This article started out about Justin Simmons and football, but what was unearthed, grew it into far more. It became not just a tale of his love of football, but a tale of two sets of couples and their love for each other. Of a son learning from his parents about loyalty and commitment to both football and family.
Kimberly and Victor Simmons first met at West Virginia Wesleyan. He was there for football, she for a degree. Even though she moved on to Marshall University to get her MBA, the two stayed in touch through old-fashioned love letters. Their long distance relationship of poetry turned into marriage, three sons, and a winding journey to the NFL. For them, being an interracial couple required more than just a great love, it took deep faith and strength.
That faith, not just in each other and their religion, but family itself was passed on to their sons, Justin, Nate (DB-WV Wesleyan) and Tristan (DB-Arizona Western).
After the Simmons finished college, they moved to Manassas, Virginia where Victor did ten years in the Air Force Reserves. This is where the Simmons sons were born and Justin honed his leaping skills. Kim shares a story of him loving his bouncy chair so much as a toddler, he’d try to reach the top of the door frame. They’d raise the height to keep him from being so crazy; however, he’d just try harder. Those powerful legs built as a youth, can be seen on Sundays. It was no fluke in New Orleans he blocked that kick–the little Tigger has been practicing his jump skills since he was a toddler.
Are you kidding me?
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) November 13, 2016
Virginia was also where he first played football. His keen feel for the game was seen even as a child. During one play when he was eight, while running for a TD, a faster kid chased him down. As he was about to be tackled, he did a quick side step leaving the defender eating dirt. When asked after the game how did he know to juke, his reply was, “I saw his shadow.”
Athletic genes run in the family, from an Uncle who was a pro basketball player, to his father and a grandfather who played football in NJ. Back then, it was tough for blacks to get a chance to play, but he persevered. Showing grit and determination is another Simmons’ family trait.
Kimberly was born in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It gives one pause to consider someday Justin may have family members from there, watching him don a gold jacket and no doubt give a well thought out speech.
When asked if any play or game gave an indication Justin may be good enough to make it at a higher level, his parents said it was during a Jr. Pee Wee Super Bowl game in Orlando, Florida. They lost against an Indiana team, but Justin made plays beyond his age. It was the catalyst that set the future in motion.
Unless you grew up in Florida, especially along the east coast, it’s tough to describe to outsiders how sports dominate the culture. Some states like Texas, know about the football side, or states like Indiana and basketball, but in Florida, minus under 32° sports, it’s all sports, all the time.
Not only does the wildlife flourish in Florida, but so many athletes do as well, that it’s tough for most to get noticed. This is especially true at small schools like Sandalwood, Trinity or Martin County. The athletes who perform extraordinarily and make it into top colleges, worked harder to gain the spotlight than their peers in other states.
This is why Victor Simmons moved his family to sleepy Stuart. He figured if his sons could make it in Florida, they could make it anywhere. The NFL wasn’t really a dream, though. Because of his slender build, basketball was more of a reality, especially since his team went to State. It wasn’t until his sophomore year did his defensive backs coach, Gary Blackney, say he had a shot.
It was Blackney who taught Justin about playing the DB position well, and to watch game film. Simmons often discusses the importance of film study as a tool to improve reading offenses, quarterbacks and the opposing team’s tendencies. Peyton Manning would have liked having Simmons as a teammate, his cerebral approach would have found a kindred rewind connoisseur.
Gary Blackney is who told Justin his grades would need to be more of a focus if he wanted a chance to play in college. That carrot motivated Simmons to do better in school, a message he shares with school-aged kids. While Justin knows the importance of talking to kids about education and hard work to achieve their dreams, he also feels he needs to use his standing to spread the word of God. His faith is part of the fabric of who he is and his family.
His history of giving back and learning to be a leader, began in high school when he was a Best Buddy and a Safe School Ambassador. The former was teaming up with special needs kids and taking them under his wing. The latter was mentoring children how to stand up to bullying. Being involved in his community lead to he and a friend starting an Athletes in Action chapter at Boston College. He also belonged to the Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
While in high school, he learned how to balance family, school, church, giving back and sports. That’s always an issue for most athletes, finding the right combo and right hierarchy of what’s most important and fulfilling those commitments. Kids who make it to the NFL, rarely do so in a vacuum. At home, there’s someone pushing them, believing in them, making sacrifices and these parents or grandparents are just as important to each player’s success.
Simmons has always been a coachable kid who learned from his dad how to “cheat well”. That doesn’t imply being a Patriot*, it means learning to find ways around what you don’t do well. To mask the less, with the more. Simmons isn’t quick off the line, but he’s fast once he gets going. He might not get to point ‘A’ stride for stride with a slot, but Simmons will out think or out jump him.
