Biking dirt trails and opening kids' minds are the two lives of Jeremy Ball

The next time you drive down the street and see a bike rack consider what else it could be. Jeremy Ball sees something he and his bike can jump. Anything he can take fast and high. That's the ride he's looking for.

At Kalamazoo's Skatezoo his bike pounds the ramps and goes up the wall. This is winter riding. When he must ride indoors, he travels to a place where a few bikes and a lot more skateboards peacefully coexist. Ball likes that it's set up to ride like trails. The real trails, the one's of dirt, area all hidden under tarps this time of year.

Don't mistake this for athletic training. "This is not like practice for me," Ball says. "This is passion. This is life."

Ball is very grateful to be member of a BMX team with a sponsor, and by team we don't mean guys wearing matching jerseys. Think instead cool bikes and gear. But even if he wasn't he would be here, doing exactly the same thing for exactly the same amount of time.

That's riding at least three times a week during the winter and every day during the summer.

A 27-year-old government teacher, Ball didn't set out to be one of the faces of BMX, but then, as he says, all the stars aligned.

About two years ago, a friend took pictures of Ball that ended up on the cover of a BMX magazine, a video of him riding up the side of a tree hit the internet and Deluxe BMX called from England to ask him to be part of its team.

Ball says it was luck and good timing, but that doesn't take into account that he and his videographer friend rode six hours to get to the tree that ended up in the video, one Ball had spotted on an earlier road trip. Or that he was battered and bloodied by the time they got the shot just right.

Ball's sponsor, Deluxe, says riders who do bike tricks like going upside down or spinning madly in circles have never been what it's looking for. For its team it wants riders who like to get dirty, digging trails, building their jumps and riding fast and high through the woods. Riders like Ball.

That does not mean he can't do those wild bike tricks. He's comfortable doing a lot of different maneuvers, but they don't appeal to him like a 27-foot jump.

Deluxe is a good fit in other ways. The company has committed 10 percent of its profits to supporting a fallen rider who was paralyzed. "I wouldn't ride for a company if I didn't believe in them. I want don't want to do something if I don't love it."

Although he lives 90 minutes away in Quincy, riding in Kalamazoo, where there's a thriving underground BMX community of bikers with college degrees, is part of his regular routine.

In BMX circles, Kalamazoo is known to have really good dirt. Perfect for building jumps, laying down lines -- like a ski run only for bikes -- and good digging. Within a 10 mile radius, four sets of trails can be found. One trail, the Griz, built over a four-year span, is legendary in BMX circles for it's sheer size.

You're not going to find these trails on a map, though. If you didn't help dig them, you might not find them at all. "No dig, no ride" is the rule.

"You never ride without asking," Ball says. "You get a shovel and ask what needs to be done. They have hours and hours into building that trail and you don't show up and disrespect someone else's work."

Ball and his brother, Jared, started digging trails in their parents' back yard 17 years ago. Today, riding with his brother and their cross- country trips together to various trails is something that keep them close. Most of the trips are within four to five hours, but it's also not uncommon to travel 20 hours to ride.

When Ball traveled to Austin, for example, he checked in at a local bike shop and asked where the trails could be found. One of the riders there offered them floor space to sleep on and for two weeks they dug and rode the trails there.

"If you have an open mind and are positive, BMX will embrace you," Ball says. "They will take you in. You don't have to be anything special to be accepted. We ride for the joy of it.

"There's a feeling of satisfaction, that comes of knowing what you are able to do and pushing the limit. It teaches you so much about yourself. What you can take."

And sometimes how much pain you can endure. He's had a dislocated shoulder, broken thumb, broken foot (you stop to tape it and off you go) and countless injuries that together teach you what your body is capable of.

The sport shapes nearly everything about him, from the clothes he wears to his wedding date. This summer Ball will be married to a teacher he met in the copy room of the first school where he taught. His "very understanding fiance" Nicky Smith agreed to change the wedding date so he could ride at the opening qualifier of the Dew Tour.

And yet, despite its significance for Ball, most of his students know nothing about his BMX riding.

Ball doesn't talk about his weekend treks cross country to ride other than to say what city he last visited.

"That's teacher time," Ball says. "That's my job. People don't talk about hunting in class. I don't bring it up."

There have been moments. A student flipping through a BMX magazine left on Ball's desk stopped when he got to the pictures of Ball riding. He looked up, looked back at the magazine. "It was just funny. If they ask me I talk to them about it after school."

Ball teaches at a tiny school district near Hillsdale, North Adams-Jerome Public Schools where the graduating class numbers 34. U.S. History, economics and world history are the classes he teaches this year.

Lessons in economics come to life for his students as they play Monopoly. In this game the rules are changed to add in elements of command economic systems, free economies or mixed economies. It's more than a game at this point, it gives students a way to apply what they've learned over the previous 10 weeks.

He also reads out loud to his students for 10 minutes a day. Most recently the selection has been "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." Students that might not read and assignment will listen when Ball reads to them, he says.

This particular book is one he teaches because Douglass, a man who was willing to risk beating and worse in order to learn, recognized the key to freedom is learning. Ball says in an era were students see learning as a burden Douglass'  willingness to do whatever it takes to acquire knowledge is an important story to tell.

He offers mentoring during what would normally be his planning period, chaperones dances, coaches for free and leads a group to New York.

Ball tried this year to cut back some of his activities. One of those was the trip to New York.

Then came the student who said he had worked all summer to earn the $650 it took to make the trip. "Whose going to do it if you don't" the student asked and the trip was back on.

Next week it's spring break and trip to Texas is planned as the teache sets aside the books and the rider takes to the trails.

Kathy Jennings is the editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor in Kalamazoo.

All photos by Sean Newton. See his work at Sean Newton Photography.

Jeremy Ball

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