Each of the seven finalists for the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will have their story featured here. In order to vote for the next Rare Disease Champion, please visit our voting page here. The winner will be announced on February 1st.
Rare disease connection: Ball was diagnosed with a rare condition known as arteriovenous malfunction (AVM) in 2010 during his freshman year at Florida. AVM is a condition where blood vessels in the brain get tangled and rupture. It affects just 300,000 Americans and is often fatal. The condition required many brain surgeries and some thought Ball would never play football again. His positive attitude and resilience to overcome the odds paid off as Ball was cleared to play football again in June 2012.
His Story: It was supposed to be a typical pre-spring workout. Coming off his freshman year, Neiron Ball was upbeat about a new season. Ball had seen action in 13 games as a freshman and was eager to impress new head coach Will Muschamp. The sophomore linebacker from Georgia was ready to get back to work.
But on this particular day in February 2011 there was nothing typical about his workout. Neiron became dizzy, his neck began to hurt and, eventually, he couldn’t even look down. It felt much worse than having a pinched nerve or a muscle spasm.
Team trainers advised him to go home and take it easy. Neiron made it home, but the pain was excruciating. That night, Neiron was sent to the emergency room and hours after the workout was fighting for his life.
“I knew something was definitely wrong,” Ball says.
After an MRI, it was determined Neiron suffered from arteriovenous malformation (AVM), an abnormal tangle of blood vessels. AVMs in the brain usually form before birth. AVMs could pose little or no risk to one’s health, but in Neiron’s case where there was bleeding of the brain andk it became very dangerous. Having symptoms related to AVM is rare.
Neiron was hospitalized for days. The medics had told him he was lucky to be alive. The treatment options weren’t easy, either surgery or radiate the tangled vessel. They opted for radiation. It was a lot to digest in a short amount of time.
“I was just thinking that God has my back,” he says.
During recovery, it became apparent to Ball that football was a gift and there was no guarantee that he could ever play again. As part of the recovery process, Neiron had to take a year off from football. It was a long year, a year filled with MRIs to ensure the procedure had worked.
“This experience taught me patience,” Ball said. “It made me realize I needed to be a student first and an athlete second.”
It truly is a miracle Ball was able to put on pads again. He says he doesn’t have a greater risk of a recurrence of an AVM. He believes his experience has put so much of his life and the game of football into perspective.
“I almost died,” Neiron said. “I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to play again.”
And he offers that advice to those who play and even those who don’t.
“Just be thankful for every day,” Ball says.
The Gators are thankful to have Neiron back on the field and off the sidelines. This season he recorded 10 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, a pass breakup, two quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries. He saw action in 10 games in 2012, recording two starts.