Some of it came from years of baseball and basketball, but mostly from being on both sides of the ball. Simmons grew up playing wide receiver and on defense. It helped him become so good, so quickly in the NFL. His 70 tackles, 2 interceptions and a sack, while being a back-up in the No Fly Zone, wasn’t from lucky play.
As a former WR, he knows more than most how to read routes, to know where the QB is going and anticipate. Cheat well. Add in his length, plus Tigger legs and you’ve got a special talent.
He’s around the ball all the time. He’s a guy that has a high football IQ. He’s long and tall, so when he’s in those windows, he’s made two or three interceptions that nobody else could make out there because of the height and the length. He’s a very smart player that we’re counting on this year.”-Vance Joseph
To truly get a feel for how mentally tough Justin is, understanding his Boston College challenge will give you a better idea. As often happens with coaching changes, the one that ‘brung ya’ sometimes leaves and you’re left without a dance partner to cover your back. That’s exactly what happened to Simmons when the coach who recruited him, departed for a better opportunity.
When Don Brown became the new Defensive Coordinator, he and his staff wanted to clean house. Not just remove players, but free up scholarships for the players they selected. To achieve this, he rode the guys hard. Turned practice into basic training, military style. It worked. Players left in droves.
Not For Justin, though. He refused to cave and be gotten rid of. He kept ahead of that shadow of doom. He worked hard and made it through a tough, emotional year. He survived Brown chewing him out during a nationally televised game, and he played through injury in another. For his perseverance, he became part of the #1 pass defense in the NCAA. Even in college, Simmons was, ‘No Fly’. The end result was he and Brown became good friends.
Through his high school and tough college days, he’s had two women in his life who have been there. His mom, Kim, the “silent glue” as Victor calls her and his wife, Taryn.
Taryn Simmons was a 1,000 point basketball player and on the homecoming court in high school. The two parted ways physically and scholastically when she became a Seminole and he a Screaming Eagle. Fall games must have been fun since BC and FSU are ACC rivals.
Like his parents before him, Justin weathered a college induced long distance relationship and it, too evolved into marriage. Although they’re often still a part from the traveling and many obligations that comes with being in the NFL, he has great mentors to lean on for guidance.
Taryn and Justin often speak together at seminars to give wisdom on dating, marriage and relationships using their experience with God and each other’s life stories. Taryn is also who holds down the fort. She keeps the thousands of little details that NFL players need to deal with, off Justin’s plate. There’s more to being in the NFL than shoulder pads. All the game film he talks about watching, is able to happen because he has his partner carrying some of the load.
As far as the woman who gave him life, Simmons’ mom once watched her baby during a divisional championship game, be loaded into an ambulance after he landed on his head. At the ER, they sawed his helmet off. His younger brother Nate was still playing, so Victor had to stay for him while Kim coped at the hospital.
Faith, a constant in this tight knit family, kept them going. Kim may be the silent glue, but for ‘#TeamJesus,’ a higher power is the motivator. Even though Justin heard a ‘pop’ during that neck injury, he didn’t panic, and mom and son survived the scare. Steel spines indeed. The team lost without him, however.
When you come from a college without a ton of NFL players, and don’t quite check all the boxes for your position, you question what round you’ll go. His family figured he’d be a late second round, early third because of his record combine and pro day, but as he fell, they got nervous. Dad stepped outside to pace when the call came in. Had no idea it was John Elway.
When asked if they had any clue their son would get chosen by the best secondary on the planet, the answer was a laughing, “NO”! They still are shocked it happened, Denver had not called or interviewed him. It’s still new to them, having Justin not only play for the No Fly Zone, but see him on TV making interceptions.
Since he had worked out for the Cowboys, the Simmons’ family thought it would be them drafting Justin. Jerry Jones may have indeed wanted him as the third pick in the fourth, but Elway out scooped Jones again. First Paxton Lynch, then Simmons. This should cause all Broncos’ fans a chuckle of glee.
From feeling anxious about falling to day two, to being selected by the best secondary in football, the Simmons family ran the full gauntlet of emotions. Agony to ecstasy in one phone call. Not long after, came a text from TJ Ward, making it even more surreal.
He admits during his rookie season, he was focused on trying to stay afloat, learning as much as he could about football and not mess up. As he enters his sophomore season, he says he’s more confident in what he’s doing during a play and why. Based on his off season of wreaking havoc against both quarterbacks, it appears he’s made the leap with flying colors. He wasn’t shoddy at it as a rookie, either.
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2016
Want to know why Justin has been succeeding and will continue to? He has every tool in the box. He’s learned courage and commitment from his parents, he has a strong and loving partner, he has the will to achieve what his mind can conceive, and he believes. There is something to the phrase so many athletes use: faith, family, football. It’s real. It’s powerful. Together it’s powerfully real and it is what drives Justin Simmons, husband, son, free safety for the Denver Broncos.