He was a highly celebrated student athlete with a promising professional career ahead of him. Yet, due to his struggles with addiction, Montee Ball found himself sitting in a jail cell while his former teammates won the Super Bowl. Now in recovery, Montee has walked away from the NFL and committed himself to breaking down barriers that prevent Black and Brown people from accessing help for mental health and substance use disorders.
In this episode of Heart of the Matter, learn more about Montee’s journey through addiction, how he found purpose in fatherhood, and his work as a recovery advocate for communities of color.
If you’re unable to listen, check out the transcript of Montee’s conversation with Elizabeth below.
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Heart of the Matter. I am your host, Elizabeth Vargas. And in honor of Super Bowl, just two weeks ago, we have today, on our podcast, a former NFL player, Montee Ball. Former running back for the Denver Broncos of the NFL. Huge college athlete, he played for the Wisconsin Badgers, where he was two time All-American, two time Big Ten champ, Doak Award winner, and Heisman finalist for The Badgers. And of course, then he lost it all.
Montee Ball talks to us about what it’s like to be an athlete in recovery; about what it was like to make that transition, from college sports to the NFL. How difficult it was for him, how he turned down offers of help, that were extended to him, at that point. And he also importantly, talks to us, today, about what is it like to be a black man, in recovery?
We know that fewer than 20% of people who need help and get it, who are struggling with the disease of addiction, but it’s even worse for those people of color. We know that 88.7% of African-Americans do not get help for treatment of substance use disorders.
So Montee is an incredible guest. I’ve loved talking to him, and I know you will love hearing from him about how he hit rock bottom, found himself in a jail cell, watching his former teammates win the Super Bowl, without him. And how he got his life back together and recovered.
And lastly, please take a second to subscribe and rate our podcast, do you enjoy the show. Because only with your support, can we continue to transform the way our country addresses addiction. And now please welcome Montee Ball.
Montee, good to have you. Thanks so much for joining us, on Heart of the Matter. Your story is pretty incredible. You were an astonishingly talented football player, won all sorts of awards, a slew of awards in college, drafted to the Denver Broncos Powerhouse Team. That was a childhood dream of yours. Well, what happened?
First off, thank you so much for having me. This is most definitely an honor. I really, really appreciate it. And that is the million dollar question. What happened to Montee Ball? Such a smiley kid, happy-go-lucky kid in college, playing for a big time university and, yeah, what happened?
A lot happened, from depression to social anxiety, which is ironic. I suffered from extreme social anxiety, which was obviously diagnosed later on, but I didn’t understand how to manage all of my emotions. Everything that I was dealing with, while trying to maintain my position on a football team, a [inaudible 00:03:11] athlete, and dealing with life, in general. So, I was dealing with a lot and drowning it out, with alcohol.
A lot of people hear a story like yours and think “My God, you were on top of the world. You were big guy on campus, winning every award you could win, as a college football player, setting records. How could somebody like him have social anxiety? How could somebody like him feel depressed?” What’s your answer to that?
Absolutely. My answer to that is simple; addiction. Mental health does not discriminate. It doesn’t. I grew up, somewhat fortunate. So I’m from a small town, right outside… It was small, but it’s bigger now. But right outside St. Louis, Missouri, and most people would automatically assume that, when I say that, that I grew up in a poverished or excuse me, in a poverty stricken area. But I didn’t, I actually grew up two parent household, grew up in white suburban neighborhood and went to an all white high school. I was pretty fortunate growing up. So, it was a surprise to me, that path that I went down, I chose to go down. But obviously, it was mental health that pushed me down that way. Or the lack thereof, of care with my mental health.
Well, like so many people, who suffer from addiction, most people I’ve spoken to, in recovery, are drinking or using drugs to not feel something, to numb something that they don’t want to feel, in their lives. When did the drinking, for you, start to really become destructive?
