Ryan Balentine walked into training camp with the Bemidji Axemen at the start of the 2014 Indoor Football League (IFL) season.
Balentine had just been traded from Green Bay to Bemidji, and no matter if he knew it or not, he was about to make the Blizzard feel very sorry about letting him go.
The former Southern Mississippi Golden Eagle was greeted by the voice of the team’s defensive coordinator.
It was Dixie Wooten.
Today, Wooten is the head coach of the Iowa Barnstormers, and has had Balentine on his roster ever since.
“When [Wooten] first saw me, he said, ‘What up superstar?’”
Little did the two know that they would be together for the long haul.
A Coach and his Utility Knife
Dixie Wooten laid in a hospital bed in Bimidji, Minnesota
As the head coach of the Bimidji Axemen, Wooten found himself in a coma due to type one diabetes during training camp.
He didn’t go much into detail about the coma, but as soon as he got out of it, one of Wooten’s first sights after returning home was Balentine.
“When I got out of the hospital, he came by my place and checked up on me,” Wooten said. “I felt like I owed him a world. He was one of the guys that was by my side in the hospital and things like that. That’s why you see him with me all the time. He’s a guy I trust with my life and I need him around.”
Though, there are more reasons than friendship for the reason that Balentine, has stuck by Wooten’s side.
He’s that good.
In his first season with Bemidji, Balentine finished second in the league in receiving, averaging 72.9 yards per game for the Axemen.
“When I met him, he was a good guy,” Wooten said. “He always took care of his business. He was a guy I believed in.”
In the ensuing season, things were a bit different.
After being promoted to head coach, Wooten was fired from Bemidji due to a 2-8 start.
Meanwhile, Balentine wasn’t even in the top 15 in receiving yards per game, only amounting to 30.0 in his sophomore season with the Axemen.
At the end of the year, the team folded and the pair needed a new start.
Wooten took the job on Mark Stoute’s staff in Cedar Rapids while Balentine still needed to find a team.
“I needed somewhere to go,” Balentine said. “I didn’t really want to pool myself all over again. He knew what I could do, so I just stayed the course.”
Balentine got in contact with Wooten, and found himself signing with the Cedar Rapids Titans for the 2016 IFL season.
The team in Cedar Rapids had a bit more success, finishing 12-4 in the regular season, but losing to Sioux Falls in the title game.
“It was a great experience, we had a great squad of players,” Balentine said. “We had some guys who are in places [higher up] than this league. To be honest, it was probably one of the best teams I’ve ever been on. If any team was going to win a championship, I would have thought it would [have been] that one.”
During the off-season, Wooten took the job at Iowa and would bring Balentine with him, and the pairs’ careers would both skyrocket.
“I call him my utility knife because I can put him anywhere,” Wooten said. “I can put him in the secondary. I can put him in at receiver, running back. Whatever [it is] he will do a good job at it.”
Wooten turned a 4-12 record into a 13-3 one, and Balentine again found himself in the top 10 in receiving yards, with 44.7 yards per game.
“You can definitely see the change from earlier in our careers,” Balentine said. “We [are] definitely on the right path.”
This year, Balentine has been one of the top receivers for Wooten, has rushed the ball for a touchdown, and also has an interception.
His uniqueness and ability to adapt has helped Wooten over the course of the past years, and Wooten could not be more appreciative.
“He’s a great guy and he’s one of my closest friends,” Wooten said.