Just days away from the 2014 NFL Draft, and just like any other draft prospect University of Memphis Safety Lonnie Ballentine has been preparing. The Memphis native is doing everything in his will to make sure his name will be called during the 3 day draft. As a matter of fact, when I last talked to him he mentioned that he would probably be training and meeting with teams up until the start of the NFL Draft. As a highly-touted recruit coming out of Southwind high school, Ballentine worked extremely hard to put himself on the map; he has worked even harder to stay on the map and show up on the radar of NFL brasses over the last few months.
You can get with this, or you can get with that…
Standing at 6’ 3” and weighing in at 220 pounds, Ballentine is considered a physical specimen for a defensive back. Most college athletes grow into their bodies during their playing days under scholarship, but he was used to this frame since high school. Growing up, Lonnie “Trey” Ballentine wasn’t all that familiar with the game of football. Why? He was raised in a basketball environment His mother, Shelia Smith, played collegiate basketball at Murray State (She was inducted into the schools Hall of Fame in ‘98) and professionally in France. She was the first Lady Racer to ever have her basketball number retired, and is considered the best player in the school’s women’s basketball history. With a basketball background from his mother, many thought that Trey was bound to follow in her footsteps if he decided to play any sports at all. “Early on he really didn’t care too much about any sports, so me playing in college and overseas professionally, my friend told me that you’ve already walked the path that he is destined to walk,” says Smith. “I never thought Trey was going to be a football player, I thought he was going to be a basketball player.”
A basketball player he was. He solely played basketball at Hamilton High School (Memphis, TN) in the ninth and tenth grades until former head coach Thurston Rubin came across his path. “He was a tall and lean guy,” according to Coach Rubin. “I told his mother to get him to come out on the field because I saw his potential. With his size, speed, and natural ability, I wanted to give him a try.” That try turned out to be a success. Coach Rubin encouraged Ballentine to compete in the National Underclassman Combine following his freshman year, and from there the acknowledgement began to surface. “I put him in the National Underclassmen Combine and he ended up making it to the ultimate 100,” Rubin said proudly. “We went to Atlanta, and he competed for the combine King.” Trey’s life would never be the same after he competed in the combines. “They started taking notice of him and that is when we started seeing a lot of the letters coming in, going into his sophomore year.”
The Switch Up…
After Ballentine’s sophomore stint at Hamilton High School, Coach Rubin and Hamilton High School were no longer a couple. As a result, he transferred to Southwind High School (Memphis,TN) to play and resume his status as a highly-touted recruit. As a member of the Southwind’s Secondary Unit, Ballentine posted 45 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 12 pass breakups as a junior. Under Southwind Head Coach Cedric Miller Sr., Trey was tabbed as the team captain and earned numerous accolades. He was named to the All-Region First Team, All-Shelby Metro, and he also impressed with 800 all-purpose yards as a junior. With as much success as Ballentine was having on the field, he made equal strides off of it as well. At the conclusion of his junior football season, Ballentine was faced with a unique situation. He earned most of the credits he needed to graduate from Hamilton High School because he was on a block schedule. On the block schedule, Ballentine was able to accumulate more credits going towards his high school diploma. So after he successfully completed the first half of the school year at Southwind High School earning all of his credits for his junior year curriculum, he only needed 12th grade English to graduate. Ballentine had a tough decision to make: sign the dotted line at the age of 16 and go play collegiate football or stay and complete his senior year at Southwind. “A lot played a part in my decision to come out of high school early,” said Ballentine. “One, I was with my now wife Brittany and she was pregnant with my older daughter London, and I was also a junior but I was a senior too because of the classes that I took at Hamilton High.” With those variables in play and him having an opportunity to play big right away, Ballentine decided that graduating early would probably benefit him the most. “I wasn’t going to have any classes if I would have returned to high school, so that played a big part,” the three- star ranked Rivals recruit stated. “I didn’t just want to be there and not get anything accomplished.” Although he ultimately decided to graduate early and enter college following his junior year, it wasn’t always the plan for him to leave early. Smith said they were mainly focusing on his academics trying to make sure that his senior year would be easier. “Once he started to see that Memphis had offered him early in the 10th grade and we started doing paperwork where he could leave as a junior, we were kind of just preparing ourselves where either he can stay in school and have an easy dual enrollment taking college credits in high school or he could leave,” said Smith. “So at that point, he decided that he wanted to stay.” Quite naturally Smith didn’t mind or care her baby decided that he wanted to stay and complete his true senior season of high school. However, it was a conversation and already in place relationship with newly hired head man Larry Porter at Memphis that led Ballentine to a change of heart. Smith said as long as he accomplished his duties as a student-athlete and he was satisfied with his accomplishments, then she would be fine with his decisions. “My job is to support the decision,” Smith said assuredly. “So at 16, I thought that he could survive in Memphis but not at Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, or a school that was away from Memphis.” She felt that he could deal with the pressures of college at Memphis. “I thought that him being on a Memphis Campus at 16, he could compete and he could cope with college at that point.” Smith has always had confidence in her son and his abilities to play at a high level. He has practically had an NFL-type framed body since he was in high school. “When he was in high school, he was like 6’2” 200 pounds,” said Smith. “So physically I never doubted that he could play on any level, but mentally I had some doubts because I knew what went into the preparation of being a college athlete.”