Yeah. So I didn’t have my first drink until 17 years old. I was straight and narrow kid in high school, with the dream of always playing for the Denver Broncos. That was my entire dream, since the age of eight. And so I knew that I obviously had to focus on school, stay out of trouble in order to achieve that. So in high school, did pretty well, obviously experimented here and there. I could count on my hand, how many times I drank alcohol, in high school.
But then, once I came to Wisconsin, about my Sophomore year, so 2010, I really started to dive into the Wisconsin drinking culture; the party atmosphere, and as a kid in college with, at that time, a little bit of success on the football field, I loved it. I loved it, I felt as if that was the norm. I thought, “Well, if these kids are at the bar, but still taking care of their academics, some have jobs, of course, still taking care of that. Then, I can do it. Then, it’s the norm. It’s the social norm.”
So I hopped into it and alcohol is just not for me. I’m one, who can’t handle it.
That’s a renowned party school, that you went to… By the way. I’ve got friends, who went to that school. They were like, “Yeah, people drink.” That was when, many of them said, they drink their heaviest. It was while they went to school, there. You didn’t stick out, like a sore thumb. Other kids were doing the same thing.
That’s why; I’m so glad you brought that up because, obviously hindsight being 20/20, I’m like, “Okay, I had now see all of the verbiage or the phrases that I was using.” I kept saying, “I’m not the only one.” Everybody else is doing it. Everybody else is getting drunk three times, maybe four times a week. It’s literally what everybody does on campus. You see, even parents in bars, with their kids and stuff like that. So I felt as if that was something I needed to do, but obviously it wasn’t. I used it as a crutch. I used alcohol to suppress my emotions. So I didn’t have to deal with them. I used alcohol to go out and party, to step outside of my shell, to feel more comfortable talking to groups of people. It became that vice, that obviously became self destructive.
Did you have any trouble at all, staying in such peak condition, as an athlete? Our very first guest, on our podcast was Chris Heron, who was an incredibly talented basketball player. Played college ball, played in the NBA and told me a story of, one morning, waking up wasted and having a game in a few hours and his brother telling him on the phone, “What are you doing? Are you kidding? This is on national television. This is a huge game.” And it was one of his best games ever.
How were you able to perform, at the incredibly high level you did athletically, while drinking so destructively?
I’m glad you asked that, because I almost wish that I didn’t perform at such a high level, so that I could have stopped it, then.
But since I was still performing at such a high level, I really didn’t think that I had a problem. I knew, obviously, as an adult or 17, 18 year old, 19 year old, I knew that obviously I shouldn’t be drinking as much as I am. But, I was then up for a Heisman award. I broke the all-time touchdown record in the history of college football. So, I’ve seen these awards. So in my mind, I’m like, “Okay, I’m obviously taking care of my stuff.”
Even when I would have conversations with my parents, who obviously saw the path that I was going down, I would tell them, “I’m obviously not doing anything incorrectly. I’m still achieving all of my goals.” And then obviously, once I was drafted by my favorite team, my childhood team, I looked right at my parents and said, “Obviously, there’s nothing wrong.”
So you get drafted by the Broncos. Like you said, your childhood dream. This is amazing stuff. And you go to play in Denver. What was that like and what happened with your drinking, then?
Yeah. Yeah. So, I always say it. Honestly, once I was drafted, I literally packed up my alcoholism and took off, right to Denver still believing nothing was wrong. And my NFL career was short; very, very short because, not only was I partying at a high level. And then, in college, now you give this individual money, fame and all the things that come along with that, I took the Denver Broncos, my opportunity, for granted. I really, really did.
Of course, I still tried to take care of my business on the field. But off the field, once I took the pads off, once I left the meeting room, it was time to party. And I wish, obviously, I can go back and change that, but that was my mindset.
I know that you said at one point, the running back coach pulled you aside and said, “You smell of alcohol. Do you have a problem? And if you do, let me know, I can get you help.”
Oh yeah. Good. That’s my guy, right there. Coach Studesville. I love that man; I still talk to him, today. He’s running back coach for the Dolphins. He pulled me to the side, after one of our running back meetings, and he could smell, obviously, the alcohol and me.
