SE: Grayshirt Season a 'Blessing in Disguise' for Kyle Ball

The conversations were cut-and-dry. K-State was out of scholarships to give. Kyle Ball didn’t care. He wanted to play for the Wildcats, and they wanted the same thing.

So, the Wildcats offered to grayshirt Ball, who signed in February of 2015 but could not enroll full-time at K-State nor could he be part of the program until the following spring semester. 

For some, the grayshirting process can be a trying time where patience and daily motivation can be hard to find. For Ball, it turned out to be exactly what he needed. 

The Shawnee Mission East graduate stayed home last fall, taking classes at a community college and adding 20 pounds to his frame in the weight room. He also coached at SME, helping guide the school’s freshmen team to an undefeated season.

“It was pretty cool,” he said of coaching. “It helps you understand what you should be doing as a player and the perspective of how your coach sees you. That helps you understand what you should be doing and how you should approach things.”

There was only one thing missing from the unbeaten experience — one person, to be exact. His brother Caleb, a freshman at the time, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the season, not long after returning from an injury. 

“It was just a really big letdown in multiple ways,” Ball said, “and it was really a struggle.”

As tough as the diagnosis was on the family, Ball could not imagine what it would have been like if he was already at K-State, consumed by the loaded schedule of a student-athlete. As a grayshirt, he could be there for his brother during his battle with cancer. 

“I felt like it was a blessing in disguise, that it happened for a reason, because I was home,” he said of grayshirting. “It really made it easier on my parents that I was home and could watch out after him and help him out.”

Ball said Caleb is “doing a lot better” now and is in the maintenance phase of treatment. Watching his brother’s fight firsthand, Ball said he gained even more perspective that he’s carried over to life and football. 

“The first summer I was here before that happened, I was just not as serious and more carefree,” he said, “but after that happened it was, like, ‘You got to enjoy life and you got to make the most of what you’ve been given,’ because you never know when something like that can happen.”

So far, Ball has made the most of his opportunities. 

On his first career play — a third-and-9 situation in the first quarter against Texas last Saturday — he burned the Longhorns’ right tackle with a speed rush on the inside, leading to a 9-yard sack and K-State’s first stop of the game. 

“It didn’t even feel like it was me out there. It was like I was watching it. It was a really cool feeling,” he said of fulfilling a lifelong dream. “Back in like fifth grade, we wrote down what we saw ourselves doing when we graduate high school, and when I went back when I was a senior in high school, it said, ‘Play college football.’”

In the locker room before every game, Ball and his teammates focus their minds on a personal motivation. For Ball, the choice for Texas was easy: Caleb.  

“Since I knew I was going to be able to play in that game, that was the person I pictured in my mind,” said Ball. “I laid it all on the line for him. It’s pretty cool getting that first sack for him. I was really happy. He was really proud of me, too.”

As was K-State head coach Bill Snyder. 

“He’s a Jordan Willis-type of young guy,” Snyder said of Ball. “He’s not as big and doesn’t have the experience, but if you just watch him, every day he plays as hard as he can, practices as hard as he can, always is going 100 miles per hour and he’s got a great attitude about it and always wants to learn.”

The comparison to Willis, who leads the Big 12 and is tied for third in the country with 8.0 sacks, is not by accident, either. Ball said he’s mirrored the senior defensive end in any way he can.

“He’s been my role model since I got here,” Ball said. “Whenever I see Jordan in the film room, I’ll ask him what he’s looking at, what things he’s watching for. He always tries to give me hints and helps me perfect my craft, too. I just try to mimic everything he does.” 

Ball’s sack against Texas earned him a few other comparisons as well. 

With it, he became the Wildcats’ first true freshman to record a sack since Elijah Lee, now a standout linebacker for K-State, did so in 2014. (Before that, it was Willis in 2013.)

“He’s also been a role model for me on the team,” Ball said of Lee, who started his career as a third-down rushing specialist for the Wildcats too. “I really look to him as an example because he was a freshman and he played. He did the same things I’m doing.”

Wearing the No. 44 brought on a connection with Ryan Mueller, who also came from the Kansas City area, wore the same number and stands in a tie for sixth on K-State’s all-time sack list with 20.5 

“We both have the same build… we get that comparison all the time,” Ball, listed at 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, said of his similarities with Mueller. “I try to be a hard worker and I heard he was a really hard worker when he was here. I just have to try and live up to the high expectations that people have.”

Those expectations, he said, should be attainable because of the example set by his teammates on the defensive line. 

“All of those older guys have been great for me. They’re all such selfless guys. It just helps make it a really positive atmosphere and a successful atmosphere too,” he said, with a road game against Iowa State set for Saturday at 11 a.m. “If I keep doing what they’re doing, eventually I’ll be successful.”

Aside from the football tips, K-State gave Ball a boost of support when Caleb was diagnosed with ALL — taking the family culture he’d already experienced to another level. 

“My teammates, when they found out, I had a lot of support, a lot of love and the coaches here all wrote to him, so that was huge,” Ball said. “It’s the family atmosphere that really helps.”