Antjuan Simmons was the heartbeat of the Michigan State defense the past two seasons. The linebacker from Ann Arbor started all 20 games in that span and finished as a second-team All-Big Ten Conference selection and team captain in 2020.

Now, he’s declared for the NFL draft, which will take place April 29-May 1. As he prepares for the draft over the next few months, Simmons has agreed to detail his training and interviewing with teams with the Lansing State Journal in an ongoing draft diary, as told to LSJ reporter Nate Atkins. His first entry focuses on a very different final season with the Spartans and his decision to make the leap to the pros.

It’s been quite a year just to get to this point. We’re coming up on a full year with COVID-19 in our lives, and I can still picture the Michigan State coaches coming into the weight room last spring to tell us that all athletic activities were on hold. We couldn’t even finish our lifts that day. We were just getting introduced to a new coaching staff, looking to build a new culture, and now all of us were headed home to be by ourselves for a while.

I think about those early days of quarantine now that I’m basically back to the same point, training on my own, hoping to get a chance to play football again. Ever since I put on that youth football jersey in Detroit, my dream has been to play in the NFL. I like to think I arrived at Michigan State as a boy and left as a man. Just how much I’ve grown is now for the NFL to decide.

I’m back to the old “control what you can control” mentality, much like last spring. Back then, two weeks went by before it became clear we weren’t coming back to campus anytime soon. We didn’t know if we’d even have a season, or when it would be, or what it would look like. It was daunting, but I remember thinking that this was also a great opportunity. The country was now filled with college football players who were consumed by those worries. Some of them would slack off in quarantine. If we got a season, it would be a test of who was willing to stay ready, of who could get creative on their own.

So I started ordering workout equipment off the Internet – a bench, a trap bar, dumbbells, a sled harness, medicine balls, resistance bands. I knew I needed to bulk up in order to help replace Joe Bachie and to run the middle of our new 4-2-5 defense. I wanted to get better at shedding blocks, and I knew the NFL would be watching, too. They don’t take a lot of 225-pound linebackers.

I wrote out my goals for the season: I wanted to average at least 10 tackles a game and lead the Big Ten in tackles. I wanted to be All-Big Ten. And, of course, I wanted to stay safe from COVID-19. Beyond the obvious health aspect, it would be crushing to have to miss at least three games per Big Ten rules. We only got seven games as it was, so guys with COVID-19 had to miss half the year.

Thankfully, I was able to avoid the virus and our program was able to avoid canceling any games, though we had one canceled on us. I averaged 10.7 tackles a game and finished third in the conference in regular-season tackles. I was proud of how I played, particularly when I started to feel banged up around midseason.

But make no mistake, this was the hardest football season of my life. We did what we had to in order to play, but it meant sacrificing so much of why you come to MSU: the packed crowds, the time with family after games, the parties. We have not had enough conversation about the mental toll this secluded lifestyle takes on college athletes.

As a team captain, I took it on myself to make sure younger players knew that this bubble had to be their lives from September to December. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but football only provides us so many chances.

Now, I find myself chasing the next chance in the NFL. It’s a crazy time to do all of this. I signed with an agent over Zoom. That’s where my meetings with teams will be. I didn’t receive an NFL Combine invite, but it’s a virtual setup this year, so it’s not too much different than our pro day on March 24.

I feel like I’m as built for this time as any. I’ve always been a talker, from team meetings to the huddle to media interviews. I’m excited to get to meet with teams and show them some more of my story – how I lead, what gets my blood flowing, why I felt the need to build my own gym in a pandemic. My game film is what it is at this point, but I want teams to know it’s only the beginning of what I can become, that the changes I made from junior to senior year can happen year after year with them.

Ever since I watched a two-time All-American in Kenny Willekes get taken in the seventh round and a first-team All-Big Ten selection in Joe Bachie go undrafted last spring, I decided not to set an expectation on the draft.

Like with last season, I just want a chance to play.