By Cody Benjamin | CBS Sports
When the 2021 NFL Draft begins on April 29, the clock will be ticking on history. USC, Michigan and Michigan State are the only three college football programs to have prospects selected in at least 80 straight drafts. The former two are virtual locks to keep their streaks alive, with linemen like Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC) and Kwity Paye (Michigan) widely expected to come off the board early. Michigan State’s hopes, meanwhile, rest with a trio of potential Day Three targets — one being linebacker Antjuan Simmons.
The possibility of upholding the historic tradition is meaningful for Simmons, as is entering the NFL in the first place. But it’s not nearly as meaningful as what his journey represents. Because how do you put a value on a young man achieving his lifelong dreams at the same time he’s welcoming his father home from nine years in prison?
Antjuan is a 5-foot-11, 218-pound senior linebacker. He averaged nearly 11 tackles per game in 2020, the second-most in the Big Ten. He came out of high school as one of Michigan’s top recruits, an early target for Ohio State and Notre Dame. He overcame a fractured vertebra his freshman year to twice lead the Spartans in tackles.
Before all that, he was just a kid, enjoying life with his parents Antonio and Tawan Simmons. Or at least until Feb. 26, 2012.
It was just over a month until Antjuan’s 13th birthday, and federal agents raided his home. They were there for Antonio, who — unbeknownst to his children — had been distributing cocaine throughout Detroit as part of the “El Chapo” drug cartel. The New York Times described Antonio as a “fearsome” man — one of the city’s biggest dealers — and the February raid was a highlight of a “takedown day” for the DEA. Before long, he was sentenced to 17 years.
Antjuan, left alone with his mom and brother Dennis, was both shocked and enraged. He fled upstairs, punching doors and walls along the way, and closed himself off from everybody at school.
“I was wearing black every day, and it wasn’t even on purpose,” he told MLive. “I just didn’t feel like putting anything else on.”
More than a decade later, the scars are still visible. The Simmons kept in touch with Antonio via email and phone calls, and they would try to visit two or three times a year. But there were stretches — some as long as three or four years — when Antjuan wouldn’t see his dad in person, let alone know where he was located. As he told NFL Draft Diamonds, his father “missed some of the most important years of my life … never got to see me grow, never took me on recruiting trips, or any of that.” When Antjuan finally took the field for Michigan State, Antonio had to watch on TV from a prison cell hundreds of miles away.
Now, with Antjuan on the verge of a professional career, Antonio is home from Ashland FCI, a federal prison in Kentucky, on early release. And his son, with the draft on the horizon, takes a hopeful approach to this convergence of what some might call miracles.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be here, to do something, because of everything I’ve been through,” Simmons tells CBS Sports. “From my Pops being gone nine years to my spinal injury, I feel like I’m here to do something. I don’t know what that is specifically yet, but I feel like I get closer to figuring that out every day.”
The draft may offer some clarity. Simmons’ camp has received projections across the board: Some think he could go in the fifth round, while others see him as a priority free agent. “I’m not paying it too much mind,” he says, “because at the end of the day, you have to show up and perform for whatever team you end up on.” The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, for example, thinks Simmons’ smaller size and coverage skills could be problematic for many teams, but believes the 22-year-old “can stick in the NFL” because of his downhill style.
“I bring more physicality,” says Simmons, who idolized Ray Lewis growing up and studied current pros like Fred Warner and Bobby Wagner in recent years. “I love to run and strike things, whether it’s linemen or ball-carriers. I have a high football IQ, and I’m very instinctive. I’m also a leader on and off the field.”
That last part rings especially true in his household. Simmons can point to his football resume with pride: 165 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his last two seasons, the second of which was cut short due to COVID-19. But it’s his maturation as a man, complete with a human development and family studies degree, that stands out. In fact, even as NFL teams check in on him ahead of the draft, Simmons is just as, if not more, focused on the conversations around his dinner table.
The rekindled bond will continue up until — and beyond — draft day. Whenever Simmons gets an update on his pre-draft process, whether it be a team adding him to its radar or sniffing around his college tape, Tawan and Antonio are the first to find out. Nothing can replace the years lost to his father’s sentence of course, but without the sting of his dad’s absence — coupled with the subsequent commitment of his parents to persevere — Antjuan isn’t sure he’d have brought the same tenacity to Michigan State.
“It means a lot that I can be an inspiration to my family,” he says. “I couldn’t be more thankful and appreciative of them because they’ve done almost any and everything to put us — me and my little brother — in a position to succeed. … I think it just goes to show how strong and resilient I am (through it all), because there’s some kids who can’t deal with that and lose track of things that’s important to them.”
And if, ultimately, Simmons hears his name called, either before or immediately after the draft?
“My parents would be so proud of me,” he says. “I’m sure they’d be at a loss for words or have a face full of tears. They’ve been my biggest supporters. They might be more excited than me.”
It’s not hard to see why.