LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — Corey Ballentine stands in front of his second-row seat in the arena-shaped church, shuffles two steps to his left and begins limping toward a heartbroken mother.
More than 1,000 mourners fill the Abundant Life auditorium to remember Dwane Simmons, the fireball Washburn University football player gunned down after an off-campus party days earlier.
Nine gospel singers harmonize on stage, an interpretive dancer receives an ovation and sobbing gives way to laughter when Simmons’ dance moves come to life in a video tribute.
But now there is quiet, and all eyes are on the teammate who could have been at the front of that church in a casket, too. Dressed in a dark gray suit, powder blue shirt and gold tie, Ballentine drags one leg behind the other, the gunshot wound in his buttocks still affecting the 23-year-old star athlete’s gait.Ballentine hands a navy-blue-and-white No. 17 jersey and Washburn football helmet to Simmons’ mom.
His courage is greeted with applause. Over the next three hours, he sits stoically in his chair and wears the look of someone burdened by his thoughts.
“Cooorey!” someone had shouted at the first sighting of the survivor in an unsolved murder case that nobody in two devastated cities — in two neighboring states — can make sense of.Ballentine is supposed to be 1,250 miles away in East Rutherford, beginning his NFL cornerback career with nine other 2019 NFL Draft picks. Instead, days after he received a phone call from the Giants that would change his life, he still is close to home facing an unimaginable task.
He has to bury his best friend.
If Ballentine said he was on his way to meet up, you saved two seats. He and Simmons came as a package deal. Everyone on the football team — heck, everyone in the athletic department — knew it.
“We didn’t ask them, ‘What are you doing?’” teammate Heath Tucker said. “We asked, ‘What are y’all doing?’”This five-year friendship was built a scientific theory: Opposites attract.
Ballentine is reserved, disciplined, a late-blooming explosive talent built for athletic success. Simmons countered with spontaneity, wisecracks, an underdog’s fearlessness and perseverance.Ballentine made more friends because of Simmons. Simmons kept his grades up because of Ballentine pestering him to put down the video-game controller and get back to the books.
“He was like another son to us,” Ballentine’s father, Karl Vaughn, told NJ Advance Media at his home in street-winding suburban Topeka, Kansas.
A campus candlelight vigil spilled into a 50-yard line memorial Tuesday night, and it ended with Ballentine’s father and Simmons’ father alone in the south end zone. “He pushed Corey to be here,” Vaughn told the grieving father, just before the stadium lights were turned off.
“Dwane was mighty in his heart and his fight,” Washburn coach Craig Schurig said. “It helped Corey grow. You put Dwane in Corey’s body, and you’ve got what Corey is doing now, basically.”Born in Jamaica, Ballentine grew up in Topeka, home to Washburn and its 6,600 students.
Simmons grew up 90 minutes away, in Lee’s Summit, as the oldest of six siblings — though he treated friends as additional brothers.
Days before the NFL Draft, Ballentine drilled his footwork and change of direction for the millionth time this spring. Simmons filled the role of coach or scout, holding out the football and barking instructions.“The most poignant vision I have of them is recently. I remember them doing those …”
Schurig’s voice catches in his throat. Eleven seconds pass before he can finish recounting the memory. A tear rolls out of his right eye and catches above his cheek. He never wipes it.
It will dry on its own time.
“Once the Giants came through,” Schuring said, “I’m sure Dwane felt like he was drafted.”
So, it was only natural, hours after the biggest moment of his young life last Saturday, Ballentine had Simmons at his side.
Dream to nightmare
The Giants called before 4 p.m., just after Ballentine made a Chipotle run. Some thought he might be picked late Friday night in the third round, but the wait finally ended Saturday in the sixth round.
“I’ve been waiting on this opportunity for a lifetime,” Ballentine told Giants coach Pat Shurmur, when his phone finally rang.
Washburn’s “Showtime” secondary — that’s what they said to break down huddles and what it meant when someone pointed to his wrist — beat the odds and would be represented in the NFL.Time to celebrate. Ballentine and Simmons went to the home of friends on the women’s soccer team.
The half-mile trip from the apartment they shared as roommates to the party goes past Jerry’s Bike Shop but ends before the Conoco gas station up ahead. Topeka also hosted a sorority event and a former Washburn football player’s wedding that night.Some details of the incident are unclear, but Simmons’ father told local news outlets the two football stars were approached by unidentified men and asked if they had “smoke for sale.” When they didn’t, he said, the car drove off, circled back and opened fire, killing Simmons in the street and injuring Ballentine.
A police report obtained by NJ Advance Media states the shooting happened at 12:46 a.m., on a side street to the right of the house. Students live in three apartment complexes right there.
