Tyner’s Jamarie Ballard overcomes shooting death of mother to excel in football, classroom, life

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Jamarie Ballard led Tyner to an overtime win against Central last week, ending a three-game skid to start the season for the reigning state champions, but the senior quarterback has dealt with much bigger challenges off the football field.

The circular medallion around Jamarie Ballard's neck would typically symbolize wholeness, inset with a small family photo.

Instead, it's a reminder to him of what's missing from his life.

For the past seven years, Ballard, now a Tyner Academy senior and the starting quarterback for the Rams, has had only photos and childhood memories to hold onto of the mother who was taken from him and his three sisters.

Adorned with wings and small diamonds around the photo of his mother and three younger sisters, the necklace is just one way Ballard is reminded of how he carries himself off the football field, and what he plays for on it.

"I think about my mom all the time, but especially before every game I take a moment to kneel down and talk to her because I know she's watching," Ballard said. "I've played football since I was 5 years old. I used to wake up early on Saturdays and couldn't wait to get to the field.

"I was a big mama's boy when I was little, and my mom was at all my games. She would always tell me to go out and be a beast on the field. I still hear her say that in my mind, so I play with so much pride for her because I just want to make her proud."


Everything changed

In January 2015, as 10-year-old Ballard was asleep in his bedroom, the family's College Hill Courts apartment was broken into. Shots were fired by the intruder, including one that grazed Ballard's mom, Bianca Horton, in the arm. Another bullet struck Horton's 1-year-old daughter, Zoey, in the back, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down, and another took the life of a family friend, 20-year-old Talitha Brown.

Horton agreed to testify as a witness to the shooting, and in May 2016, before she could appear in court, Horton was shot six times and her body later found along the side of the road on Elder Street.

"I was at school, and my dad had me called out of class to take me home," Ballard said. "Once we got to my grandmother's house, I just felt like something was wrong, so I asked if I could call my mom. My dad broke down at the kitchen table. I had never seen him cry before.

"We went outside to talk, and he told me that my mom had passed away. That day kind of changed everything with our family."

Adding to the family's grief was the publicity surrounding the case as the details — three certified gang members accused of killing an eyewitness to another homicide before she could testify — were repeated in local news reports numerous times.

Horton's four children moved into separate homes. Ballard went to his paternal grandparents, and two of his younger sisters moved in with their father, while the youngest, Zoey, now lives with her godmother.

"I don't see my sisters as much now because we don't live together, and they go to Brainerd," Ballard said. "I feel like that's something where I'm letting my mom down because I still feel responsible for my younger sisters, but I can't really protect them like I want to.

"I haven't seen them in several months."

Before her death, the 26-year-old Horton gave a recorded testimony to police identifying Cortez Sims as the home intruder who had shot her daughter and friend. Sims, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, was later found guilty of first-degree murder of Bowman and sentenced to life in prison. He will also serve an additional 25 years for the attempted murder of Horton and her daughter during the break-in.

Two men — Andre Grier and Courtney High — were arrested in 2018 and are awaiting trial after being charged in Horton's capital murder case on allegations that they carried out the slaying of a state witness to silence her. A third man, Charles Shelton, was also charged but died in jail in September 2021.

Meeting a mentor

Knowing their preteen grandson would need guidance to help cope with such a heartbreaking loss, Ballard's grandparents got him involved in an inner-city program connected with Silverdale Baptist Church. It was through that program, at a Kids Across America summer camp, that Ballard met Chad Long, a counselor who would become a mentor.

"There are far too many kids who come from tough situations, but it truly was tragic to hear how Jamarie had lost his mom," Long said. "Considering all he had gone through, I think he was still processing some pretty heavy stuff when we first met.

"It took over a year for him to verbalize anything to do with his mom. I think just having someone there who consistently showed they cared for him was the main thing."

The structure at home from his grandparents, along with Long's influence, helped mold Ballard into someone his teachers, coaches and peers at Tyner agree sets a quiet example for how to deal with adversity.

"I can't think of a day in his career where he's missed, or even been late, for a single workout or practice," Rams coach Christian Mainor said. "Jamarie is a kid who's gone through something that most of us can't even fathom, but when I say he's one of the hardest workers I've ever been around, I mean it.

"During the summer, he would work at a local KFC from 2 til 10 p.m., then be one of the first guys back in the locker room the next day for our 8:30 a.m. workouts. My family was moving into a new house this past summer, and he showed up to help us move. He's just an amazing kid."

During Tyner's run to last year's Class 2A state championship, Ballard ran for more than 300 yards before a knee injury in the semifinals cost him not only the chance to play in the BlueCross Bowl title game but also left him unable to compete in wrestling.

On the right track

But after months of intense physical therapy, he was able to return in time to play baseball in the spring, and in last week's overtime win over rival Central, the 5-foot-9, 200-pounder ran 26 times for 216 yards and three touchdowns as the Rams ended their three-game skid to start the season.

"Football is a way to help me deal with my anger or when things are bothering me," said Ballard, who carries a 3.2 GPA and plans to study electrical engineering at Tennessee Tech. "We've had a pretty tough season so far, but I try to put things in perspective and just lead the young guys by showing up and doing my job.

"One thing I learned after my mom passed is that a lot of people will say they're going to be there for you during such an awful time, but for most of them, it's just words. Luckily for me, I had someone like Chad and a few others who really did care and helped keep me on the right track.

"I know I could have wound up going in a different direction after everything that happened, but one of the things I think about before every game is just being thankful for God watching over me and getting me where I am now. I think my mom would be proud of the way I've handled myself growing up."

Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected] or 423-757-6293.