going into Sunday's game against the Raiders at the Coliseum.

The slump began when he dropped a touchdown pass and fumbled to set up a touchdown by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next week against Miami, he sat out most of the game with a knee injury.

Although he rushed for just 23 yards in nine carries during last week's 56-23 victory over Tampa Bay, Ball showed signs of coming out of his slump, scoring on a fourth-down play to put the Bengals ahead for good.

A tailback at UCLA, Ball has been moved to fullback. Although the Bengals maintain that their backs are interchangeable, Ball hasn't been productive at his new position.

Ball, 6-feet-1 and 216 pounds, doesn't have the powerfully built frame that most NFL fullbacks have.

Unlike Woods, Ball is unlikely to cut back when he runs into would-be tacklers, and although he's faster to the hole than Woods, Ball hasn't smashed defenders as well.

Esiason thinks any criticism of Ball is unjustified.

"Eric Ball is a very talented player," Esiason said. "The difference between Eric Ball and Ickey Woods is Eric is more of a disciplined runner. If you tell him to hit a hole, he's going to be at that hole. Ickey is more of an instinctive runner. He would cut back more.

"Eric is a better pass-blocker than Ickey was. He is a little better run-blocker for James Brooks, so we're giving up instinct for someone who's going to be where you tell him, but I feel very confident with Eric back there.

"It's just a shame that Eric hasn't had a chance to get out in the open and show the things he's capable of doing. And I know this is going to be a big game for Eric coming back to Los Angeles."

After Woods had rushed for 1,066 yards last season, Coach Sam Wyche designed plays to take advantage of his running style.

With Ball struggling, the Bengals have restructured their offense, employing tailback Brooks in a one-back formation. Brooks has rushed for 692 yards and four touchdowns.

Huey Ball had mixed emotions when he attended a Monday night game between the Bengals and the Cleveland Browns this season in Cincinnati.

Born in Cleveland, Ball is a lifelong Brown fan. But, of course, he was also rooting for his son, Eric, the Bengals' rookie fullback.

Making his first start in an NFL regular-season game, Eric Ball rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown as the Bengals defeated the Browns, 21-14.

Huey Ball was the first to congratulate his son after the game. "It was the fulfillment of every parent's dream (for) a kid involved in sports," he said.

Eric was involved in sports almost from the time he began walking. When he was 3, he went running with his father, a former high school track star.

"I was running the quarter, and Eric just took off and ran with me," the elder Ball said. "For every one step I took, he took three or four little steps. When we got to a point about 100 yards from the finish, I said, 'Let's run to the finish.' And he looked up at me and said, 'Dad, I've got a better idea, let's walk to the finish.' "

A prep All-American at Ypsilanti (Mich.) High School, Ball rushed for 302 yards and six touchdowns in the opening game of his senior season and went on to set a school single-season record with 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"He didn't look for shortcuts. He didn't look for ways to get out of things," Ypsilanti Coach Jerry Haynes said. "He had goals in his mind that he wanted to achieve. You didn't have to get on him to make him do things."

Heavily recruited, Ball narrowed his college choices to Michigan and UCLA, before signing with UCLA.

Why did he leave home?

"That's a question I asked Eric myself," Huey Ball said. "To be quite honest, I would have preferred that he stay home. Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor are bordering communities, and we've had Michigan season tickets for a long time. Eric attended the Michigan football camp. He could have been a hometown hero."

But Ball didn't want to be a hometown hero.

"When Eric was 12, we went out to L.A.," Huey Ball said. "We spent a week in L.A., and he made up his mind that he wanted to go back."

As Eric Ball walked off the field after the 1986 Rose Bowl game, he was surrounded by reporters and TV cameras.

After rushing for 227 yards and four touchdowns in the Bruins' 45-28 victory over Iowa, he was named the player of the game, capping an extraordinary freshman season in which he ran for 703 yards and 11 touchdowns.

However, Ball never fulfilled the promise of his extraordinary Rose Bowl performance while at UCLA.

Hampered by knee, hamstring and shoulder injuries, he rushed for 493 yards in his next two seasons. He was so banged up that he kept cups of ice ready in his freezer to treat the injuries.

Ball gained 781 yards and scored six touchdowns in 1988, but an ankle injury cut his season short.

"They were just nagging-type injuries, but I think the press kind of put a label on me as being injury-prone while I was at UCLA," Ball said. "I didn't have any serious injuries that detained me for an entire season."

The injuries hurt his standing among NFL scouts. Although impressed by his ability, they questioned his durability.

Projected to go in the first three rounds of the draft, Ball was selected by the Bengals in the second round, even though they already had two top running backs in Woods and Brooks.

After graduating from UCLA last June, Ball cleaned out his apartment, hooked a trailer to his car and headed for Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle.

They had been married for less than a month and they spent their honeymoon driving across the country.

"It wasn't fun for me," Michelle said. "I'm not much of a traveler, but I hung in there."

They have moved into a new house in north Cincinnati, and Michelle is expecting a child in February--shortly after the Super Bowl.

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