Demba Ba impressed with 'unbelievable' NAPL

Word spread quickly Monday morning via social media that professional soccer player Demba Ba was training at the state-of-the-art Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab inside Memorial Stadium.

One fan requested through Twitter to ask Ba about his goal against Liverpool in 2013. Ba, then playing for Chelsea FC, scored when Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard slipped and gave up the ball in a bizarre sequence. It all but ended the title-winning run for Liverpool, which placed second in the English Premier League.

Ba grinned.

“A Chelsea fan,” he said of the inquisitor.

Then Ba began laughing.

“Or a Manchester United fan. Or one of both.”

Ba, a French-born Senegalese international striker, reminisced about other top moments of his professional soccer career, like when he led Senegal past Cameroon to bring his home team to the 2012 African Cup.

“The atmosphere in the whole country was just unbelievable and unforgettable,” Ba said. “And playing in England as well, when I scored against Paris Saint-Germain and brought us to the semifinals of Champions League.”

The passion in his voice served notice that, at age 31, Ba isn’t about to let a gruesome leg fracture end his career.

That leads us to the reason Ba arrived in Lincoln on Sunday night for a 24-hour stay, most of it spent in the NAPL.

“He’s basically here to check his fitness, to check all of his balances and movements and be able to, essentially, be able to work on whatever deficiencies we find,” said Dr. Jack Ransone, director of the NAPL since 2015.

“He’s fit. This is more of a leave-no-stone-unturned type of deal that we’re able to capture in the lab.”

Ransone served as coordinator of medical systems for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs from May of 2010 to December of 2014. During that time, when Ransone was working with Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, he became acquainted with Fabrice Gautier, the Sports Performance Osteopath of the French men’s basketball team and rehabilitation coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers.

“He’s very good at what he does,” Ransone said. “Other sports have found out his qualities, and he’s one who’s traveled to Nebraska to take advantage of our resources.”

Ba now plays for Besiktas, in Turkey, on loan from Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua. In July, he fractured his left tibia during a Chinese Super League Match. Gautier told Ba about the NAPL and suggested the two fly to Lincoln as Ba nears the end of his rehabilitation.

“He talked to me about Nebraska,” Ba said, “and straight away I said, ‘OK, let’s go, let’s do some testing,’ because before I return on the pitch, it’s something you need to be sure 100 percent that you are prepared.

“I’m very happy because it’s very professional and everything is high quality. I have full confidence that I’ll start playing again.”

Without a doubt, Ba said he would recommend the NAPL to other professional athletes.

“Oh, yeah, for sure. The facility is unbelievable,” Ba said. “I made the first stage of my recovery in Qatar Aspetar, which is very rich. The facility is unbelievable. But this is even a level higher.”

In 2013, a 50,000 square-foot East Memorial Stadium expansion brought together researchers from the NAPL and UNL’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (CB3). Each research center is more than 20,000 square feet and connected by a bridge located inside Nebraska’s football stadium.

The NAPL is believed to be the first in-stadium, on-campus research center directed by a collegiate department of athletics.

Professional teams in the United States are beginning to learn more about the NAPL, too. Representatives from the Dolphins, Chargers, Eagles, Texans, Raiders, Cubs, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Celtics and Pelicans have recently visited Lincoln.

“People are starting to find out, it’s a special place,” Ransone said.

The NAPL has DXA body scanning for advanced body composition testing and does physiological biomarker testing for recovering performance. Ba wore dozens of toggles all over his body that were used to trigger the many motion-capture 3D cameras throughout the NAPL. That's used for biomechanical research. 

The NAPL is where Boyd Epley, Nebraska Assistant A.D. for Strength and Conditioning, conducts his famous football testing that produces numbers fans enjoy analyizing. 

“To be able to capture this in one place is unique," Ransone said. "There are maybe one or two places in the world that can match this.”

Before his injury, Ba had been playing well in the Chinese Super League. He was the division's top scorer with 14 goals in 18 appearances.

“I’m feeling good. I’m happy. I’m feeling good. The rehab went well,” Ba said. “It’s been now 7 months. I’m edging closer to the start. The days are getting good. Now I have another (specific) test, which will be probably the most difficult one and the one I hate, but I have to go through it in order to come back.”

Ba has no set deadline for his return. He says he’ll return when feeling 100 percent healthy and confident.

“To come back for the end of the season, there are 3 months left to play, so in these 3 months I’ll go back to the team and bring everything I can so we can win the league,” Ba said. “We are good in the way now, first on the table, and after this season, we’ll see about if we win the league, we’ll be in the Champions League next season.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.