Travel, History, and Wayne Simmons in America's Dairyland

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After They Were Packers

 
                   
       

Fish Frys

  Few men know what it’s like to scale the heights of Super Bowl glory — or how it feels to come back down. In “After They Were Packers,” his follow-up to “Downfield!” (1996, Prairie Oak Press), Eau Claire Leader-Telegram assistant local news editor Jerry Poling reveals the lives of some members of the 1997 Super Bowl champions after they left pro football. Also included are former greats Lynn Dickey, Don Majkowski, Eddie Lee Ivery and others who played prior to the 1990s. Some find their own way to contentment as ordinary men, while others struggle with demons too powerful to overcome.

Wayne Simmons
College: Clemson.
Position: Linebacker, 1993-97. Wore No. 59.
Highlight: Started every game at left outside linebacker during the 1996 Super Bowl season and ranked fifth on the team in tackles.
After football: Owned a restaurant in Kansas City. Died in a one-car auto accident, August 23, 2002, in Independence, Missouri. He was 32.

From the Bottom up

On Jan. 6, 1996, the Green Bay Packers were at a crossroads as an up-and-coming football team.

In the previous two seasons under Coach Mike Holmgren, the Packers had suffered the identical fate in the playoffs, winning in the first round against Detroit only to lose in the second round to the powerful Dallas Cowboys. Now they were once again in the fateful second-round game, about to face the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park.

Even though Holmgren and General Manager Ron Wolf had the Packers headed in the right direction — four straight winning seasons and three straight trips to the playoffs — the Packers had something to prove: Could they take the next step as a team?

One more win would put them in the National Football Conference championship game. The Packers had gone 11-5 — winning six of their last seven games — to win the Central Division title.

Despite the Packers’ strong season, overcoming the second-round jinx against the defending Super Bowl champs wasn’t going to be easy. The 49ers had Steve Young at quarterback, Jerry Rice at wide receiver, and eight other Pro Bowl players. The 49ers, led by Coach George Seifert, had beaten San Diego decisively, 49-26, in the Super Bowl a year earlier.

If the Packers, their coach and their general manager had something to prove, there was no better place than San Francisco to prove it. Holmgren grew up in the San Francisco area and was an assistant coach with the 49ers from 1986 to 1991, when they won back-to-back Super Bowls, before leaving to become coach of the Packers in 1992.

With his thick West Coast offense playbook, Holmgren took a cerebral approach to the game. On this day, however, Holmgren knew his Packers had all but mastered the Xs and Os. They knew their roles as players, but they needed to take something else with them onto the field.

In his pre-game talk, Holmgren told the Packers there was only one way to knock off the Super Bowl champions on their home turf: Kick the crap out of them.

Holmgren’s talk hit home with Wayne Simmons. Of all the Packers in the locker room that day, including fierce competitors like Reggie White, LeRoy Butler, and Brett Favre, no one liked the idea of kicking the crap out of the 49ers better than Simmons.

At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Simmons was far from the biggest player on the team, but he may have been the meanest on the field. He intimidated opponents with his brute strength, inspired teammates with his pointed criticism and comments, and played without fear.

It’s no wonder Simmons got along well with defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who once said, “If you don’t like to fight, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Simmons liked to fight. “He brought that toughness and nastiness to the Green Bay Packers,” said George Koonce, who started at linebacker next to Simmons in 1996. “Wayne would take a fight in the bar and take it right into the street. He brought that fight to the defense. He was a hell of a player.”

Buoyed by Holmgren’s speech, Simmons made a difference that day in San Francisco. On the 49ers’ first offensive play of the game, Steve Young threw a screen pass to fullback Adam Walker, but Simmons saw it coming.

He drilled Walker with a vicious hit, jarring the ball loose. Packers rookie Craig Newsome picked up the ball and ran untouched 31 yards to the end zone. It was the first blow in what would become a 27-17 victory, a win that took the Packers to the NFC championship game for the first time since 1967.

Simmons certainly followed Holmgren’s admonition to “kick the crap out of them,” making 16 tackles (11 solo), including the forced fumble and a sack of Young.

The next week, the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes once again were ended by the Cowboys in Dallas, but this time it was different: It was for the NFC championship, and they had a shot at winning. They led, 27-24, going into the fourth quarter. The Packers lost, 38-27, but they were one step closer to the Super Bowl, which they finally would reach and win the next season.

For Wayne Simmons, it was a great time to be young, rich, and a Green Bay Packer.

Wayne General Simmons — his friends called him “Big Money” — had come a long way up from Low Bottom in South Carolina.

***

Tom Gardo sensed something special about Wayne Simmons as a person when he met him in 1985 at Hilton Head High School in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Simmons was a promising freshman on the football team. Hilton Head coaches saw that he was struggling with his grades and could use someone to act as a mentor and guardian.

Gardo, a businessman whose daughters were going to the school, had volunteered to help struggling athletes. When the coaches asked Gardo to help Simmons, he agreed.