I Put on for my City…
Before Ballentine decided to stay and play for the hometown team, he had to turn down one of the best coaches in football history. For him, the entire experience once one that he couldn’t have dreamed about. Along with Memphis, there were many football powerhouses vying for Ballentine’s services, but one in particular stood out. “I actually remember Coach Miller (Southwind Head Coach) calling me down saying ‘We need to see Lonnie Ballentine to the office,’” Ballentine recalls. “I walked down and it was Nick Saban walking in the door.” Ballentine said that it was a dream come true to see a football giant like Saban coming to recruit him. “For any high school player its Nick Saban, you see him in college football winning championships, ranked #1 in the country,” Ballentine said respectfully. “He came in, we talked, had a good conversation, and agreed to keep in touch with each other.”
As we all know, the two may have kept in touch for a little while, but not for long. Ballentine’s decision not to play for one of the most legendary coaches of all time at Alabama had a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering why he decided to stay home rather than go with a “sure” thing. Even if he didn’t want to go play at Alabama, he had Ole Miss, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, and Arkansas among other schools he could play for, so why go to a struggling football program like Memphis? Ballentine said that the opportunity to represent his city and play immediately played a factor. “Who doesn’t want to play in front of their home town? People there every single game, and they don’t have to drive five or six hours just to come watch you play,” Ballentine said emphatically. He also stressed that former Memphis Head Coach Larry Porter’s honesty stuck out too. “He told me that ‘I’m not saying you’re going to come in and be an All-American but you have that opportunity,’” said Ballentine. “His honesty and me creating a bond with him from him recruiting me at LSU played a factor. He got the job at Memphis and I was the first person that he came to when he got the job.”
When he reached Memphis, Ballentine definitely got the chance from Coach Porter to prove himself. As a matter of fact, he was allowed plenty of chances to shine. Ballentine played in seven games as a true freshman, started in at least one game, and logged seven total tackles (four solo) in one of his outings. Ballentine followed up his freshman campaign with a sophomore year that included him playing in eleven games. Although he felt some ill effects of a nagging hamstring injury for most of the season, he was still able to register 35 tackles (21 solo). With a couple of productive seasons in the bag, Ballentine felt confident that the Memphis Tiger’s Football team would succeed and be able to compete with some of the best teams by the time his junior year kicked into gear. However, there was a move that the University of Memphis made that shook up his world a little bit. After a 3-21 record in two seasons, Memphis decided to part ways with Coach Porter. “The record didn’t show how good we really were as a team,” Ballentine stated. “We worked hard and he (Coach Porter) was a great guy.”
Ballentine attributes the lack of immediate success to timing. “He did what he was supposed to do, we just couldn’t get that chemistry together,” said Ballentine disappointedly. “I think if he had a little more time than they gave him it would have been a good deal at Memphis.”
Obviously disturbed and confused by the move to replace the Coach Porter, the junior defensive back had some options to weigh. “When I found out that he was fired I kind of…I was ready to leave and go take my talents elsewhere but I chose to wait and see,” Ballentine explained of him hearing about the news of the guy who put Memphis on the map for him. Memphis followed up Porter’s firing with the hiring of Coach Justin Fuente. This would be Fuente’s first head coaching gig, his most recent title before being deemed the head man at Memphis was the offensive coordinator at Texas Christian University. Ballentine described the transition period from Coach Porter to Coach Fuente as a process became smoother as time surpassed.
