Marcelino McCrary-Ball worked for five years for moments like the ones Indiana football experienced last season.
As a true freshman in 2016, the hybrid linebacker/safety was one of Indiana’s most productive defensive players on a team that went 6-7 with a loss in the Foster Farms Bowl, but was shook at season’s end by the forced resignation of coach Kevin Wilson. He saw the Hoosiers take a step backward the next two seasons, including 2017 when he suffered a season-ending injury, then was part of the breakthrough in 2019 when they won eight games before a narrow loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
He returned for a fifth year in 2020 in hopes that it would be a culmination of everything he’d worked to help the program build. In many ways, it was exactly that, but the ACL tear he suffered in fall camp put him in a position that he could only watch it from the sidelines.
“It was exciting yet hard, obviously,” McCrary-Ball said. “If you’re a kid, right, and you’re grounded and all your friends get to go out, it’s exciting for your friends and you’re not jealous of them, but you’re like, ‘Dang, I gotta stay in the house.'”
It was hard for him to do that and there were occasions when he wanted to voice his desire to bust out of his injury-based exile from the field. He looked to Google for help in making an argument to his coaches and the medical staff, but found nothing.
“I think it was like the fourth game,” McCrary-Ball said. “I’ll never forget it. We just got another interception. I think it was our third one. And I was just so frustrated that I couldn’t go out there and just play because they were just making so many plays. I was like, ‘Man, I can go out there and do something too.’ So I looked it up, like, ‘Is there any chance you can get on the field and do anything athletic three months post-ACL surgery?’ Obviously, I didn’t get any results.”
But of course, McCrary-Ball gets another chance to make plays. He might have been able to get a sixth year of eligibility through a second medical redshirt to match the one he got by 2017, but thanks to the NCAA’s decision to not count the COVID-affected 2020 season against anyone’s eligibility, he gets to play again without anyone having to draw up an appeal.
The injury didn’t come until late-September — which was fall camp because the Big Ten initially cancelled its season before making a late decision to bring it back — so McCrary-Ball isn’t as far along on his recovery timeline as players generally are when they suffer preseason injuries. But he is, Indiana coach Tom Allen said, on track to be at 100 percent by the Sept. 4 opener against Iowa.
His return brings back the most multi-dimensional defensive player on a defense that prides itself on its versatility. The 6-foot, 214-pounder provides everything from coverage to run-stopping to pass-rush. He enters his sixth year with 201 career tackles including 15.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also has three interceptions and 13 pass break-ups. The Indiana defense was excellent without him last season, leading the conference and ranking 13th overall in the nation with 20 turnovers caused in just eight games. He gives them a chance to create even more havoc than they already did.
He also brings more leadership to a team that already has a good bit of it. There are now players on Indiana’s roster who only know winning in Bloomington. He can remind them that’s not always the case, and of all the work that went into getting the Hoosiers where they are.
“(I remember) coming in as a freshman and wanting to just take over the world,” McCrary-Ball said. “We went to the bowl game and ended up short. My sophomore year, we didn’t go nowhere. I got hurt and we didn’t go nowhere. … Then junior year, we ended up short again. I know what it feels like to just be, like, a loser. Then 2019 we kinda … no, we did, we took that leap. Fell short (in bowl games) in 2019 and 2020, we still took that leap.”
And he knows that it’s now more of his job to guide teammates as they continue to take leaps. That wasn’t always something he was comfortable doing, but he very much is now. He is an effective voice in the locker room as both a motivator and someone who can maintain a light and positive atmosphere.
“My perspective on it all is just different,” McCrary-Ball said. “You always want to be around winners. I was always a follower. I always wanted to follow somebody who was leading me to success. Now I’m that guy. People are looking at me in some way, shape or form to be a leader. All those years following guys that have been successful, it’s now time for me to take on that torch. … When something needs to be said by me, I need to step up and say it.”
Much of what he says will most likely revolve around the theme of living in the moment, as that is certainly what he plans to do. He’ll likely have a shot at professional football after this season, but he’ll have to prove effective after the injury to have a real crack at being on someone’s 53-man roster for the 2022 season. He has his degree in liberal studies and is only 22 years old, but knows his next big life steps are creeping up on him.
So now that his grounding is over, he wants to get back outside and play.
“I have a new perspective,” McCrary-Ball said. “I couldn’t even walk when I tore my stuff. I couldn’t go up the stairs. I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m having fun. I’m only in this team room until December. After that it’s over. I’m in the real world, man. I gotta go do something. I can’t play football for free no more.”
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