Lance Ball had been waiting for this moment his entire life – every one of his 26 years, four months and 25 days – which meant he was ready to sprint through the door the fates had just opened.
The war: Denver Broncos versus Kansas City Chiefs.
The calendar: Nov. 13, 2011.
The emergency: Denver's starting running backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, were down with first-quarter injuries.
The solution: Ball, a Teaneck native, rushing to the huddle – or, more accurately, body-surfing a wave of adrenaline.
"It happened so fast," Ball says, not even remembering why this was such a long shot.
Ball, after all, was a ghost to those outside the Broncos family. Until that moment, he had carried the ball in exactly one NFL game, having been cut five times by four teams – including once by the Broncos in September 2010.
But Ball was quick to rearrange those facts. All those years of waiting, he decided, were nothing more than extended calisthenics, better preparing him to seize the day. It's the kind of carpe diem that usually takes place on the silver screen, but this was no fuzzy Hollywood moment. This was Ball turning in a breakthrough performance that awakened the Broncos and their fans alike: He carried the ball 30 times against the Chiefs, picking up 96 yards in Denver's 17-10 win. Just that easily, Ball let the world in on a secret he'd always known about himself.
"All I'd ever wanted was the chance, and the rest would take care of itself," he says. "Once I got to that point, it was all instinct. I just had to keep the faith."
It's impossible to take inventory of Ball's career without noting the obstacles, starting with his size. At 5 feet 9 inches, Ball is at least two inches shorter than the average NFL running back, which made it harder to attract the attention of pro scouts. After graduating from Teaneck High School in 2003, where he rushed for 3,403 yards and 39 touchdowns, Ball went on to a stellar four-year career at the University of Maryland. By his sophomore year, Ball was already an ACC force, earning second-team all-conference honors.
Yet Ball was passed over in the NFL's college draft in 2008 – a setback for the player who, until then, had always prevailed against the odds.
"I really thought I'd get picked somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds, but a lot of teams were on the fence," he says.
Talent evaluators failed to quantify Ball's low center of gravity and the exponential way he used his 220 pounds to surprise would-be tacklers.
Only now do the Broncos understand what makes Ball a nightmare to bring down.
"Lance plays bigger than he is," quarterback Tim Tebow said last year. "I think it comes from his thick lower body. He runs harder than what his body weight says. He's stronger than you would think."
It took stops in several camps for that revelation to gain traction in the NFL. Ball was on the periphery in St. Louis, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Denver for part of three seasons, during which time he had carried the ball a total of 13 times. Those lean years should've been enough to discourage even the most driven athlete, but Ball reasoned he had several factors still working in his favor.
First, he had a degree in family studies with a minor in community health, which meant there was always a plan B waiting. Second, in an era when pro athletes often end up bold-faced on the gossip pages – or worse, on the police blotter – Ball has lived quietly on the other end of the social spectrum. He's mature and low-maintenance, the kind of player coaches often choose over more talented but more volatile stars. "Dependable" is what Ball calls himself, an asset that rolls over into even higher praise.
"I stay out of trouble," he says. "I'm a good guy and a good guy in the community."
Ball learned the importance of connecting while growing up in Teaneck, which in retrospect he calls "unique" in its enlightened, diverse culture.
"I've since moved out, but I still go home once or twice a year," he says. "It makes me appreciate what a special place Teaneck was, how it stressed community and friendships. We had a good school [system] and good athletics."
Still, it's not an easy sell when Ball describes the Garden State to teammates, not one of whom played college ball in the northeast.
"When they hear New Jersey, people think, 'Oh, you're from the Jersey Shore,'" Ball says with a laugh. "I try to tell them [Teaneck] is nowhere close to there, and it's totally different, anyway."
Once they get past the ribbing, Ball is able to peel away the layers of psychological flesh to reveal his nuclear core, that tenacious, me-against-the-odds engine.
"I was in Lance's shoes at one time – chasing a dream – and I never stuck anywhere, so when you have players like him it has special meaning to me," Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy told the New York Post. "In this business, it's being in the right place at the right time and making the most of opportunities, and that's exactly what Lance has done.'"
Ball's universe has changed for the better since his unveiling against the Chiefs last November. He is no longer an afterthought on the Broncos' depth chart, but an integral part of an offense that, now being run by Peyton Manning, looks to be even more dangerous than it was under Tebow, who is now with the Jets.
There are inherent dangers for Ball, who knows the longer he plays, the more times he's taken down by a crunching tackle, the greater the chance of head injury later in life.
"I do worry about how I'm going to be 10, 15, 20 years from now," he says, especially as doctors continue to explore the connection between repeated head trauma and early dementia.
But Ball has spent too much of his life chasing one dream – football – to replace it with another – post-football – just yet. Besides, the fates have always been kind to the kid from Teaneck, who wasn't larger than his uniform but somehow has always been larger than life. That's some winning streak.