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The Cruelest Cut of All

When you’re Tony Romo, you sign a $67 million contract and date Jessica Simpson. When you’re a last-round NFL draft pick, things are a little different.

WITH HIS SWEAT-SOAKED SHIRT clinging to his back, Alan Ball removes his helmet and walks off the practice field at Valley Ranch in Irving, Texas. The blast from the air-conditioning shocks his body as he transitions from the 110-degree heat. For the moment, Ball is a Dallas Cowboy. But in 24 hours, his life could dramatically change.

Ball is near the bottom rung of the NFL ladder, looking up. That’s the only available perspective for a final-round draft pick, even one who was a standout cornerback playing in one of college football’s elite conferences. “It was definitely exciting to get drafted by anybody,” says Ball, who played for the University of Illinois in the Big Ten. “But then to get drafted by the Cowboys — that’s America’s Team. At some point in everybody’s life, they were a Cowboys fan, so it was big.”

Although he grew up in Michigan, Ball chose to attend the University of Illinois. There, he was named the team’s outstanding defensive back his junior year before going on to record a career-high 62 tackles as a senior. He expected to be called in the 2007 NFL draft; he just wasn’t sure when or by whom. What he didn’t anticipate was waiting until the seventh, and last, round.

“It was a long day because we thought I was going to go earlier,” he says, referring to the April 28, 2007, draft. “The call came late, but I’m glad it came. From the way everything went up to the draft, I definitely thought [I would go to] Green Bay or the [Chicago] Bears.”

BALL’S FIRST TASTE of NFL stardom comes on a steamy July 24 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, where the Cowboys hold training camp. There are 17,297 screaming fans on hand to welcome 85 Cowboys — dozens of whom won’t be around in five weeks.

The celebration is a prelude to an infinitely more sobering ritual: the grueling two-week process of players getting in shape and of coaches evaluating the talent. As a rookie cornerback, Ball joins Cowboy vets like Roy Williams, Terence Newman, and Ken Hamlin during defensive drills.

“The guys I’m with in our secondary [defense] are great,” Ball says. “I love being around them, as far as me being a young guy and them being teachers. The way they  accepted me and the way they’re teaching me and helping me out has been big.”

But Ball struggles to stand out under the shadow of the bigger, faster, stronger veterans. Almost religiously, he and fellow draft picks Courtney Brown and Deon Anderson stay after practice to run sprints, hoping their extra work will pay off. Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart takes notice of Ball’s potential but isn’t sure he’s ready to play with the big boys.

“He’s a real savvy player,” Stewart says of the six-one, 175-pound 22-year-old. “He’s good at running the football, he’s a tough kid, he has a lot of upside to him. But I’d like to see him gain a little weight.”

The end of training camp comes without there having been any breakout performances by Ball, but he survives the initial cut and maintains his focus on making the final 53- man team. His hopes rest on the preseason, a four-game struggle for survival for rookies and veterans on the roster bubble. Impress the coaching staff, and you get a $285,000 non-guaranteed salary at minimum. Make them yawn, and you start sending out résumés. It’s life or death in the NFL.

Ball knows he has to find a niche in order to survive, and he spots a possible sanctuary on the special-teams squad, defending during kickoffs and punts.

“I really think I’m going to have to fight for special teams,” he says early in the preseason. “I’m going to have to do something on special teams that somebody else can’t do. That’s what I’m playing for right now.”

The Cowboys already have talented starting cornerbacks in Newman and Anthony Henry as well as an experienced backup in Jacques Reeves, so the likelihood of Ball making the team at the cornerback position is slim. Winning a roster spot as a special-teams player would buy him valuable time, allowing him to grow and develop in his preferred position.

That’s the plan, at least, as Ball makes his way down the tunnel, through an oversize Cowboys helmet, and onto the field at Texas Stadium on the night of the first preseason game.

“It was crazy,” he says, grinning as he relives the moment. “Even though it was a preseason game and it wasn’t a big crowd, just coming out of that tunnel with the smoke — it was crazy.”

Ball gets playing time on special teams, as he will in all four preseason games, and the Cowboys beat the Indianapolis Colts 23–10. In one game, a 28–16 loss to the Houston Texans, a national TV audience sees Ball up close: Stewart is reprimanding him on the sidelines for missing a crucial tackle. Despite his mistake, Ball stays on the roster through the next cut and spends plenty of time on the field in the Cowboys’ final preseason game, against the Minnesota Vikings.

“By this game, I was pretty comfortable out there,” he says after the 23–14 loss, fidgeting with his jersey and staring into his locker. “I felt okay. I’m just trying to make this roster, so I did everything I could.”

Usually energetic and talkative, Ball is distant and eager to get on the team bus to leave the stadium. He knows the final roster cut comes in 48 hours.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: The day of the final roster cut. Ball waits for the phone call that will end his ride with the Cowboys. It doesn’t come, and he starts preparing for Dallas’s regular-season opener against the New York Giants. After all, he’s a full-fledged NFL player.

Almost.

On Sunday, Ball receives a call from Cowboys operations manager Bruce Mays, who breaks the devastating news: Ball’s been removed from the final active roster.

“I thought I was on; I thought I made it,” Ball says. “It was a big emotional roller coaster from Saturday to Sunday, making the 53 and then having them say you’re on the practice squad. But it’s the business, so I just have to work my way back up.”

Ball’s dream is not lost, though; it’s merely deferred. As a member of the Cowboys practice squad, he’ll stay in full view of the coaching staff and make about $4,700 each week by participating in game situations during practices. If a Cowboy gets injured, Ball could be called up to take his spot. And, since he’s technically a free agent, another NFL team could sign him to their active roster at any time. Beyond that, there’s another training camp in San Antonio coming up.

Stewart, for one, doesn’t think the practice squad is the end of the line for Ball. “I think he definitely can play in the NFL,” he says.

Stewart’s prediction comes true in the regular season’s final two games, versus the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys’ front office puts Ball on the active roster after injury issues with cornerbacks Henry and Newman, and he responds by recording three solo tackles, breaking up a key pass, and earning head coach Wade Phillips’s praise.

“We liked him all along. He’s gotten better and better,” Phillips says of Ball, who saw his paycheck nearly quadruple to $16,764.40 for the last three weeks of the regular season. “You see him making plays against the Terrell Owenses of the world and you go, ‘Wow.’ He competes. We certainly didn’t want to lose him.”