The heart of Angela Ramirez Holmes was already full. She and her husband Garrett had seen the eyes of their 10-year-old son Andrew beam upon meeting a professional football player who had successfully beaten the same, rare blood vessel affliction he was now battling himself.
But as Neiron Ball, the Raiders rookie linebacker, walked toward an awaiting car in the aftermath of that preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals in August, something made him turn back around.
“I want to hang out with you guys. Do you want to have dinner?” he asked the family.
It was Valentine’s Day, 2011 when Neiron Ball felt a pain in his neck following practice at the University of Florida. That pain morphed into an “excruciating” headache, sending Ball immediately to the doctor.
He was eventually diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a congenital defect which led to blood vessels in his brain becoming knotted and rupturing. The condition can occur in different portions of the brain and varies wildly in terms of severity.
Ball’s AVM was alleviated with a radiation procedure called “gamma knife,” which targets the affected area. Miraculously, Ball returned to full strength a year later from a condition that can leave its victims disabled if they survive at all.
In March 2013, a few months before Ball made his first career sack against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, 8-year-old Andrew Holmes went on family bike ride with his mother and father and was planning on playing in an afternoon baseball game.
But after Andrew complained of feeling ill and took an unscheduled nap, he woke up complaining of pain in the head and neck. Angela and Garrett raced him to the emergency room. There, his parents were told Andrew’s brain was bleeding and a critical care ambulance transported him to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif.
Brain surgery stopped the bleeding and doctors diagnosed an AVM. After recovering from the initial AVM rupture, Andrew underwent the same gamma knife radiation procedure that Ball had undergone. Only Andrew would be faced with a far more difficult recovery.
A side effect from the procedure caused Andrew’s brain to swell, resulting in paralysis on his right side. Intense sessions of physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy followed. He emerged from the hospital in a wheelchair and braces on his legs.
Angela stumbled upon Ball’s story while researching AVMs and contacted the Raiders in hopes of setting up a meeting. The Raiders obliged with a day at training camp. Andrew met with quarterback Derek Carr and other players. He connected instantly with Ball.
“It was like a dream, just amazing. Cool,” Andrew said. “I was excited, definitely, to meet someone who is like me.”
Ball, 23, had a football autographed by as many Raiders as he could muster for Andrew, even stopping teammates in mid-workout or during medical treatment to sign.
“There was definitely a bond, and it just got stronger as I got to know him,” Ball said. “I know how it feels and I’m on the other end of it. He’s just so young, he gives me more inspiration than I could ever give him. I have never seen him when he’s not smiling. To see that natural joy is incredible.”
The two text each other regularly, with Andrew congratulating Neiron for his first NFL sack at Cleveland and again for a strong performance against Denver. His parents presented Andrew with a Ball No. 58 jersey, which he immediately wore for a photo to send to his friend and favorite player.
“I was blown away — the first person I’d ever seen with a jersey with my name on it,” Ball said.
Ball has twice been to the Holmes house for dinner, and is taking note of Andrew’s progress.
Angela said she initially “managed Andrew’s expectations” regarding dinner invitations and the like.
“When a 10-year-old hears, ‘Call me any time,’ he’s going to call,” Angela said. “But we certainly were not anticipating developing the kind of relationship that has happened.”
Ball, who lost both his parents at a young age and had never been to California before being drafted by the Raiders, is partial to Angela’s “corn casserole” and grateful for new relationships outside the team setting.
“It’s nice to step away, and nice to get a home-cooked meal, too,” Ball said. “It’s so nice to have their support … it feels like family.”
The radiation procedure, in Andrew’s case, is working slowly. He still has an AVM, but it is diminishing in size and the family hopes he will be AVM free in 2016. In the meantime, Andrew works on regaining the use of the right side of his body through electrical stimulation and rehabilitation.
In a youth fall baseball league, Andrew is throwing and catching with his left hand. He read a book on former major league baseball player Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, and is taking Ball’s pep talks to heart.
“He’s so positive,” Andrew said, “that it makes me want to work harder.”
Working hard comes naturally to Ball, who needed a little more than five months to recover from micro-fracture knee surgery and put himself in line to be drafted by the Raiders.
“I’d heard a lot of bad stories about micro-fracture surgery and that most people don’t come back from it,” Ball said. “But I went through a head injury that was life threatening. It was definitely a smaller bump in the road.”
Ball, whose play against Denver may have put him in line to start Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, finds that Andrew’s situation helps put things in perspective.
“When he told me he was learning how to catch and throw with the same hand, I was overwhelmed,” Ball said.
Ball has recently become popular on the Aneurysm and AVM Foundation Twitter page and is just beginning to realize the impact he has with more people than just Andrew. October is the foundation’s Aneurysm and AVM Awareness month.
At an AVM benefit walk in San Francisco two years ago, the family saw first hand how destructive the condition can be
“You see a lot of people that are really struggling, people in wheelchairs, people carrying signs for their loved ones that passed away,” Garrett said. “It was really, really tough.”
Dina Chon, community engagement manager for the Aneurysm and AVM Foundation, said Ball is an inspiration for the small but deeply affected victims of the condition.
“So few people come out of something like this like Neiron has, without having to re-learn how to walk or talk,’ ” Chon said. “It’s huge for people like Andrew to see someone who is living his dream, doing what he always wanted to do.”
At a visit Wednesday to the Raiders facility, Andrew was starry-eyed at a chance to meet Justin Tuck but went up to Ball like an old friend.
Andrew and his father were invited to a taping of the “Silver and Black Show,” with Ball as a guest. Andrew sat alongside Ball at the interview table, and producer Vittorio DeBartolo asked off-camera if he had any tough questions for his friend.
Andrew giggled and said, “When are we going to see an interception, man?”
“Hopefully this Sunday,” Ball replied. “Interceptions are hard to come by.”
“You’ve just got to keep working hard,” Andrew said.
“Keep working hard,” repeated Ball. “That’s what we do.”