There was a humorous moment that occurred during football practice at Thomas Walker High School a couple of weeks ago. Kenny Ball had taken a handoff for the Pioneers when he inexplicably lost his footing and fell to the ground without being touched.
That caused head coach Nick Johnson to hit the deck as well.
“I laid down on the ground and the kids asked what I was doing,” Johnson said. “I told everyone to get down someone was shooting at us and they sniped Kenny.”
An imaginary sharpshooter has been about the only thing that has tripped up Ball this season as the 5-foot-10, 195-pound bruiser has gained 584 yards on 82 carries through the season’s first five games.
The Pioneers (4-1) held Region 1D’s second spot in the latest VHSL playoff power point rating scale and one of the primary reasons for the team’s fast start has been the way Ball has carried the ball.
“This kid has developed into, in my opinion, one of the best players in Southwest Virginia,” Johnson said. “I truly believe he could play for any team around here. The biggest thing with Kenny is his work ethic. He is constantly working to get better. He has improved his speed, lost weight from his freshman year until now, he is more agile, he lives in the weight room in the summer, he has great vision. All the things he has done to improve his game are finally showing up with his production this season.”
How would Ball describe his running style?
“Violent,” Ball said. “My dad always told me growing up – don’t go down easy and I’ve always tried to stand by that.”
He certainly displayed those traits back in August during a preseason jamboree at Lebanon when he barreled over several Northwood defenders on his way to the end zone. The clip of that play spread on social media and went viral.
“I had a feeling there would be some buzz around that play,” Ball said. “But I didn’t think it would get that crazy.”
Ball’s highlight reel hasn’t been confined to the preseason, however.
He scored three touchdowns and snagged an interception in a season-opening win over Cumberland Gap.
His 80-yard kickoff return on Sept. 13 was vital to TW’s 14-12 Cumberland District triumph over Castlewood.
Just last week he went for 223 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Harlan Green Dragons in Kentucky.
“He just seems to make big plays game after game,” Johnson said.
You could say that Ball has been groomed for this season and these moments.
“I started playing football when I was 7,” Ball said. “I played pretty much every position except lineman in little league. They just put me in whatever position they needed me at and I did it. So I’ve played quarterback, linebacker, slot, wide receiver. Pretty much everything.”
Those youth league opponents learned pretty early they better get their pads low when Ball approached.
“Kenny never goes down on first contact,” said Thomas Walker quarterback Zack Kidwell. “He never gives up on a play.”
Ball paid his dues and now the junior is getting rewarded.
“I came up behind some really great running backs here at Thomas Walker like Wesley Gilliam, Jacob Davis and Dawson Lee,” Ball said. “They kind of showed me how to act when it’s game time and I feel I’ve done that this season so far.”
Ball will try to pile up more yards Friday night as Thomas Walker hosts the Hancock County Indians from Sneedville, Tennessee. He’ll also try not to have a fall like he did in practice several weeks ago.
“Kenny has stepped up to be that guy who wants the ball,” Johnson said. “If we need a yard or two, the linemen will tell me to run a certain play for Kenny and the majority of the time he gets the yards we need. I can promise if we need two or three yards, No. 33 is getting the ball. Kenny wants to be that leader and he wants that responsibility.”
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