TOPEKA, Kan. — It was 2 a.m., but Navarro Simmons’s mobile phone kept ringing and Corey Ballentine’s name kept flashing across the screen. Simmons was pretty sure what it was about, so he ignored the calls, at first.
Several hours earlier Simmons had called to congratulate Ballentine, who had just been selected by the Giants in the sixth round of the N.F.L. draft. Simmons had also called his son Dwane, knowing that Dwane was with Ballentine and would be just as excited about the big news. He assumed they were just getting back to him.
Still in bed, Simmons finally clicked on his phone and began congratulating Ballentine again, asking how he felt on what was surely the best day of his young life.
“Not good, Mr. Simmons,” Ballentine said. “You need to get here. Me and Dwane have been shot.”
In an instant, the greatest day of Corey Ballentine’s life had turned into by far the worst. A bullet had torn through his buttocks, and his best friend was mortally wounded.
The shooting that April night was like so many others in a country where gun violence plagues so many cities and towns. Rarely, though, does a bullet find an N.F.L. prospect on the night he is drafted.
Simmons and Ballentine were the innocent victims of a random act, a conclusion drawn from interviews with the police, coaches, teachers, neighbors and family members.
Simmons was the fifth homicide victim this year in Topeka, a city of about 128,000 in which there have been 53 homicides in the last 30 months (the most recent reported a month ago, about two blocks from where Simmons was killed). That puts the homicide rate in Topeka, where the median household income is roughly $45,000, ahead of the national average. Simmons, who was 23, and Ballentine were immensely popular around town, so this killing shattered the community.
“He was just a college kid who was scheduled to graduate in the fall of 2019 with a degree that he would have shined in,” Simmons said. “It just makes no sense.”
Around 12:45 a.m. on April 28, Ballentine and Simmons, the starting cornerbacks on the Washburn University football team, were shot by unknown assailants as they left a party near campus. The motive has not been established, though the police say investigators have leads on who carried out the shooting and are optimistic they will make an arrest.
“Corey and Dwane were not looking for trouble,” Bill Cochran, chief of the Topeka Police Department, said in a telephone interview. “There was none of that afoot. They were just out having a good time.”
Teammates, Roommates, Best Friends
Corey Ballentine and Dwane (pronounced “dwon”) Simmons met in their freshman year at Washburn University, a neatly trimmed Division II college in the heart of Topeka that bears an unusual school nickname, the Ichabods, taken from its founder, Ichabod Washburn.
Simmons was a walk-on cornerback from Lee’s Summit West High School. Ballentine was a track star at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kan., who fell in love with football.
Brad Nicks, Ballentine’s track and field coach and defensive coordinator on the Shawnee Heights football team, said Ballentine could have run track at plenty of Division I schools, but preferred football.
Ballentine and Simmons held much in common. Both were from strong, supportive families with professional parents. Both grew up in suburban areas and demonstrated a passion for sports. Ballentine’s father is a salesman for a home improvement firm, and Navarro Simmons, 40, is a financial adviser who recently took up bodybuilding.
At Washburn, their sons became instant friends and eventually roommates in an off-campus apartment, not far from where the shooting occurred. Their parents often sat together in the stands, watching their sons play cornerback.
According to those who knew them best, Dwane and Corey were inseparable. Simmons, who majored in mass media, was the more outgoing one, a gregarious sort with a magnetic smile, a penchant for hilarious impersonations and friends across campus, many of whom attended a vigil for him after he died.
The Washburn football coach, Craig Schurig, said he often envisioned Simmons as a future entertainer. And when time came to rev up the defense before a game, Simmons was its conductor.
“Dwane always made you laugh,” said Braden Rose, a freshman defensive end. “He had a smile that lit up the room.”
Ballentine, who was born in Jamaica and moved to Kansas when he was about 6, was quieter and more focused on his schoolwork and training regimen.
“Dwane got Corey to open up and be more social,” Navarro Simmons said. “Corey pushed Dwane with his books and workouts.”
Simmons sustained two torn A.C.L.s, impeding his career, but Ballentine’s flourished as he developed into a fiercely competitive defensive back and an electrifying special teams player. He won the Cliff Harris Award as the top defensive player in the country from a smaller college.
