Marcus Ball had to take the long road to realizing a childhood dream.
The former Toronto Argonauts linebacker will finally get a shot at cracking an NFL roster after signing a three-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. Ball, who'll turn 27 in July, was undrafted out of Memphis and had to look north to get his start in pro football.
"I'm very blessed," Ball said during a telephone interview. "It's a fortunate opportunity to be able to achieve one of my ultimate goals and something I've dreamt about since I was a kid starting out playing football.
"This doesn't guarantee anything. I still have to go and fight for a position and spot on the roster but I'm looking forward to the challenge."
The six-foot-one, 209-pound Ball spent two seasons with the Argos, helping them win the 100th Grey Cup in '12. He recorded 142 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions — returning two for TDs — and three fumble recoveries.
Ball is expected to compete for a spot as a backup safety with the Saints and also play special teams. The club has two other safeties — Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro — on its roster.
But Ball said his time in Toronto has prepared him well to compete for an NFL roster spot.
"Being in a professional system and figuring out how to be a pro and learning how to be a pro in Toronto really helped me," he said. "Being in such a great organization in terms of ownership, [GM] Jim Barker, [former defensive co-ordinator] Chris Jones and [head coach] Scott Milanovich and being part of that championship mentality taught me a lot."
Barker released Ball in February even though Ball was entering the option year of his CFL deal. Ball said he'll forever be grateful to the Argos' GM for allowing him to pursue his NFL dream.
"That just speaks volumes about the kind of guy and person Jim Barker is," Ball said. "He has always believed in me, he has always been there for me and treated me like his own, as has the entire Argos staff and front office, that's what I really appreciated.
"This is bitter-sweet because I love Toronto and will always consider Toronto home. It's tough to leave but now I have the opportunity to accomplish my dream."
Dan Vertlieb, Ball's Vancouver-based agent, echoed his client's sentiments.
"Marcus is incredibly grateful to Jim Barker and the Toronto Argonauts for allowing him this opportunity," Vertlieb said. "Jim, in particular, has been a leader and visionary on this issue and in doing so has given Marcus the opportunity to best provide for his family.
"It's not something that will soon be forgotten — Marcus will be forever grateful for his time with the Argos."
Last fall, receiver/kick-returner Chris Williams — also a Vertlieb client — became embroiled in a dispute with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats regarding his desire to pursue NFL opportunities while still under contract. Williams went to arbitration to be released from the final year of his CFL deal before ultimately reaching an agreement with the Ticats that allowed him to sign as a free agent with the Saints.
Williams is now with the Chicago Bears.
Ball is the third Toronto player to sign in the NFL after being released by the club, joining defensive back Nieko Thorpe (Oakland Raiders) and receiver Dontrelle Inman (San Diego Chargers). Thorpe also had time remaining on his CFL deal but Inman was released in December, just over a month before he was poised to become a free agent.
Shortly after Toronto's '12 Grey Cup victory, Barker released defensive lineman Armond Armstead, allowing him to sign with the NFL's New England Patriots.
"Every situation is different," Barker said. "It's my job to win Grey Cups and I do whatever I have to do in order to win Grey Cups.
"I've never let a player go just because I'm a nice guy. I do what's in the best interests of this football organization."
Barker praised Ball for the contributions he made to the Argos.
"Obviously, Marcus Ball is a great football player and you always have room and find a place for great football players," Barker said. "He always brings great energy and hopefully he can go and have a very successful career there."
Ball's departure adds to what's already been a whirlwind off-season for Toronto. Other players leaving include cornerback Patrick Watkins (free agent, Edmonton), linebacker Jason Pottinger (expansion draft, Ottawa), offensive lineman Joe Eppele (expansion draft, Ottawa), defensive lineman David Lee (free agent, Saskatchewan) and quarterback Zach Collaros (free agent, Hamilton).
Defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell was also released to pursue NFL opportunities and remains a free agent. There was a revamping of the coaching staff as well with the departures of Jones and special-teams co-ordinator Mike O'Shea (head coach, Winnipeg) and assistants Steve McAddo, Jason Shivers, Ed Philion and Craig Davoren (all with Jones to Edmonton).
The front office wasn't immune either as player-personnel director Ted Goveia left to become Winnipeg's assistant GM.
"This league is about change and either you prepare and can handle it or you're not going to be in league very long," Barker said. "The one thing I feel like I've learned is you adapt to the situation you have.
"We'd love everybody back but we're dealing in a SMS [salary management system] world and it is what it is. We're proud that two of the three new head coaches came from our coaching staff because it means we have the right kind of people."
And the nature of the business, Barker said, is always planning for the day when quality people within the organization get the opportunity to shine elsewhere.
"You've got to have a progression plan and to me, that's part of what Scott and I do," Barker said. "We'll talk about replacements for these guys that are here now . . . it's all about preparation.
"You have to prepare for a worst-case scenario."