So sometimes, what I would do, is I would go into the facility. I would hit the hot tub, to flush it out real quick out of my pores, hit the steam room to do the same, in the shower before meetings. And they would help to mask it. Well, this time I didn’t and he smelled it and he did pull me to the side and he noticed a pattern. He noticed the pattern and he asked me, if I need any resources, if I need some help and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with him that I did.
Because I knew that I did, but I didn’t feel comfortable. Because, I felt as if I would lose some of that anonymity. I don’t think that he was capable of keeping that from the head coach, that knowledge. So, I was always afraid that it would be used against me. If I had a poor performance, they would say, “Oh, it’s because he’s been drinking.” Or if I fumbled the football, they would be, “Oh, because he’s drinking.”
So, I almost wish I did speak up, because maybe I’d still be in the NFL. But, I know for a fact, that’s what many others are struggling with.
Didn’t you have days and mornings, when you were hung over and feeling sick from drinking? How did you get out there and play?
I don’t know. I don’t know. My rookie season, I would say about 90% of the time, on Friday mornings for our practices, I was hung over. Because of the previous night, I wouldn’t go to sleep until about 4:00 AM, 5:00 AM. When we had meetings at 7:00 AM.
Oh my gosh.
It was pretty bad. I don’t know how I managed to still practice, but obviously, it didn’t work. Or I would still be running for the Broncos, right now.
So, it obviously caught up to me and I’m glad that it did.
Was that running back coach, the only person who ever said anything to you? Did any teammates ever say, “Whoa! Dude, dial it back.”
No. I’m trying to think, right now.
Do you think that’s because, you did a good job hiding it? I know that, at the end of my drinking, before I stopped, I was very careful about how much I drank in front of people, because I did not want people to know that I was drinking too much. I was careful not to drink, everything, that I might drink in a given evening, in front of the same person.
Hmm. That’s true. I love the question because, it really goes into a lot of my message. Now, today, whenever I speak to certain groups; if I’m speaking to the athletic program, if I’m speaking to the football team, I really love to talk a lot about toxic masculinity and how these thrive in locker rooms. And that’s the environment that I was around, in Denver and that answers your question. There’s no way that no other player saw as much as I was drinking or the excessive amount that I was consuming. I know for a fact they saw that, but you got a pat on the back for it.
So you’re saying your teammates did know how much you were drinking, but that was like, “Yo! Hey, he can handle it.” It was more a badge of masculine honor?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Actually. Yeah. And again, I don’t…
There were other players drinking, as much as you?
Yeah, absolutely. There were other players who were consuming just the amount as me, but like I stated, it was this code of honor of some sort. If you do, do it, you don’t snitch. You don’t tell the coach, you don’t tell the position coach. You pat the person on the back and that’s that toxic masculinity that I speak of. In that setting, it’s okay to cheat on your wife or to have multiple partners or to excessively poison your body. And honestly, that’s why I stepped away from the NFL. I had an opportunity to go back, but it’s very destabilizing to where I’m at today.
You had said, I was surprised to see this, but actually, if I really reflect on it, not that… You loved football when you played college ball. That playing football in the NFL is a different experience. It’s more of a business.
Yeah. College football is college football. People know the team spirit. Obviously, you’re within the same age as everybody, you’re living with a few who are on the team. There’s that chemistry that’s there. For me, it was difficult to obviously bond with Peyton Manning, who’s X amount of years older than me, has a family at home and stuff like that.
So, that aspect obviously, is difficult. But yes, you mentioned it, about the business side of it. That’s something that I had to deal with. Once I left the NFL, your body; you’re used as a commodity. You’re expendable, and all the things that come with that. But, there are a lot of perks to it. It was still a blessing.
So what happened, at Denver? How did you get cut from the team?
So, I got released from the team, because there was a running back behind me, who was undrafted, but he was performing better than I was. And by being a business it’s, “Shall we keep paying the second rounder, the X amount of dollars that he’s supposed to make or pay somebody cheaper who was performing better?” So I saw the writing on the wall, but following Denver, is when I really spiral out of control. That was really, really when I hit my extreme, rock bottom depression, severe anxiety, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed, because…
Embarrassed, because you were cut?
