There are some players who, quite simply, you just can't help but root for. The Colts have several of these players, but perhaps none moreso than running back Vick Ballard.
After a successful rookie season in 2012 in which he emerged as the Colts' starting running back, Ballard entered the 2013 as their starter once again, and he played well in their week one win against the Raiders. The following week in practice, however, Ballard suffered a non-contact knee injury: a torn ACL. He missed the remainder of the season with that injury. Ballard returned in 2014 and opened training camp with the Colts, but early in the second practice of camp, the back ran a simple out route and then limped to the sidelines. The diagnosis? Another non-contact injury, another missed season - this time because of a torn Achilles. There were, as Ballard told the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer earlier in the offseason in an emotional profile, many sleepless nights and many tears on his pillow. He told Keefer that he feels as if people forget about him. He pondered what his future might look like without football. And he realized that "this could be it for me."
With that backdrop in mind, it's hard not to root for Vick Ballard as he returns from injury. On Sunday, he took the field for the first time since July 25 of last year and just the third time since that practice after week one in 2013. He only participated in position drills, but it was still great seeing Ballard back out there.
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was asked today if he pulls for guys like Ballard who are coming off of back-to-back season-ending injuries. "How can you not?" Pagano responded. "We love that kid. You think about what he did for this football team and in 2012. He's a warrior. He's a great player. He's a great teammate. That's a foxhole buddy, you want to take him downtown with you because you know he is going to have your back. Just think back to the Tennessee game and the corkscrew touchdown and winning in overtime. We have the picture on the wall and that's the epitome of what it means to play like a Colt and what we are looking for. So yes, you feel for all of them. You don't want to see anybody get hurt, but it's great to have him back."
Of course, that touchdown against the Titans in 2012 - the game winning dive in overtime - is one that most Colts fans still remember and will remember for a long time, and it's a perfect representation of Vick Ballard. His 814 rushing yards in 2012 are the most for a Colts' running back since 2009 and the second-most for a Colts' back since 2007, and in the Andrew Luck era no back has come within 277 yards of reaching Ballard's single-season mark. He notched a 100-yard rushing game in 2012 - the only time in 54 games with Luck at quarterback that a Colts' back has reached that milestone (in other words, in just 1.9% of their games under Luck). He's not a great back, but he's a good player who has proven that he can succeed.
Now, we're hoping for that more than ever, while still acknowledging the reality that it's hard to return after two years away and two serious injuries. But if he can stay healthy, he should be able to factor into the running back position - a position that Chuck Pagano called "deep, deep" and one that has "great competition."
We're still not to the point where Ballard will be fully in the competition, however, as he's still being worked back into the flow of practicing football. He wasn't placed on the PUP list to open camp, which was a great sign, and then he was out on the field today, which was a welcome sight. But he is, as Chuck Pagano would say, a PTM guy - a practice time modification guy. The Colts are going to bring him back slowly, which started today with position drills.
"We have to be very, very smart," Pagano noted. "He's been cleared and obviously has worked his tail off. He's been on one heck of a journey trying to get back and to his credit, it takes perseverance and resolve and a ton of grit to do what he's done and to go through what he went through. But we will be very smart with how we introduce him back to football and we will keep an eye on the number of reps that he takes. He will do individual period and do some things that based on our trainers and our doctors, they will keep an eye on him. We'll start him out real slow and introduce him real slow and then based on how he feels. The lines of communication need to be open between coaches, trainers, Vick and as he progresses we will wrap that up."
Vick Ballard described his recovery from two injuries as "tough. It's a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, but a lot of growth too," he continued. "I'm fortunate to still be here. They believe in me, so I'm trying to give them what they expect." That was the theme from Ballard when meeting with the media on Sunday: he's thankful to the Colts for not giving up on him, which he notes would have been easy to do after playing one game in two years, and he's hoping to reward them for their faith in him. For now, though, he too knows that he needs to work his way back slowly. "My body should be good, but I'll take it slow just to be sure," he said. "I feel good, so I'm just excited."
It's exciting for Colts fans to see him out on the practice field once again, because as Chuck Pagano said: how can you not root for him?