Kentwan Balmer was blessed with a large, very strong body and a killer mindset, both of which allowed him to play Division I college football and took him all the way to the National Football League.
He had the fortune of getting to play for one of the league’s most iconic franchises, but an apparent lack of dedication torpedoed his pro career before it ever really got off the ground.
What looked to be a dream come true turned into a rather pedestrian NFL career for the defensive lineman.
Born And Raised In A Small Town
Balmer was born on Oct. 15, 1986 in Ahoskie, N.C., a small town with a population of roughly 5,000 people. He was raised in nearby Heldon, which is an even smaller town that consists of less than 2,000 inhabitants.
His father Charles was a fateful influence on him, and not in the most usual way. Even though the Balmer clan lived on the East Coast, Charles was a big fan of the San Francisco 49ers.
When young Kentwan was eight years of age, there was one 49ers game that stood out to him and seemed to leave a mark on his psyche. Actually, it was more of a moment within a game, but a very important game at that.
In the 1994 season, the Niners, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and all-time great wide receiver Jerry Rice, finally got past their arch-rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in the NFC Championship game to advance to Super Bowl XXIX.
There, they were perhaps the biggest favorites in history over the AFC champion San Diego Chargers.
Most who watched that contest will remember Young throwing a Super Bowl-record six passes or Rice racking up 149 yards and three touchdowns in San Francisco’s 49-26 rout of the under-manned Chargers.
But Balmer remembered a defensive sequence, namely a 49ers goal-line stand against San Diego Pro Bowl running back Natrone Means. Yes, those Niners were also a great defensive team, with a number of stars on that side of the ball.
That Super Bowl helped reinforce the fact that young Balmer, like his dad, was also a 49ers fan, and it likely helped influence his overall mentality towards the game of football once he started playing it.
He recalls playing friendly games of football with his brothers and taking them more seriously than most children would’ve.
“I remember myself and my brothers playing with Ninja Turtle footballs and my mother always wanting us to play tag, but I always wanted to tackle people,” Balmer said years later. “It has always been the mentality of mine to be the aggressor. I think that’s fitting for a defensive lineman.”
Sometimes he played rougher versions of pigskin with his older brothers and older cousins, and one day stuck out in his mind.
“We were … playing Kill the Man With the Ball,” Balmer said. “We hit head-to-head. He had like a big unicorn knot on his head. He said he knew I would always be on defense. I guess he was right.”
The young North Carolina native would attend Weldon High School and excel not only at football, but also at basketball. In fact, when he started high school, roundball was his top sport, and he actually dreamt of playing in the NBA at the time.
Balmer would play basketball around the clock, working on his craft and looking to get better, to the point where the constant work made his vision blurry.
But then he met Grady Williams, the head coach of the football team at Weldon High. Williams felt Balmer had lots of potential on the gridiron, and he convinced the teen to focus more on football.
After all, he was in the process of growing to be 6-foot-5 and over 300 pounds, which is the type of physique that doesn’t translate to success on the basketball court unless one’s name is Charles Barkley.
By Balmer’s junior year, he, not to mention the rest of the school and the community, discovered that he was a star. He was named to the All-Area and All-Conference teams, not just that year but also during his senior year.
In Balmer’s senior year, he elevated his game and profile by winning the Area Defensive Player of the Year award, in part because Weldon High shut out its opponent three times in its first six games that season.
Balmer also played on the North Carolina Shrine Bowl Team, which also helped raise his visibility as a college prospect.
In all, he logged 113 tackles, 12 sacks, eight passes defended and six fumble recoveries.
Tar Hill Time
When he played for the North Carolina Shrine Bowl Team, Balmer caught the attention of a University of North Carolina assistant coach named Kenny Browning, who was on a recruiting trip at the time.
That encounter led to Balmer committing to play football for the UNC Tar Heels at Chapel Hill.
In his freshman season during the fall of 2004, he got very little playing time. Like many college players, even those who become big-time in the NFL someday, he had to pay his dues while watching and learning from his upperclassmen peers.
By his sophomore season, he had gained 30 pounds in order to prepare for getting thrown into the fire. In 11 contests that season he had 17 tackles (eight solo), five tackles for losses and one sack.
