MADISON, Wis. - Five men roughed up star Wisconsin running back Montee Ball near campus early Wednesday, inflicting head injuries serious enough to send him to the hospital, authorities said.
Ball was walking down a street around 2:15 a.m. after "socializing" with friends, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said. Two friends walking ahead of him turned around and saw Ball on the ground. The men had surrounded him and were kicking him in the head and chest, DeSpain said.
One of his friends and a man across the street moved to help Ball and the attackers fled, DeSpain said. No other Badger players were with Ball, he said.
Witnesses said Ball may have exchanged words with the men before they attacked him, DeSpain said. The motive for the attack remains a mystery. Ball told investigators his cellphone is missing, but it's unclear whether the attackers stole it or someone just happened to pick it up, DeSpain said.
"We're going to take a look at whether the victim was targeted for who he is," DeSpain said.
Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season as a junior, was taken to a hospital with head injuries, police said. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Ball was released and under the care of the school's sports medicine staff.
The Badgers open practice Monday. The season opener is Sept. 1 at home against Northern Iowa. Bielema said his staff will evaluate Ball in the coming days but he expects the senior will make a full recovery. Wisconsin spokesman Brian Lucas said Ball was resting at home Wednesday.
Ball, a 21-year-old native of Wentzville, Mo., posted Twitter entries reassuring his fans he'll be all right.
"I appreciate the support and thank you for the concerns," Ball wrote. "I will be okay! See you guys in September!"
Ball had a stellar season last year, scoring 39 touchdowns to tie Barry Sanders' NCAA record. He finished the year with 1,923 yards rushing and 2,229 all-purpose yards, second in Wisconsin history only to Ron Dayne's 2,242 yards in 1996. Ball capped the season by rushing for 164 yards and a touchdown in the Badgers' 45-38 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
He announced days after the bowl game he would return for his senior season after NFL evaluators told him he would have likely been a third-round pick.
Wisconsin has been hyping his return heavily, creating a website entitled "This Fall Belongs to Ball." The site notes he needs 18 touchdowns to become the NCAA's all-time leader, features a new personal logo for Ball, an "M" and a "B" with his number 28 superimposed over the letters, and a video clip of Ball inches from the camera declaring, "I'm back" followed by his scoring highlights.
Police issued Ball a trespassing ticket in May after he stepped unwanted onto a Madison porch during an annual end-of-the-year student street party.
The area where Ball was attacked is on the edge of the Wisconsin campus and features multiple bars. Police have been dealing with what they say are combative crowds in the vicinity all summer.
Three people were hurt in a May shooting outside two bars about a block from where Ball was assaulted. Two men mugged a 17-year-old boy in the same block as the shooting during the early morning hours of July 21. That same day, a 35-year-old man reported to police that someone had been stabbed after leaving a bar in the same block. The next morning, again in that same block, multiple fights broke out on the sidewalks, forcing a police officer to use pepper spray to break up three brawls.
Police deployed extra patrols in the area last weekend.