Ballentine was on the phone again. This time, he was calling Simmons’ father to tell him they’d been shot.
Five days after the shooting, there is no sign of crime-scene tape. An old-fashioned black lamppost with a yellow “for lease” sign planted underneath marks one poorly lit corner. Three security patrol cars are parked not far away.
A neighbor walking two dogs recalls the civilian car diagonally parked to block off the street the morning after the tragedy. A blissfully unaware girl pushes off with one leg on her pink scooter, her dad trailing a few steps behind until she reaches the block with no sidewalk.
It’s been reasoned Ballentine and Simmons just were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But …
“For a 23-year-old to be at a party, ain’t the wrong place at the wrong time,” Simmons’ family member Clifton Williams said during his tribute at the funeral.
Friends gathered at the hospital, waiting in a large room on news of the football stars. Schurig informed the worried faces of Simmons’ death, then privately told the same to an unaware Ballentine, surrounded by his parents.
The moment Ballentine “always dreamed of” was gone way too soon. Replaced by a reality he shouldn’t have to imagine.
How to heal
The news broke overnight and became one of the biggest stories on one of the biggest weekends in the NFL.
The TODAY Show aired a report Monday morning. WFAN radio host Mike Francesa, feuding with the Giants over other issues, cheap-shotted the organization for the optics of a shooting in light of their emphasis on high-character players.Only hours earlier, Ballentine, without prompting, told reporters, “I have no character issues.” To learn he said it like someone might humblebrag about a high GPA or a game-winning interception is not a surprise to those who know him best. He takes great pride in his clean image.
“I’m not upset. I’m not mad,” Vaughn told NJ Advance Media, responding to ill-informed opinions of his son. “I’m extremely blessed my son is alive, and we’ll move on with God, who is a big part of our lives. He forgives. How could we not?”
At nearly the same moment, one time zone away, Shurmur fought the same narrative, stressing Ballentine is “the victim of a crime.” Hours earlier, the Giants’ three first-round draft picks posed for a photo with Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman before their first NFL practice.
Ballentine, meanwhile, is resting inside the house, his parents hosting “church friends.” The U-shaped driveway outside their ranch-style home is filled with cars, and the front door is open to welcome guests.The Giants encouraged Ballentine to stay in Kansas and grieve. He will meet his new teammates May 20, when the Giants veterans and rookies gather for practice.
“He needed that,” Vaughn said, not then knowing one day later the Giants will have two staff members (Ronnie Barnes and Jessie Armstead) at the funeral. “It shows how classy an organization they are. I’m glad my son will be playing there.”
Washburn hopes to endow a scholarship in Simmons’ name and honor No. 17 next season. Three enterprising students had T-shirts made at no cost with Simmons’ photo, name and number, and they were available Friday for a donation to a verified GoFundMe page to benefit the family.
All in the name of healing a community.
“Corey’s grieving is different than the rest of the team,” Schurig said. “Dwane’s fire and the love of the game, that’s every bit as much as what those guys are going to be in his (NFL) practice. That can spark Corey.”Many of Simmons’ friends wear the T-shirts as they stop at his open casket, but Ballentine appears just as the two hours of visitation end and the funeral begins. He is a casket bearer.
What will he say about his friend? Or will he let a Tweet — “God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. I love you forever.” — stand alone?
‘Play for your brother’
Washburn football pastor T.D. Hicks pleads with young athletes in the room to make good on this part of his eulogy. Is it possible he really is speaking to an audience of one?
“Get out there on that field and beast, and every play ought to be for your brother,” Hicks says.
Graveside at a XII Gates Memorial Gardens in Kansas City, a pastor who also serves as a local police chaplain promises this unsolved case will not slip through the cracks.Mourners say “see you later” — it’s not “goodbye” is a recurring theme of the service — to Simmons, and the Washburn football pack shifts collective attention to Ballentine.
How are you feeling? When do you report to the Giants? He says few words but accepts hug after hug after hug.
A photo of football teammates is taken.
One is going to the NFL. One is missing, about to be laid to rest only a few feet away.
Teammates marvel at the strength it took for Ballentine be here. In fact, theirs is a friendship that always inspired teammates, Tucker said.
“I don’t think I’d be able to do that for my best friend,” he added. “I wouldn’t want to deal with that closure the way he has to. I just hope he doesn’t ask why. Because there is no answer.”
Ballentine walks with his unofficial bodyguard toward the car. Soon, he will leave home and sign a contract with a six-figure signing bonus and the chance to earn millions. All that is ahead of him.
But, here, he is a boy protected by his mom from the fine line between life and death.