Balmer improved during his junior season to 16 tackles (13 solo) and 2.5 sacks. He also dealt with some adversity when he sprained his right ankle in a game against Wake Forest. He continued to play in the contest despite the pain, but he eventually would have to miss some time in order to recover.
But Balmer’s senior season would make him into a legitimate pro prospect. That year, the Tar Heels hired Butch Davis, who had been a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator for the back-to-back Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in the early to mid-1990s and later the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Davis and John Blake, the Tar Heels’ defensive line coach who had worked with Davis for the Cowboys, saw some immense potential in Balmer. They had some discussions with him in which they convinced him that he could become a first-round draft pick if he really applied himself.
Balmer instantly showed a level of dedication and motivation that he hadn’t really displayed before. At Blake’s constant urging, the senior seriously honed in on the fine fundamentals.
He worked on using his hands better, body positioning and knowing when to take advantage of his size or speed. As a result, his production blossomed.
Balmer tallied 59 tackles (32 solo), 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2007. His increased productivity got him a spot on the All-ACC second team.
By now the defensive tackle was getting some serious recognition from NFL scouts. Heading into the 2008 NFL Draft, many pundits, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper, figured that he would end up being taken in the first round, as Davis and Blake told him he could.
San Francisco Bound
In 2008, the San Francisco 49ers were in the midst of a long-term rebuilding process. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 2002, and they were groping for some studs who would quickly change their fortunes.
With the 29th overall pick, the 49ers took Balmer. He and about 75 people from his extended family congregated at the Tar Heels’ training complex when he got the call that he would get to play for his childhood team.
It was a rare stroke of good fortune indeed. As rare as it is for anyone to be selected in the NFL draft or the draft of any other major pro sport, it is infinitely rarer for one to get drafted by the team he grew up cheering for.
Several members of the 49ers organization raved about Balmer’s potential. Head coach Mike Nolan called him “an every-down type of player” and loved the fact that he spent a year learning from Davis at North Carolina.
Niners defensive coordinator Greg Manusky loved Balmer’s unique combination of size and speed, which he felt would make the draftee a versatile defensive lineman in the pros.
“He’s a really good player,” general manager Scot McCloughan said of Balmer. “He’s got good athleticism, passion, work ethic and intelligence. He’s a pretty dang good athlete for 300 pounds.”
However, all those physical qualities mean bupkis if they aren’t combined with focus and dedication.
Right after Balmer was drafted, there was an early red flag about his viability in the NFL.
He was scheduled to meet with the media and get introduced to the 49ers organization, but he arrived one day late. He said it was because of a miscommunication having to do with a connecting flight he was supposed to catch in Texas.
But at the time, it was easy to pass it off as an honest mistake by a small-town kid who was not used to big metropolitan areas such as the Bay Area. He apologized to the reporters who were present and went on a tour of the team’s facilities in Santa Clara, nearly an hour southeast of San Francisco.
Since the 49ers utilized a 3-4 defensive front, Balmer would play defensive end, not defensive tackle as he did in college. But the team figured he could attract double teams from offensive lines, just like how Bryant Young, the recently retired Hall of Fame defensive lineman, did throughout his career.
It didn’t happen. In fact, he didn’t even come close to the level of play that made Young a legend in California.
Balmer started nary a game in his rookie season, and he only contributed seven tackles (six solo) and one pass defended in 16 games.
In his spare time, he was used as a kick returner, but he only ran back five kicks all year for just 47 yards.
It was another dismal season for the 49ers. After they started 2-5, they fired Nolan and replaced him with Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chicago Bears who had played on their dominant 1985 Super Bowl-winning squad.
Singletary was known as an intense, no-nonsense type of man, and Balmer would prove to be a bad match for him, as the two would often clash.
San Francisco played somewhat better under its new coach, finishing the season 5-4. Singletary went from interim to full-time head coach, and he endeared himself to Niners faithful when, after his first game, he said, “… we’ve got to figure out the formula. Our formula. Our formula is this: We go out, we hit people in the mouth.”
Balmer showed very little improvement in 2009. He sustained a shoulder injury in early December that ended his season, limiting him to just 11 games.