Yeah, pretty much fired publicly. And then you have the social media aspect of people tweeting at you, messaging you, how much you suck and all that stuff. So, that really ate at me. And, in my story, of course, we cannot ignore the domestic violence piece. So, I took it out on somebody who trusted me.
You ended up at one point, after being arrested, you were in a jail cell when Super Bowl 50 happened and watching Super Bowl 50 on the TV, in jail, your team, the Denver Broncos. And you said that was a really, really difficult moment. It actually brought tears to your eyes. I can’t even fathom the, what might’ve beens that were going through your mind, at that moment? “How did I end up here, instead of in the glory of a Super Bowl Extravaganza. How am I in this jail cell?”
Yeah. So, I was fortunate. I played in the Super Bowl, my rookie season, when we got destroyed by the Seahawks, in New York City. So that, and against Russell Wilson, a quarterback from Wisconsin. I have that moment, but no one remembers the team that lost.
So, when I was watching them, win the Super Bowl, from jail. To put into words how I felt is difficult, because I know that I did it to myself. I was telling myself there, “If I would have corrected myself, if I would’ve gotten the help that I know that I needed, I most definitely would be up there hoisting that trophy, in some fashion or another.”
So jail was tough, it’s not a fun place. I was in there for three days and because I got arrested on a Friday, so I had to wait out the weekend. And obviously Sunday, the Broncos played and I was in a cell with about six other people and three of them were telling me, because I had my back turned from the television, once they turned it on. And they were going off on the mouth, about how that’s supposed to be me up there, playing. I’m supposed to be a role model to all of the black and brown kids, who were in the poverty stricken areas, of achieving their dreams, showing them how it’s done.
And as much as I wanted to verbally fight back with them, I stopped myself, because I told myself that they’re right. They are right. I grew up fortunate. I grew up, chasing a dream that I ended up accomplishing, before the age of 30. A dream that only less than 1% of the country gets to participate in. And so, that hit me, pretty hard. And to this day, I still think about it and I am fortunate that it did happen, because it motivates me.
You were in jail, because of domestic violence arrest?
You don’t make any excuses. You admit that you were wrong to do what you did. You ended up taking a plea deal and pleading guilty. Still, however, that day, Super Bowl Sunday, in jail, watching your former team win. That still wasn’t your rock bottom. That still wasn’t what motivated you to stop drinking.
My son. Yeah, my son. So, it was a very odd time frame for me because, in September I got released from the Broncos. I spiraled out of control for a bit, and then actually went to the Patriots for about two to three months. Denver beat us in the AFC Championship Game, which send us home, packing. Then they go to face the Carolina Panthers.
So, I came back to Wisconsin, met a woman and my embarrassment, my insecurities, my frustration, my confusion, spewed out all over her, which I’m… I’ve always expressed it, I’m very sorry for. And then went to jail. Washington won the Super Bowl in jail, then got out of jail. And four days later, a woman from Colorado tells me that she is seven and a half months pregnant. And, my son was born six weeks later. So, I had no idea that my son even existed. February 16th, she told me, then he was born April 2nd.
So, once that happened, once I flew out there and held him, it changed my life forever, because I finally realized that all of my actions, all of the decisions I make are not only impacting my life. They are directly impacting someone else’s life, who is looking up to me and wants a healthy and happy father.
So, that most definitely changed my perspective, my outlook on a lot of things. It allowed for me to… And also therapy, to really understand that football was just a piece of my puzzle, not the entire puzzle. Because, I really struggled with the what ifs. What if I was still in the NFL, right now? Where would I be? Where would I be living, etc? But, it put things into perspective for me.
I’m not sure those ever stop. I do that too. I think some people manage to set that aside, because we can’t live in the what might have been. Its more important to treasure the what is. So, was that when you stopped drinking, when you held your son, your newborn son?