Schurig, who has coached Washburn for 17 years, said if Ballentine had played at a major program like Kansas or Missouri, an N.F.L. team would have drafted him no later than the third round.
”There won’t be a D-back in the league more powerful than him,” Schurig said.
A Night of Great and Terrible Fortune
Ballentine and his father, Karl Vaughn, declined to be interviewed for this article, but a few days after the shooting, Navarro Simmons said he spoke to Corey again and asked him to recount everything from the day his son died.
Talking about his son, Simmons said, especially with the friend who was with him at the end, helped both of them cope in the weeks after Dwane died. Navarro Simmons also knows that if he is still in shock, Ballentine must also still be traumatized by the events and wary that the killers remain at large, aware by now of exactly whom they attacked.
Simmons says it is vital to set the record straight about what happened in the hours leading up to the shooting.
As usual, the pair were together. First, they went to Ballentine’s parents’ home in a well-manicured subdivision of Topeka to await the results of the draft along with family and friends. Soon after the Giants chose Ballentine with the 180th pick, Ballentine spoke on a conference call with reporters, assuring them that he would not be overwhelmed by big-city life.
“I have no character issues,” he said. “I have none of those issues.”
Later, the friends celebrated, first at a small gathering with teammates. Eventually, Simmons and Ballentine ended up at a house rented by fellow students near the corner of Southwest 13th and Southwest Lane Streets, in a residential area, to celebrate with members of the Washburn women’s soccer team and others.
“There was nothing wrong about where they were,” Navarro Simmons said. “They are college students out on a Saturday night.”
Shortly after midnight, Ballentine, Simmons and a few others left the party and convened on 13th Street. They contemplated their next move. According to Cochran, the police chief, a car rolled up and people in it asked the men on the street if they had any drugs, and were told no. Then people in the car asked the players’ names, but were rebuffed again.
The car then moved forward about 30 yards, witnesses told the police, stopped, and someone opened fire, as many as 40 rounds, some neighbors said.
Vandellia Clarke, a 24-year-old caregiver who lives around the corner, said she heard the shots clearly.
“We’ve been living here 20 years and there has never been any issues,” she said. “But it sounded like a war zone.”
Cochran said the seemingly arbitrary nature of the crime makes solving it a challenge. “It was one of those things, probably to scare people, with no real intent. Just senseless gun violence.”
Ballentine told Navarro Simmons that he did not know he had been struck until he sought safety in the nearby home of a friend, and called another friend to take him to the hospital — all the while growing increasingly alarmed that Dwane Simmons did not answer his phone.
“Everybody was like, ‘Why did Corey leave Dwane?’” Navarro Simmons said. “Understand, Corey was shot, too. Corey was scared, too. You hear shots, you run.”
After speaking with Ballentine, Navarro Simmons and Dwane’s mother embarked on a panicked, one-hour drive to Topeka. By the time they arrived, their son was dead.
Life Without Dwane
The Giants sent two representatives to the funeral, a former player and special assistant, Jessie Armstead, along with the athletic trainer, Ronnie Barnes. Navarro Simmons said he was not aware of the gesture, but is now very appreciative.
“I didn’t know who was there,” he said. “I was just focused on my son in front of me in a casket.”
Ballentine was granted time to recover before he had to report to the team in May for rookie workouts.
Schurig, who spoke at the funeral, said that the university was preparing a scholarship in Dwane Simmons’s name and that the team would honor him in additional ways, including naming an award for him.
On a recent afternoon, Navarro Simmons met a reporter in his favorite coffee shop in Kansas City, Mo., wearing a T-shirt bearing a photograph of Dwane flashing his signature smile. A high school classmate of Navarro’s stopped to offer condolences, which Simmons said happens continually now.
As he attempts to process his loss, Simmons said he hoped Ballentine could do the same. He also encouraged Ballentine to make the most of this opportunity with the Giants. Dwane, he said, would have wanted Corey to show the world just how good Washburn cornerbacks are.
“Dwane was so happy for Corey,” Simmons said. “He loved Corey. That was his brother.”
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