The first thing Gardo did was give Simmons a ride. He had been hitchhiking 25 miles to school from his home in Low Bottom, a marshy low country near the Atlantic Ocean. Gardo, who owned a conversion van, began taking Simmons home after football practice.

At the end of each trip, Gardo began to read books to Simmons as they sat in the van outside his home. Gardo liked to read and thought it would be a way to break the ice, expand Simmons’ small world, and get him interested in learning.

Simmons could read, but he liked the fatherly attention. No one likely ever had read to him before. Simmons grew up without a father, and his mother, trying to support three children by working three jobs, was seldom at home.

“We just hit it off,” Gardo said. “I would take him home from practice three or four times a week, and we really got to know each other. He needed some help in school, guidance in how to study, but he was pretty bright. He never had any direction to study. He literally lived in a shack”

Simmons’ mother, Dorothy, tried as best she could to make ends meet in her household, which included her mother, Mamie. She never married Wayne’s father. The house, one main room with bedrooms added on, was heated with a wood stove.

For firewood, Wayne would take an ax into the nearby woods, chop down a tree, drag it home, and then chop and splinter the wood, according to Bob Arundell, Simmons’ assistant football and basketball coach in high school and later his attorney.

One day, when Wayne was 12, he came into the house and found his mother crying. He asked her what was wrong. She explained that she simply couldn’t make ends meet financially. She worked five days a week from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. cleaning bedrooms at the posh Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island, then from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the Speedway gas station. On her two days off from Sea Pines, she worked at Market Express convenience store.

Despite her hard work, there seemed to be no way out of crushing poverty. “We had some rough times, and we didn’t have anything,” she recalls. “I didn’t have money to live from day to day.”

After explaining to Wayne how poor they were, Dorothy reached a point of despair. In their shack of a home in a poor region of coastal South Carolina, she realized that she never would be able to give her son the material things she thought he deserved. She believed he might have a better life with someone else.

The thought previously hadn’t crossed her mind, but at that moment giving up her son seemed like the only solution to improve his life and, in some ways, hers, by taking away one of her biggest burdens.

“I told him I wanted to put him up for adoption,” Dorothy said.

Wayne wouldn’t hear of it, and he made his mother a promise. “He told me, if you take care of me to get me where I want to go, then I will take care of you some-day. He told me, ‘Mom, you’re doing alright’.”

His vow and vote of confidence reassured his mother. “That gave me some strength to go on,” Dorothy Simmons said.

By the end of that day, she decided not to put Wayne up for adoption; she realized that she no longer was in her predicament alone. She had a son and a friend. They were in it together.

***

At 12, Simmons already had set his sights beyond Low Bottom, where mostly everyone lived near or below the poverty level. A lot of people were unemployed and ended up in prison — like Wayne’s older brother, Leon — or spent their lives working for the rich and the tourists among the million-dollar homes, manicured golf courses, and shiny cars and yachts of Hilton Head.

At age 15, Simmons realized that he could escape poverty by working hard and saving his money to go to college. His mother had two years of college, and she didn’t want to see him end up in her situation. “I wanted for my son something other than I had,” Dorothy recalls.

Drawing on his mother’s work ethic, Wayne took as many odd jobs as he could handle. As he washed cars at Arnold Palmer Ford in Hilton Head, he dreamed that someday he would be successful enough to own a new car. “The only way I could see out was going to college, becoming successful,” Simmons told a reporter in 1993.

“Me and my mom went to a bank to get a loan one day, and the bank turned her down. I wanted to become a banker so when someone like Dorothy Simmons comes in for a loan, she’ll get it.”

Although not regarded by his teachers as “college material,” Wayne wasn’t a slow learner. He just needed someone like Gardo to give him a push. When that happened, Simmons began to do well in school. He flourished in math, reading, and finance courses. He visited the library regularly, said Gardo, who owns a marketing and public relations firm.

Simmons was an all-state selection in basketball as a power forward. He was 6-foot-2 with a 35-inch vertical leap. A linebacker and split end, Simmons was all-state and runner-up as South Carolina player of the year in football.

***

By the time he was 18, Simmons was receiving college football recruiting letters from all over the country. Simmons picked Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, in the northwestern corner of the state.

Simmons became one of the best pass rushers in school history as a two-year starter, ranking fourth all-time with 19 career sacks. By the time he was a senior, Simmons had every scout in the NFL stopping by Clemson to watch him play.

But with all of his accomplishments on the football field, his academic achievements were at least as important to him. In May 1992, Simmons graduated with a degree in finance after four years. Earning a diploma meant more to Simmons, his mother, and Gardo than the chance to play in the NFL.

Simmons had one year of football eligibility remaining, so he entered graduate school at Clemson prior to being drafted by the Packers in 1993.

Together, the two achievements represented everything Simmons hoped for as a young man and as the son of a poor, single mother — victory over the circumstances he was born into and financial security for himself and his family.

Simmons was the first person from his extended family to graduate from college.

***

He also was the first person picked by the Green Bay Packers in the 1993 draft.

