Catching Up With ... Former Colts tackle Sam Ball

Baltimore's first-pick in 1966 turned his attention to agribusiness after football

(Handout photo )
September 18, 2014|Mike Klingaman | The Baltimore Sun

Sam Ball has a Super Bowl ring on his finger from Baltimore's 1970 NFL championship and a plaque on his wall naming him the 1990 Kentucky Soybean Association's Man of the Year. Life has been good to the All-American tackle-turned-farmer, who has reaped the rewards of two jobs well done.

"For a country boy to have played for the Colts, alongside seven (future) Hall of Famers, was every kid's dream," said Ball, 70. "Plus, I was their number one draft choice. What an honor. My gosh, that's right up there with cold beer and air."

Baltimore's first-round pick in the 1966 NFL draft, Ball helped anchor the offensive line for four years, during which the Colts (43-9-4) won two conference and three division titles. Knees shot, he bowed out following the Super Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys and took up a career in agribusiness.

"I retired lame," he said. "If I'd stayed, I'd be crippled."

Even so, Ball has had 18 surgeries since football — on his neck, hips, back and knees. Telltale scars on his forehead remain ("We head-butted everything back then."). In April he fell, punctured a lung and broke eight ribs.

"Some parts don't work like they used to, but that's OK," he said. "Thank God for technology and titanium."

It has been 48 years since he arrived in Baltimore — 6-feet-4, 250 pounds and an able successor to All-Pro Jim Parker, who taught Ball all of his favorite moves.

"Jim was strong as a freight train and, on one play, hit me in the gut so hard that I wanted to puke," Ball said. "I said, 'Jim, I know how to do it now. You don't have to show me any more.'"

He earned a game ball in October 1968 for his play in a 27-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams. In that contest, Ball silenced Deacon Jones, the Hall of Fame defensive end who vowed revenge when next they met.

"I'd like to have (Ball) one-on-one this Sunday and we'll see if he really earned the game ball of his," Jones said prior to their rematch in the L.A. Coliseum that December.

"I kept quiet all week," Ball recalled. "But when I was introduced before the game, 93,000 people booed. Well, on the first play I chopped Jones with a cut block, which forced him to put his hands on my back as he fell. But to the crowd, it looked like he was mashing my face into the ground. They were yelling, 'Attaboy, Deacon!'

"We won that game, too. Afterward I called home and said, 'Guess what, momma? Nearly 100,000 people know who I am.'"

The Colts reached the Super Bowl that season but were upset, 16-7 by the New York Jets.

"They must replay that game 50 times a year on TV, and after 40 of them I get phone calls," said Ball, still vexed by the outcome. But Baltimore's victory in Super Bowl V softened the blow.

"I never thought the good Lord would give me another chance for a championship," Ball said. "After the game, we went from the Orange Bowl to a party at (Colts owner) Carroll Rosenbloom's home in Miami. The first guy I saw there was Muhammad Ali. He said, 'I know who you are — I read the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.'

"I thought, here I am, a lowly tackle and I'm recognized by the most known man on the planet."

He retired soon after to his native Kentucky and the 400-acre farm he'd bought early on with the Colts. There, Ball still raises cattle and hunts deer and wild turkeys. He also works as a motivational speaker, lacing his talks with homespun humor. Annually, he stages a charity golf tournament to benefit the Salvation Army, though he doesn't subscribe to the rules of the game.

"You walk your butt off, you lose balls and the low score wins. I don't understand any of it," Ball said. "I mean, when I get a birdie, I eat it."

Divorced, he lives in his hometown of Henderson (pop. 28,832), happy that his three children followed him to college at Kentucky. A son, Shane, played football there for then-head coach Bill Curry, former Colts center and Ball's teammate in Baltimore.

"I wore number 73 in college and with the Colts," Ball said. "At Kentucky, Shane asked for number 37. When Curry asked why, he said, "Coach, I'm a reflection of my daddy.'"

Sam Ball beamed.

"I've been an All-American and a world champion," he said, "but that beats everything."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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