Crime

‘Shattered a lot of people’: Family mourns Washburn football player slain in Topeka

‘It just hurts’: Father talks about Dwane Simmons

Navarro Simmons remembers his son, Dwane, a Washburn football player who was killed in Topeka, Kansas, on Saturday, April 27, 2019. He said his son was a loving, respectful and caring person.
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Navarro Simmons remembers his son, Dwane, a Washburn football player who was killed in Topeka, Kansas, on Saturday, April 27, 2019. He said his son was a loving, respectful and caring person.

When Corey Ballentine called Dwane Simmons’ father early Sunday morning to tell him about the shooting, the father prayed his son’s injuries were minor.

Navarro Simmons was scared as he drove from Kansas City to Topeka. He hoped his son was shot in the leg, that he would find him in surgery at the hospital. He expected to see him alive.

“I would’ve never had thought …” Simmons’ mother, Chaquilla Everett, started to say hours later.

“Yeah, not Dwane,” Navarro Simmons said.

Simmons, a 23-year-old Washburn University football player from Lee’s Summit, was killed in the shooting at an off-campus party in Topeka. The gunfire also injured his roommate and close friend, Ballentine, a 23-year-old senior and recent New York Giants draft pick.

The killing left Simmons’ family reeling as they tried to make sense of what happened.

“This was a senseless murder,” Navarro Simmons said as more than two dozen family members and friends gathered at the southeast Kansas City home of Simmons’ mother Sunday afternoon. “This shattered a lot of people.”

The gunfire erupted about 12:45 a.m. Sunday in the 1400 block of Southwest 13th Street, a few blocks from the university’s campus. Simmons died from his injuries. Ballentine was hospitalized and the university said he was expected to make a full recovery.

The family said they learned from detectives that Simmons and Ballentine were about to leave the party, put on by the college’s women’s soccer team, with other football players when a vehicle pulled up and the people inside asked them a question. When the car circled back, someone inside started shooting, Navarro Simmons said.

Police have not released any suspect information as of Sunday night.

Todd Ashley, 24, was home when his sister called him Sunday morning with the news that his close cousin was killed.

“It broke me,” Ashely said outside the family gathering. “I’m still in disbelief.”

He described Simmons, who he grew up with, as a “ray of light.” He wished others lived life like his outgoing cousin.

Family members described Simmons as an energetic junior in college with an infectious smile who had dreams of playing in the NFL or “anywhere that would have him.” A 2014 graduate of Lee’s Summit West High School, where he holds a record in track and field, Simmons studied mass media at Washburn in the hopes of covering sports if playing professional football did not pan out.

Simmons played defensive back for the Washburn Ichabods beginning in 2015 when he started nine games as a redshirt freshman.

He sat out the 2016 season and appeared in two games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury. Last season, he started six games and appeared in all 11. Simmons returned from two knee injuries. His father called him resilient for it.

Simmons loved to make people laugh and was the life of any party, something he got from his father, family said. The charismatic athlete also loved to dance, something he got from his mother. Everett recalled how her son, the oldest of six, danced with relatives during his sister’s 21st birthday party, scuffing up the hardwood floors.

Navarro Simmons knows the hardest part of the grieving process will begin when everyone has gone home, when he is in a quiet room by himself.

His son’s killing is not the family’s first tragedy: In 2000, Navarro Simmons’ brother, Michael Simmons, 19, was fatally shot during an attempted carjacking in south Kansas City. His killer is serving a life sentence.

Michael Simmons took Dwane to a movie shortly before he was killed. Though he was young, Dwane Simmons was close with his uncle, whose name he got tattooed on one of his arms as motivation, family members said.

Navarro Simmons now knows how his mother felt when his brother was killed. She had wished Michael Simmons had children she could watch grow, so she could see him in them.

While he was aggressive on the field, Simmons would not have hurt a fly off it, said his stepfather, Corey Everett. Family members wanted people to know their loved one was not a gang member and didn’t get into trouble.

“The only crew he belonged to was Washburn and his family,” Navarro Simmons said.

Navarro Simmons helped his son move apartments Friday. In a Facebook video Saturday, the elder Simmons congratulated Ballentine, a defensive back, on getting drafted by the New York Giants as the 180th overall pick.

“Today’s the day,” Ballentine said in the video.

“Today’s the day,” Navarro Simmons responded, his smile beaming across his face.

Washburn’s head football coach, Craig Schurig, said Simmons’ death was “heartbreaking.” In a statement, he described the shooting as a terrible way to end a day that should have been spent celebrating.

“Dwane is one of the most energetic and well-liked players I have ever coached at Washburn,” Schurig said, calling his love for football and his teammates “truly inspirational.”

Before the shooting, as he helped his son move, Navarro Simmons shared an intimate moment with his son. It was a happy time. The two prayed, and Navarro Simmons reminded Dwane of how proud he was of him. Before long, he would move on to the next chapter of his life.

Now, instead of video calls from his son, Navarro Simmons’ phone rang repeatedly Sunday afternoon from relatives and reporters, including one from The New York Times, hoping to talk to him.

Simmons’ sister, 22-year-old Damesha Simmons, placed her head on her father’s shoulder. Tears rolled down her face.

“You hurt a lot of people,” Navarro Simmons said of whoever pulled the trigger. “Turn yourself in.”

Police asked anyone with information about the shooting to call the Topeka Criminal Investigation Bureau at 785-368-9400 or the Shawnee County Crime Stoppers at 785-234-0007. Anonymous tips can be made online at p3tips.com/128.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.

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