During that span, he only managed 12 tackles (five solo) and one tackle for loss. The Niners as a whole also failed to show improvement, as they went 8-8 and missed the playoffs yet again.
Things got worse as training camp opened prior to the 2010 season. Balmer left the team unexpectedly and missed five straight practices, and the Niners were apparently fed up, as were their fans.
People were starting to consider Balmer a bust and one of the worst draft picks ever. Why the Niners could’ve opted to select wide receivers Jordy Nelson or DeSean Jackson, defensive end Calais Campbell or running backs Ray Rice or Jamaal Charles, all of whom reached the Pro Bowl at least once.
— Zain49ers (@zain49ers) June 29, 2020
The 49ers quickly traded Balmer to the Seattle Seahawks for a sixth-round draft pick. It was one of those rare trades where a team sends a player to another team within its division, but Singletary wasn’t concerned about that.
Nor did he reveal the real reason for Balmer’s absence, or what the two discussed when he returned to the team.
“I moved on the last time we talked. I was done,” Singletary said. “When we talked about it, when he wasn’t here that morning, I was done. I was already on up the road. … I think he’s a fine young man. But obviously there are some things he needed to express and deal with. I’m happy for him.”
The Seahawks had McCloughan, the former 49ers GM, in their front office, and he seemed willing to give Balmer a fresh start in the Emerald City. Seattle utilized a 4-3 defensive alignment, allowing him to return to playing defensive tackle and focusing more on stopping the run.
With the Seahawks, Balmer did show some improvement. Starting in 11 of the 16 games he played in, he contributed 43 tackles (28 solo) and four tackles for loss.
Although they had a mediocre 7-9 record, the Seahawks did qualify for the playoffs. Balmer did nothing in the team’s wild card win over the New Orleans Saints, but he did have three solo tackles in Seattle’s 35-24 loss in the divisional round to the Bears.
The Seahawks were disappointed in him, and they released him during the 2011 preseason.
The Carolina Panthers picked him up soon after, but they also got rid of him after only about a week.
Midway through the 2011 regular season, Balmer got another try with the Washington Redskins. He said the right things upon being signed and looked forward to getting another chance to salvage his career and reputation.
Balmer appeared in just three contests for Washington, starting none of them and recording no tackles, sacks, passes defending or hits on opposing quarterbacks.
During training camp the following summer, it was deja vu all over again, as he left the team without an excuse and was nowhere to be found.
The Redskins sent some officials to Balmer’s hotel room to see what happened. The room was almost completely empty, and when they tried calling his phone number, they found it had been changed.
One of his teammates, defensive end Stephen Jones, admitted to The Washington Post that he was “disturbed” by Balmer’s absence.
Nearly two weeks later, head coach Mike Shanahan told the media that Balmer had been successfully contacted, but gave no details on the situation.
The defensive lineman would never play for the Redskins or any other NFL team again. In May 2014, the team officially terminated his contract.
Making A Contribution
Balmer’s NFL career may be considered a failure, but he has found a way to be productive in retirement while giving back to the game he has played ever since he was a little kid.
Just a year after the Redskins officially let him go, he became part of the coaching staff at Shaw University, which is a private Baptist historically Black university located in Raleigh, N.C.
During his short stint there, Balmer served as the special teams coordinator and assistant defensive line coach.
After a year as the assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Kipp High School, he moved on to Virginia University of Lynchburg, where he was an assistant head coach and the defensive coordinator.
With his help, Virginia finished second in the National Christian College Athletic Association in 2018, while its defensive line finished towards the top of the NCAA in sacks and tackles for a loss.
In 2019, Balmer became the defensive analyst and assistant defensive line coach for Samford University, a private Christian school in Alabama. He provided Samford’s scout team with detailed stats he tracked on both sides of the ball.
Balmer then got hired by Alabama A&M for the spring of 2021 as a coach. During that spring season (their standard fall season was postponed into the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic), it won the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship when it defeated Arkansas–Pine Bluff in the title game, while also leading the SWAC in hurries and sacks.
After his successful season with Alabama, Balmer became the defensive line coach for Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia that plays in the NCAA’s Big South Conference.
Even though he didn’t really make it as an NFL player, he is now giving back to the next generation and helping to shape young players both on and off the field.