It was the kind of play a late-round draft pick dreams of making in training camp.
Stepping in front of a pass, catching it cleanly for an interception and returning it for a touchdown. Impressing coaches and teammates. Announcing a presence. Making a name for oneself out of relative obscurity.
Under different circumstances, that would have been the case for Corey Ballentine in Saturday’s workout with the Giants. It would have been an opportunity for the small-school kid to open some eyes and gain some recognition.
But everyone already knows about Ballentine, or at least his story. Because while the name might not register for casual fans, and only hardcore Giants followers have sifted through his game film from Division II Washburn, his circumstance is more well known than his football.
He’s the Giant who got shot.
The guy who was drafted on Saturday, April 27, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Who a few hours later, at about 12:45 a.m. on Sunday, walked out of a party near the college campus located in Topeka, Kansas, where he was met with gunfire and a bullet that hit him in his buttocks. The one whose teammate, roommate and best friend, Dwane Simmons, was killed in the incident.
So when Ballentine intercepted that pass on Saturday, it meant something more to him than it would to another rookie.
It meant that for the first time in his brief NFL career, he was recognized for football.
That’s a huge step for Ballentine, one he has tried to navigate ever since he made headlines as a victim of the shooting, as the best friend of its casualty. It’s been a struggle to balance the grief and paranoia and anger he is going through with the focus and dedication required to make an NFL roster as a sixth-round pick.
At some point recently, he made a decision: “I think personally it’s time to be strong now.”
The Giants have been great in terms of resources and support, and they have given him time and space to heal physically and spiritually. Ballentine is grateful for all of it. But he understands that while their compassion for him as a person might last forever, their patience for him as a football player will not. Cutdown day is Aug. 31. The Giants play the Cowboys on Sept. 8.
“I know they’re not going to wait for me here,” Ballentine said Sunday in his first public comments since the shooting. “They’ve given me time to think about it and ponder on everything that happened and recover and everything . . . I can’t keep thinking about that. I have to move forward. If I want to make this team, I have to learn the plays, I have to execute, things like that. I’ve shifted mentally, knowing there are obligations that I have, and I’m moving forward with it.”
In some ways, Ballentine said, he is pursuing not only his own dream with the Giants but Simmons’ as well.
“I feel like I’m kind of doing it for both of us,” he said. “I spent the most time with him, I was his best friend, so I’m going to try to keep him in my heart, but at the same time try to strive for the goals of the team and my own personal goals. Just do my best.”
On Saturday, with the interception, he gave a glimpse of that.
“Each day he looks a little more comfortable,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “He’s obviously coming back from the gunshot wound but also becoming more comfortable in the defense . . . He’s generally been in the right spot and been competing, so we’re pleased to this point with his progress.”
Shurmur said other than the medical aspect of the situation — Ballentine said he is 100 percent healed and has no limitations running or jumping — the shooting stays separate from the football. “We’ve moved on from it,” Shurmur said. “It will always be a part of who he is, but we don’t talk about it.”
Those conversations do occur, but with counselors and therapists, not coaches and trainers.
Maybe Ballentine someday will make Saturday’s type of interception on a Sunday in an NFL game. Maybe he’ll blossom into a key piece in the Giants’ defense. Maybe someday he’ll be known simply as a football player, not as the football player who was shot.
And maybe someday he will think of himself in those terms, too.
He’s trying to achieve that.
“I just kind of realized I can’t leave myself in that mental space when I have goals to reach,” he said. “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.”