After a year ofendless speculation and no small amount of anxiety, David Ball finally feels nopressure about his assault on the collegiate record for touchdown catches."It's been fun but stressful at times," says Ball, a senior widereceiver at New Hampshire. "Ninety-five percent of my conversations havebeen about how, when and where I'll break the record. Everybody asks which gamethey should go to, as if I had a crystal ball."
He came close tobreaking the record in last Saturday night's game at Delaware, pulling downseven passes for 126 yards and once getting tackled at the one-yard line in theWildcats' 52-49 victory, but he didn't cross the goal line. That left him with50 career TDs--tied with Jerry Rice, who set the I-AA mark in 1984 atMississippi Valley State, and Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards, who became the I-Astandard-bearer 14 years later.
Since Ball walkedon as a freshman in 2003, he has hauled in 241 passes for 3,934 yards."He's caught them one-handed, two-handed and off the ground from crazyangles," says coach Sean McDonnell. Ball's limbs seem elasticized; hisspine is apparently boneless, like a cat's; and he can bound high on the runoff either foot. "David is a slippery noodle," says junior quarterbackRicky Santos of his favorite target. "He can elude any defender and twistaway from any tackle."
Ball's acrobaticshave helped the Wildcats morph from an Atlantic 10 hair ball to the kings ofthe I-AA jungle. With its lively spread offense, New Hampshire (4-0, includinga season-opening upset of Division 1-A Northwestern) leads the nation inscoring (51 points a game) and total yards (489.5 a game). The Wildcats havegotten into the red zone 20 times--and scored 20 TDs.
NFL scouts nowroutinely show up at Cowell Stadium--a decrepit, 6,500-seat facility that'ssmaller than most high school stadiums--to see Ball. The big question iswhether the 6'2" 200-pounder's speed is pro grade. (His best time in the40-yard dash is a rather pedestrian 4.6 seconds.) "My potential ishuge," he says, "but a team would have to draw out that potential."Scouts predict Ball could go as early as the third round of the NFL draft.
The son of agranite salesman, Kenneth, and a middle school health teacher, Kathleen, Davidwas a three-sport star in the central Vermont hamlet of Orange, population 965.("If you need gas, you have to drive clear to South Barre for a servicestation," he says.) He was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at SpauldingHigh and still holds the state high jump record (6'81/2"). But football washis passion. Still, his 52 receptions and 15 TDs as a senior were overshadowedby his low SAT score and the even lower esteem in which Vermont football isheld. His only offer came from Division III Worcester (Mass.) State.
To improve hisprospects, Ball enrolled at Worcester Academy in 2002 for a postgrad year. Toafford the $35,000 tuition, his parents sold two of their cars and took out asecond mortgage. Ball played football, basketball and ran track and was namedWorcester's athlete of the year. He also caught the eye of former New Hampshireassistant Steve Stetson, who raved about his soft hands and leaping ability.Still, McDonnell was skeptical. "I didn't think David was fast enough,"he says.
Ball ended up atNew Hampshire on a partial track scholarship. He won over McDonnell in summerdrills and caught 38 passes in 11 games during his first season, earning a fullscholarship to play football. In the opening game of his sophomore year,against defending I-AA champion Delaware, Ball and Santos--a lightly regardedredshirt freshman--connected for nine passes, including a 44-yard TD catch forthe winning score in a 24--21 victory. The next week they combined for two TDsas New Hampshire stunned Rutgers 35--24, its first win ever against a 1-Ateam.
"David andRicky both came to UNH as unheralded small-town kids with chips on theirshoulders," says McDonnell. "They wanted to prove everyone wrong."Ball has proved them wrong, all right. "The chase is over," he says."Now every TD will just add to my record."
Division 1-AA's A-list
New Hampshire wide receiver David Ball isn't the onlylower-division player with big-time credentials. Here are some other Division1-AA heavyweights to watch.
Ricky Santos, QB, New Hampshire: The 6'2",215-pound junior threw for 3,797 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2005 and wasrunner-up for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top player inI-AA.
Clifton Dawson, RB, Harvard: The 5'10", 210-poundsenior holds the Crimson's single-season and career rushing records and is 641yards shy of Ed Marinaro's Ivy League rushing mark of 4,715 yards.
Justin Durant, LB, Hampton: An NFL prospect, the6'2", 230-pound senior can cover the whole field from his inside linebackerposition. He led the Pirates with 124 tackles last fall, including 15 forlosses.
Arkee Whitlock, RB, Southern Illinois: The 5'10",195-pound senior sprinted for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the Salukis'55--3 win over Indiana State last Saturday.
TIM BOYD/AP (BALL); JERRY LODRIGUSS (RICE)
RECEIVING LINE Now that he has caught Rice (inset), Ball has the TD record in his sights.