The Switch Up Pt. 2…
“We went through a spring with Coach Fuente and it was alright, not as I expected but it was decent,” Ballentine explained honestly. “We went through fall camp and it got better as the time went on, and finally as the season started we all clicked and had our chemistry.” Ballentine said in his first meeting with Coach Fuente, he was given his mission and expected role. “He told me that he didn’t want me to worry about the fans and all of the other stuff; all he wanted me to do is come in, play hard, do it the right way, and I’ll be fine,” Ballentine described. He says that the relationship between him, Coach Fuente, and the rest of the coaching staff didn’t develop over night, but once it did he reaped the benefits. “After a while we started to gain trust in each other, I started to do things the right way and some things started to fall right in place,” said Ballentine in a relieving manner. “The coaches started showing me more love and respect as a man and we got things rolling.”
Rolling is an understatement. The following season, as a junior, Ballentine was the team’s leading tackler in the secondary. He posted 66 total tackles (40 solo), had three interceptions on the year, a fumble recovery, and a quarterback sack.
The Home Team…
Ballentine’s transition into the Fuente Era turned out to be successful as far as the numbers and statistics go, but there is another transition in his life that deserves some recognition. At the tender age of 20, Ballentine is a husband and father of two beautiful girls. In this day and time, the last thing on a young man’s mind is marriage. So what prompted Ballentine to make such a monumental step? He credits his support system for helping him. “I had children and I really loved her (Brittany,) so I didn’t see why not,”said Ballentine. “It has paid off in the long run. I’m happy with who I’m with, and my girls are happy.” As a mother, Smith has taken notice of her son’s dedication to taking care of his family. In fact, she applauds it. “I am so proud of him, but it still goes back to the support system and the atmosphere that he grew up in,” Smith explains. “He has always grew up around good people, good role models. Even when he was at Word of Faith Christian Academy (Kindergarten-Elementary), he still had the older guys to look after him.” Smith appreciates the role models that his coaches in middle school and high school have been to him, and she acknowledges their presence in his life. However, she credits his father, Lonnie Ballentine, on helping him assume his responsibilities as a father. “For him to transition into being a father, it wasn’t hard,” Smith said. “His father has been there for him and been supportive of him; so looking at him take responsibilities for his actions at 16, I’m very proud of him.” Smith says that he could have taken the easier route, and left to go play with Coach Saban at Alabama but that wasn’t in his heart.
“If he would have taken that choice, then we wouldn’t even be hoping and praying that oh he might get drafted or he might, we’ll be talking about top five pick right about now,” Smith said with certainty. “Instead, he took the hard road and said I’m going to come back, I’m going to take care of my little girl, I’m going to take care of my wife; then he had another little girl that was born with down syndrome, had heart surgery, had complications and he still got through that adversity, he still went to football practice every day.”
“That is the most I’ve ever been proud of him at that point,” said an emotional Smith.
Lonnie “Trey” Ballentine has had to make transitions and decisions that have resulted in him being a professional prospect for the NFL. However, this time around there isn’t a decision for him to make, there is only a transition. There were a number of goals that Ballentine set for himself when he entered college. He may not have achieved all of them, but he has definitely benefited from his experience at Memphis.
“One of the things that I wanted to do was improve every year and I believe I did that as a player,” Ballentine believes. “My goal coming in was to make myself into an All-American and I didn’t get that done. Another thing that I wanted to do was to make myself a draft prospect. Obviously I have done that, so I feel like I accomplished most of the things.”
After his senior season ended last year, he didn’t waste too much time preparing for his next transition. He took a couple of weeks off in December, and then began the whirlwind of training for his next role of responsibilities. “On the day after New Year’s Day I flew down to Miami where I trained for two months with Pete Bommarito,” Ballentine said. Although he began putting in work, preparing for work with Bommarito in Miami, Ballentine was able to pause and showcase his skills for a number of scouts and GMs in one of many senior bowls. “In January I played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl which was out in California,” Ballentine said humbly. “It was a good experience; I was able to meet some Hall of Famers and current pros, so that was fun.” After his performance at the NFL Player’s Association Collegiate Bowl in Los Angeles, Ballentine raised a few eyebrows and impressed quite a few people. However, he was still considered an unknown at that point according to his representatives, Harold Lewis and Kevin Omell, of National Sports Agency. “Afterwards, I know that there were teams that liked him, but he was pretty much still a guy that was under the radar a week after that,” said Omell.
Allow Me To Re-Introduce Myself
On March 17th, 2014 Lonnie “Trey” Ballentine attended Pro Day at the University of Memphis. After that day, he was no longer off the radar of NFL teams. “He’s kind of been in a little bit of a whirlwind, a positive one, in the last I don’t know ever since the Pro Day(Pretty much a month or so, a little bit over a month),”Omell said excitedly. “Every team that was at that Pro Day can tell you that his workout was off the charts.” Ballentine’s numbers at the end of his Pro Day read: 4.3 in the 40, 38” vertical, 18 reps on the bench press, 10.6 broad jump, and 100% beast. Ok, so the last one wasn’t a category but it definitely should have been one when describing the performance and measuring of the 6’3” 220 pound defensive back.
