Sam Ball, who played football at the University of Kentucky and later the Baltimore Colts, died at his Henderson home early Monday. He was 79.
Ball’s greatest athletic claim to fame was as a member of the 1971 Baltimore Colts football team that defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V. But he did much more—in the athletic world and in life after football.
Ball, a three-sport athlete at Henderson County High School, later became a consensus All-America tackle at the University of Kentucky in 1965. He was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Colts and played five years for them.
In high school, Ball was a lanky sophomore, but he worked in a weightlifting program under his high school coach, Mojo Hollowell, and by his senior year was recognized as the finest offensive tackle in the state, said a biography on the website for the Henderson County High School Sports Hall of Fame in which he was inducted in its inaugural year, 1988.
A teammate on those Colonel teams, David Alexander remembered Ball’s work ethic and dedication.
“He worked at it extremely hard,” Alexander said. “He did everything he could to build his body up.”
Alexander, who played linebacker, chuckled that some of Ball’s hard work paid off for him, too.
“I got quite a few tackles because of him,” he said. “They would double team him and ignore me.”
After Ball’s professional football career ended, culminating in the Super Bowl V victory, he returned to Henderson and began a successful career in agriculture selling seeds.
“Even though he played five years of pro ball, I always knew he’d come back to Henderson because he loved Henderson,” Alexander said.
Other friends commented on his qualities as a human being.
“He was a good man, a good man,” long-time friend Bruce Cowling said. “You could ask him for anything, and he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
According to a press release from the University of Kentucky Athletics Department, some of Ball’s service activities included:
- His own All-America Football Camp, a free youth football camp that served more than 2,000 boys.
- President, Chairman and/or the Board of Directors of five civic/community organizations.
- Service and leadership roles in his church
- The Sam Ball Golf Scramble, benefiting the homeless community served by the Salvation Army; the most recent event was held in September, just a few weeks before his passing.
Cowling recalled when he first moved to Henderson from Arkansas in 1981 that Ball was one of the first people he met. Cowling said he was unemployed at the time, and Ball offered to show him the ropes of the seed business.
Soon Cowling was out walking the rows of a test plot and conducting yield analyses with Ball. It led to one job and then on to another and finally work at the John Deere dealership. Cowling said Ball helped him with that, too, buying several pieces of machinery from him.
“I just thought the world of him,” Cowling said.
He said Ball educated himself about his industry because he wanted to please his customers, farmers scattered across three states—Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.
“People trusted him because he knew his business,” Cowling said.
He didn’t talk much of his football playing days, Cowling said, except for an occasional quip when he’d hold up a hand and show off one of the broken fingers he suffered in his career.
“Dick Butkus did that,” Ball would say with a grin.
Cowling also hunted with Ball, another of his passions. Like football and his career, Ball pursued his hobby with the same gusto.
“He was intense,” Cowling said. “He loved the outdoors. He was a good sportsman.”
They hunted rabbit, and they went to Ball’s farm in Crittenden County to hunt deer. He said Ball also hunted turkey, which was his passion.
Barry Denton, another of his hunting buddies and a lifelong friend, echoed much of what Cowling said.
“(Ball) was a little larger than life,” Denton said. “Whatever he did, he went hard at it. If you were with him, you were expected to go at that rate, too.”
He said Ball’s farm was his “pride and joy over the years.” There, he built a nice cabin and invited friends to stay there for hunting weekends.
Denton lived across the street from Ball for years and remembered one Christmas when Ball got a dog for his son, Shane. Denton had to keep the Blue Queen’s Healer at his house the night before so the secret could be kept from Shane.
When asked why he chose that particular breed, Ball replied, “Well, it looks good in the back of a pickup truck,” Denton said.
In addition to playing high school football, Ball also was a forward on Henderson County High’s first ever regional championship basketball team and a member of the track team.
After his first fall at UK when he played on the freshman team, Ball was a three-year varsity letterman from 1963-1965, earning consensus All-American and first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as a senior, the UK Athletics Department release said. Following his senior season, he played in the College All-Star Game, the North-South Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, said the release.
Ball was a first-round choice and the 15th overall selection of the Baltimore Colts in 1966. In his five seasons, the Colts had the best record in pro football. The 1968 team won the NFL Championship but lost to the Joe Namath-led New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl. Two years later, Ball and the Colts—with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas heading the offense—won the Super Bowl, defeating the Dallas Cowboys.
Ball has his jersey retired at UK, is a member of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame and the Henderson County High School Hall of Fame.
His family includes twin daughters Shannon and Shelly, as well as Shane, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a football player at UK from 1991-94. Sam wore uniform number 73 at UK; Shane chose number 37 because “I want to be a reflection of my father,” said the release from UK Athletics.
Cowling said he was going to miss him.
“If this old world had a lot more of Sams, we’d all be good,” he said.