Yeah. That was it for me, because I knew for a fact that all the times that I’ve been drunk, I was never arrested or I wasn’t arrested every single time, but the times that I was arrested, I was drunk. So, it was very simple for me.
How do I go from this smiley, happy, I seem fine kid, to this monster. And I knew that I had to, obviously, get into therapy. I had to make amends. I had to stop drinking. And that’s literally what I did. I didn’t blame anybody else. I’m not even blaming, in the sense, that it was all of alcohol. There was obviously a significant amount of insecurities, that I had, that I needed to address. And, when I look back on things now, I’m just blessed that I corrected it all before the age of 30.
So how do you stay sober, every day, each day, one day at a time?
Yeah. It’s a battle. Most definitely it is because, when I, when I sit back and look at it, I’m like, “Oh man, I’m 30 years old now. And, hopefully I live for another 60 years.” How do I plan on staying sober for another 60 years? And I don’t look at it, as if it’s impossible, but it’s a challenge. And we are being honest here, it’s most definitely a challenge.
So, other than my son and my family who are my foundation, I love the work that I do, here, in Wisconsin, that really helps me stay sober. I currently work for the Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, where I provide resources and outreach and linkage for those who may be suffering in silence. I know that there are others out there who were just like me, who don’t really know why they went down the path that they went down. Obviously, mental health and depression and anxiety. But, I reach out to those folks as well and pull them into our network, because I get it, I understand.
I understand the challenges. I understand the confusion, that lies with addiction. I understand the embarrassment that comes with it. When you go and try to talk to your family members or anybody along those lines. So, that is the work that I do today. And that’s what really helps me to stay sober as well, outside of my family and my son.
We know that, fewer than 20% of people who need treatment for addiction in this country, get it. But the numbers are even worse for African-Americans. Even fewer African-Americans seek treatment. Why do you think that is?
Absolutely. So a specific grant that I work on, is called our Overdose Data to Action Grant. We get our funding from the CDC and it is specifically for our communities of color. And, that is the reason why they brought me on board. I provide that linkage and resources to our communities of color, because we’re seeing that same data. We’re trying to figure out why. Personally, I know why. In the black community, we do not talk about mental health. We do not encourage our close ones, our loved ones, even our friends to go and speak to a therapist. I think there’s that gap in education, that will show, obviously, the benefits of receiving help. So, it’s a barrier.
Do you think it’s a cultural issue? Or is it a socioeconomic issue? Is it…
I think a little bit of both.
A little bit of both?
I think with the culture aspect of it, I just mentioned where there’s no discussion about it. Most black people.
Most black people… I’m just going to be honest with you. It’s the, “I don’t have time to worry about that. I’m trying to worry about X, Y, Z.”
And then obviously, the socioeconomic standpoint of it. I think there’s a lack of education with insurance, healthcare, understanding how to sign up for that stuff, understanding how much your insurance will cover for stuff like that. So, it’s a very thick and broad barrier, that we’re trying to obviously break through.
I live in New York City, which is a very vibrant multi-cultural city. And yet, when I go to AA meetings, for example, there are very few black faces in those meetings. And that’s not because, there are very few black families grappling with the disease of addiction.
They’re just not [crosstalk 00:28:45]. Maybe there are other meetings, where white faces would be a minority. But, I go to a lot of different meetings and I’m struck by the monochromatic nature of the skin color, in the meetings.
Yeah. I’m so glad you…
Same thing for Hispanics. I’m Hispanic. But the same thing, I don’t see a lot of Latinx people either.
Yeah. I’ll be honest with you. For one, I appreciate you mentioning that, because it’s true. Same, for up this way, in Wisconsin. And one topic that I was in the other day, that I brought this topic up, was another barrier that we’re ignoring, here. Is the trust factor. A lot of black and brown people, at least up this way, are upset.
They’re upset about the amount of attention that white people are getting, right now, for the opioid crisis. And then, comparing that to the attention that we got with the crack epidemic.
Ours was prison 10 years, 20 years, disenfranchising these black and brown communities. But nowadays it’s, “Oh, it’s mental health.” It’s, “Let’s give them the help… Him or her the help that she needs.” When we didn’t receive that same treatment.