“If Jeff Foster would have invited him to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine, then we would be talking about Lonnie Ballentine with these kind of numbers: probably in the First or Second Round, not even a question about it,” said Lewis. “Because of what he did during his Pro Day, Lonnie Ballentine has been like a rock star. He’s been traveling all throughout the country; he’s been non-stop team after team visits.”
“I’ve been to Arizona, Kansas City, had a private workout with New England, Houston, New York (Giants), and have gained interest from Miami, Jacksonville, and Baltimore as well,” said Ballentine. The question has been raised among the inquisitive scouts, why haven’t we heard about Lonnie Ballentine? Has he done something different in his Pro Day that he didn’t do his whole career at Memphis? What’s the deal on him? Ballentine says he has been lacing up his cleats the same way for a long time. There hasn’t been any special juice he has been drinking.
“I think that it was the start of people finally noticing my talents and abilities,” he said. “I don’t think I did anything different. I ran on the field, made interceptions on the field, and tackled on the field. I just went out and showed people what I’m capable of and what I could do.”
And what he can do has all the scouts doing their homework wondering about the kid from Memphis. “The basic theme of feedback is how did we miss this guy? Please tell us about him,” Omell told me. “He is getting that much attention and that many phone calls from many teams.”
His physical attributes may have gotten him on the radar, but it’s his character that has his agents, Lewis and Omell, singing high praises about him.
“He’s a dream client in terms of his attitude, work ethic, his expectations,” Omell said humbly. “Just very mature for a kid that’s 20 years old, married, and has two kids. Obviously, all of that speaks maturity. When you have an athlete, in the NFL, most of the stuff you read about is bad so he seems to be the polar opposite of that at a very young age,” Omell continued.
Lewis adds that Ballentine is the type of player that the NFL is trying to attract these days. “You got a locker-room character guy you never have to worry about off the field issues….what we all read about: drinking, drugs, beating up girls, and being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Lewis adds. “When you find a kid that graduated high school at 16, graduating college at 20, married, with two little children, 6’ 3” 220 pounds, can run a 4.3, and can play corner with the biggest receivers out there you’ve yourself a rare piece of art…this is special.”
The Calm Before The Storm
All of the buzz and excitement stemming from his recent surge on the radar of NFL teams hasn’t necessarily changed the agenda of his life. Ballentine is planning on continuing to work out and audition with as many teams as possible before the draft while sticking with his routine. A routine that also includes him being on schedule to graduate this summer.
“My life is really a routine and that routine is what keeps me going and happy,” Ballentine explains. “My day consists of waking up, taking the girls (daughters Laila 2, and Londyn 4) to school. I go and workout, then once I’m done working out I look forward to going to pick them up from school.” He adds that he is no Superman though. He is already a wise man at a young age, crediting his personal team with helping him develop a healthy routine. “My wife does a good job of supporting me. She gets the girls right when I don’t have time to do it because of my football responsibilities,” Ballentine revealed. “She does a great job. I got my mom, my aunt, and my dad who all help and play a big part in it. I have a strong support system.”
This support system is the same one that he will carry into his next transition, wherever he happens to land. When Draft Day comes Ballentine says that you won’t find him hosting a huge party with his “homies,” but you’ll catch him playing the role he has been in over the course of his collegiate career: Family Man. “Me, my wife, my girls and my mom and a couple of people that are close to me are going to get a nice hotel room and have family time and watch it,” he said. “We might go bowling or something, other than that no big deal. I don’t do much, I love my people and I’m going to enjoy them.”
Whether his name gets called in day one or day three, Ballentine has already proved himself to be a special kind of player on the field and off of it.
“Lonnie right now is one of the fastest rising stars in the Draft,”said Lewis. “I’m proud to be on that whole journey with him.”
“I don’t know what day God has him going. Is it first day, second day, third day, undrafted, two years from now, a year from now,” Smith said with suspense. “I don’t know. I do know that he is a pro, and he’s pro caliber!”
Lonnie Ballentine may not be a hot commodity or on the radar of all the draft experts and scouts around the league, but the guy who first coached him on the football field in high school has a message for everyone about the rare talent.
“A lot of people don’t know who Lonnie Ballentine is, but they are going to know real soon,” Coach Rubin said confidently. “He is going to be a better pro player, than he was in college and high school.”