By: Tim Haran
Second place is not an option for Cal inside linebacker Chris Ball. Whether he's in a recording studio, on the football field or simply brushing his teeth, the junior college transfer isn't about to settle for runner-up.
His goal is to be perfect. And he's willing to work for it.
For perfect teeth, he visits the dentist four times a year. To perfect his singing voice, he spent more than a decade performing in an R&B group. And football perfection means devoting eight hours a day studying films, lifting weights and practicing intensely.
"Relentless is the word I would use to describe myself," Ball says after a moment of thought. "Not only on the football field. I want to be the best in everything I do."
Making those sky-high standards a reality on the football field hasn't been much of a problem for Ball this season. The Golden Bears have been virtually unstoppable on defense. In its first four games, Cal gave up just 19 points a game while holding opposing offenses to 324 total yards per outing. For his part, Ball racked up 13 tackles and two sacks for total losses of 53 yards.
"He's definitely lived up to the hype," says Cal defensive end Andre Carter. "I tip my hat to him because a lot of people thought that he was a good player and that he would make an impact on the team. It's good that he's proven himself in these past few games."
When Ball was recruited, Cal coaches recognized his talent on the field but they also admired his natural leadership abilities.
"The team knows they can depend on me to say something to either motivate or encourage," Ball says. "I don't do well just sitting in the back and letting things happen. I believe in us creating our own luck."
Even with early-season excellence, Ball is not satisfied.
"I've got great aspirations to come back (as a senior) and be one of the greatest players to ever play at Cal," he says confidently. "I want to come back and be a player that people can say, 'Chris is on the field. At least if no one else shows up, we know that this kid is going to be there, he's going to make some plays and he's going to leave it all out on the field'."
Ball transferred to Cal from Mt. San Antonio Community College at the beginning of last season, but this is his first year in a Bears' uniform. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound linebacker looked first at traditional football powerhouses Colorado, Oregon and Kansas State when deciding on a four-year school, but he ultimately chose Cal for its commitment to education, the Bears' rich tradition on the gridiron and the ability to stay near his family.
"I chose Cal for the degree," the sociology major says without hesitation. "It was my first choice, but they weren't recruiting me right off the bat, so I looked at those big football schools."
That's when Ball returned to his southern California hometown to consult with his mother about his future.
"If my family needs me, I'll be nearby. Not to mention that none of those other schools even came close to the level of education that Cal offers," he says. "And football doesn't last forever."
In fact, ask Ball a few years ago about a football career and you might have received a confused stare. After sitting out the 1996 season, he had to decide between singing and football.
Ball's music career in the R&B group Sec-N-Sol began when he was 8 years old, but he found that he missed football too much to continue with the band.
"I still remember the day I decided to come back to play football," he says. "We were in the studio recording, but I was just sitting in the lobby on the couch when NFL training camp (reports) came on the TV. I started crying."
In hindsight, he says his music experience taught him a lot about people and about what he really wanted to do, but it detracted from his real passion.
"Singing hindered my football progress in a lot of ways," he says. "I couldn't give football my all because right after practice, instead of going home to study plays or lift weights, I'd have to go into the studio or leave out of town to do a show."
Even after choosing the pigskin over the microphone, Ball turns to music for football preparation.
"One of my biggest heroes is Michael Jackson," he says reluctantly, but seriously. "The guy is great. I look at all the hard work he puts into music, his talent, the way he performs when he's on the stage and he's the greatest. That's who I listen to before every game and he inspires me."
Aside from maintaining musicians as heroes, Ball recognizes his return to football as the best decision he's ever made. Partially for the sport, but also for the education package that came with it.
"I'm not the first one in my family to go to college, but I'm the first one to still be in college and who's going to finish," Ball says proudly. "I told everyone when I was little that I was going to make it to college and that I was going to be somebody and now I'm here and I'm actually doing it," he adds. "I'm not going to let anyone stop me. Whatever I want, I can make it happen."