The pick-six is one of many eye-popping plays that has put Ballentine in a position to ascend the Giants depth chart. This is a far cry from where he was a little more than three months ago.
Saturday, Apr. 27. was supposed to be the happiest day of Ballentine’s life. After four years of grinding at Washburn University, a Division II school with a little less than 7,000 students in Topeka, Kan., he was finally seeing the fruits of his labor. He was selected by the Giants with a sixth-round (180th overall) pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Ballentine became the highest-drafted player in school history. Naturally, he wanted to celebrate achieving his lifelong dream with his best friend and teammate Dwane Simmons. The two attended an off-campus party hosted by the Washburn women’s soccer team.
Eight hours after the Giants selected him, triumph turned to tragedy.
Both Ballentine and Simmons were shot in an apparent drive-by shooting. Ballentine was shot in the buttocks while Simmons died at the scene. Instead of holding a press conference celebrating Ballentine’s accomplishment, Washburn head coach Craig Schurig tearfully addressed the media about the shooting. Instead being at Giants rookie minicamp, Ballentine attended his best friend’s funeral.
He eulogized Simmons on his Twitter page the shortly after the shooting.
“God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. I love you forever,” Ballentine tweeted. “Thank you for being a true friend who uplifted me, corrected me when I was wrong, and accepted my flaws. Thank you for being a brother to me. Thank you for letting me experience your life.”
The team sent vice president of medical services Ronnie Barnes and special assistant to the general manager Jessie Armstead to Simmons’ funeral in a show of support. Ballentine recovered and quietly returned to the field, refusing to speak publicly about his ordeal until last Sunday.
He praised the Giants for being there as he recovered from his wounds, both physical and mental.
“They’ve given me the time I needed, the resources, taken me to the doctor, doing all the rehab with me, checking up and making sure everything was OK,” Ballentine said.
Although his selection by the Giants will be forever linked to losing to his best friend, Ballentine doesn’t want what transpired to define him.
“There’s been a lot of highs and lows. I’m trying to stay focused on football, but everybody kind of knows the situation I was in,” Ballentine said. “I don’t want to speak on it too much out of respect for my friend, but I’ve kind of doing good on my own. The Giants are helping me. I’ve been seeing therapists. I just kind of realized I can’t leave myself in that mental space when I have goals to reach. You want to help your team win so I have to do my own thing and keep progressing. Life is not going to wait on me so I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”
Topeka police arrested Francisco Alejandro Mendez, 18. He was charged with premeditated first-degree murder for the death of Simmons and attempted premeditated first-degree murder in the shooting of Ballentine.
In addition to charges related to the shooting, Mendez also faces two counts of aggravated robbery stemming from an incident the day before and three counts of aggravated robbery in an incident on Apr. 30. Mendez was already incarcerated when he was charged in the draft night shooting. Bond has been set at $1 million.
Mendez’s next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 9, the day after the Giants open the regular season on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. The investigation into the shooting is ongoing with possible additional arrests. If convicted on all counts, Mendez could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Ballentine said the arrest of Mendez provided “closure” for both Simmons’ family and the Washburn community. He also spoke of how Simmons pushed him to get where is with the Giants.
“I think (Simmons) helped me get here every step of the way,” Ballentine said. “When I was on the field by myself (training at Washburn), he would come out there and join me, and I feel like I’m kinda doing it for both of us. I know if he was here now, he would love to see where I’m at, how I’m doing…I’m gonna keep him in my heart, and at the same time, try to strive for our goal as a team and also my personal goals, just do my best.”
Ballentine racked up 186 tackles (113 solo), four forced fumbles, three fumbles recovered, and five interceptions while playing at Washburn. His four blocked kicks are second in school history and he averaged nearly 25 yards per kick return. Ballentine also set Washburn track and field records in the indoor 60- and 200-meter races as well as the outdoor 100- and 200- meters.
Ballentine was the 2018 recipient of the Cliff Harris Award, a honor bestowed upon the nation’s top defensive small college (Division II, Division III, and NAIA schools) players. He was also named an American College Football Association (AFCA) All-American in his final season with the Ichabods.
Ballentine has no tattoos but is thinking of getting one to honor Simmons. He knows that he will playing not only for himself but for his best friend as well. Regardless of what transpired, Ballentine is focused on moving forward and making the Giants’ final 53-man honor. At the same time, his life was irrevocably changed in the early morning hours of Apr. 28 and he’s aware of that too.
“I mean, I think about it every day, obviously, because it was somebody that was in my life every day. It’s hard to fill that gap and I haven’t filled it yet,” Ballentine said. “I’ll always have it on my heart, but I’m moving forward in my life…They’re (the Giants) not gonna wait for me here. They’ve given me time to think about and ponder on everything that happen, and recover and everything. I think, personally, it’s time for me to be strong now.”