So that is a fact. That is going on, but my message as well, on top of that is always, we got to move forward, some way, somehow.
So, I make sure that, every group that I jump into, I harp on that. It’s the trust, it’s the trust. Let’s have some representation of the demographic, that we’re trying to encourage to come in here. Because, we need to break through that trust factor. It’s there.
I don’t think, either, that you can discount the stress that many communities of color experience. I remember doing an hour long special, on infant mortality in Memphis, Tennessee, which is higher than many underdeveloped countries. And part of the reason it’s so high, is because so many of these young mothers had no access to birth control. So, they find themselves pregnant at 16, they live in these neighborhoods, where there isn’t a grocery store, that sells any produce. They have no access to prenatal care. So they’re giving birth, too early, to these babies.
And, Memphis and the State of Tennessee pay astronomical sums of money, to keep these babies alive, in these neonatal intensive care units, and then send them home. And those poor children, grow up in a home where there isn’t enough food and there isn’t enough opportunity. And the mother has to take three buses, to get to a minimum wage job.
It is incredibly difficult.
And, unless you’re inside those communities and see the stresses of those daily lives, you don’t understand how hard it is. People say, just get a job or go to the doctor or take a prenatal vitamin or eat more vegetables. It’s impossible.
And then we all express surprise, that so many people turn to substances, as a way to ease the desperation, honestly, of living like that.
I agree. And I think that’s a very important conversation to have, because many people don’t even understand that. When you start to talk about the other stresses that these individuals are dealing with, in their communities, then it’s just like you stated. Then, it’s no longer just, “Hey, go get a job,” or anything along those lines because, there’s so many disparities; from healthcare to living in a food desert, to red lining, et cetera. That all play a huge factor in the lack of social services and the lack of mental wellness, in these communities. It’s a giant monster that we’re trying to deal with here. Here, in Wisconsin, we actually have a meeting with the Attorney General next week or the week after, where we want to… Because there’s a significant lack of education with addiction in our Department of Justice here, big time.
And, our goal is to start implementing programs. One being, let’s follow the individual, who just got released from prison, to make sure that they have some support when they’re out. So, it maybe decrease their odds of getting back in prison or back behind bars. Because obviously, we know the statistic there, how fast they get back in. So why don’t we create something to help them along the ways, when they’re out. So, long story short, together, we can make a change. We can make it happen. We just have to start having these conversations.
Did you ever have any hesitation about going public with your story of recovery, your story of addiction?
At first, not really. Now that I really think of, no. I was obviously a little nervous, but being in the public eye, when you make a mistake like that, I had that extra push as well to where it’s like, “You have to get it together. You have way too many people who… Kids who message you and say, they look up to you and all that stuff.”
So, not only do I want to do it for myself and my child, but I want to make amends. So the same people who were looking up to me, can now see what I’m doing now. And, I’m giving back in ways that I could never give back, on the football field.
And I just want to make that known to everybody where football, you can use it as a vehicle. And I believe, I was given that platform to really speak about something, way greater than myself. And that’s addiction.
Well, Montee Ball, you are still a role model, to so many. Congratulations on your sobriety.
Congratulations on getting your degree. You went back to the university of Wisconsin and…
Yeah. I went back to chip away, but I’m actually in school. Right after this, I’m about to hop in a class.
You are about to hop into class?
Yeah. Hop in a class. I have a few more credits to get and then I will graduate.
Well, it reminds me of that quote. “It’s not how many times you fall. It’s how many times you get back up.”
And, you’ve gotten back up and dusted yourself off and done quite a bit with yourself.
I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you very much.
It’s our honor to have you on the show. Thank you so much and best of luck with everything.
Thank you very much. I love what you’re doing. I love it. We need it more and more people need to feel comfortable sharing.
Thank you so much, for listening to Heart of the Matter with Montee Ball, you can find this podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and our website at drugfree.org/podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one, who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. Talk to you soon.
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