Simmons became more than a football player to his Packers teammates. With his outgoing, outspoken personality and propensity for practical jokes, he helped keep the locker room loose and always had plenty of friends on and off the team.

“He’d mimic everybody around him. He always had people in stitches,” Gardo said.

“If he wasn’t a football player, he could have been a comedian,” Dorothy Simmons said.

But Simmons was no angel. He liked to drink, drive fast, spend his money, listen to loud music, and date a number of women. He had an explosive temper, and it sometimes got him into trouble. At times he was like a big fish that wanted no part of being reeled in.

Sometimes, he would talk freely to the news media. Other times, he might not say a word to reporters for weeks.

“If you didn’t know him, you’d think he was crazy,” said Derrick Mayes, a wide receiver for the Packers in 1996. “But he was probably one of the most loyal individuals I’ve ever met.”

Whatever Simmons had, women loved it, Gardo said.

“He had multiple girlfriends. It was the way he carried himself, so up. He had that kind of physique. Women would put their telephone number in his pants pocket, and they didn’t even know who he was,” Gardo said, recalling the nights he would jump into a limousine with Simmons and other beefy Packers and head out to the nightclubs.

Gardo remembers one night when Simmons walked into a bar in Arizona. Three women who had been huddled around one man took a look at Simmons and immediately were by his side. “Who is that guy?” the first man asked Gardo.

The man left in Simmons’ wake was baseball star Barry Bonds.

***

Simmons liked playing and living in Green Bay. He didn’t mind the cold weather. There seemed to be only one down side to Simmons’ Green Bay experience, but it was one that would prove to be his undoing.

“He liked everything about Green Bay except Mike Holmgren. They just didn’t hit it off,” Gardo said.

Maybe the source of his uneasy relationship with the head coach was the impersonation of the often-stoic Holmgren that Simmons used to do for teammates in the locker room. “He had everybody in stitches,” Arundell said. “The only one who didn’t like it was Mike. Wayne was light and carefree. Mike was very serious.”

Holmgren didn’t have much patience for players who fumbled on the field or made mistakes off the field. He didn’t like disruptions, and Simmons didn’t help his future in that regard.

Simmons’ off-season activities did nothing to endear him to Holmgren. On March 1, 1997, he was arrested in Beaufort County, South Carolina, for drunken driving. That May, he was convicted and lost his driver’s license for six months. His blood-alcohol level was 0.17, well over the legal limit of 0.10 in South Carolina.

That same month, after a ceremony at his old high school to retire his jersey number, Simmons was accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old girl at a Savannah, Georgia, nightclub. The girl had graduated from Hilton Head High School that night. Simmons never was charged in the case, but the negative publicity may have sealed his fate with the Packers.

Nevertheless, in late May of 1997, the Packers re-signed Simmons, but only after he had failed to find a suitable contract elsewhere.

Described by Holmgren as high-strung and headstrong, Simmons wasn’t around for long, however. Six games into 1997, he had just 27 tackles and hadn’t made any big plays. He had quit talking to the media, was fined for being late to two team meetings, and was facing a $5,000 league fine for punching a Minnesota player during a September game at Lambeau Field.

The Packers sent him to the Kansas City Chiefs for a fifth-round draft choice.

***

Simmons’ life wasn’t the same after his expulsion from Green Bay. “When he got traded, that started his downward slide,” Gardo said.

Simmons was cut by the Chiefs during the 1998 season after a controversial Monday night game in which he was called for a personal foul. He was picked up by Buffalo and released after the season.

He retired and in 1999 returned to Kansas City to open a jazz and R&B nightclub and restaurant. The club opened a year late because of construction delays, but when it did open crowds lined up outside, waiting to get in. Business was good.

Then things went downhill. One day, Simmons showed up to find his safe at the restaurant cleaned out. Soon thereafter, he came to work and found all his expensive sound and light equipment gone. In another instance, he left town for a weekend and returned home to find his apartment cleaned out.

The problems were too much for Simmons financially. His club, 50/50 on Main, closed in 2002.

Gardo and Dorothy Simmons told Wayne that he was too trusting, that his friends were the perpetrators.

“Wayne thought everybody was his friend. They stole my son blind,” Dorothy Simmons said.

In the summer of 2002, months after the restaurant closed, Simmons told his mother that he was coming home to South Carolina.

He never made it.

On Aug. 23, 2002, he was out late and had been drinking, Gardo said. On Interstate 70 in Independence, Missouri, Simmons lost control and left the highway at about 2:45 a.m. The car flipped several times when it hit the ditch and then caught fire.

Simmons was unconscious, and bystanders couldn’t pull him from the car because he was belted in. Firefighters eventually arrived, put out the fire, and pulled him from the car.

Simmons, 32, was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital, but officials believe the crash and not the fire killed him. The cause of death officially was listed as blunt head and neck injury, according to a Jackson County, Missouri, medical examiner’s report.

Simmons’ blood-alcohol level was 0.19, more than twice the state’s legal limit, said Thomas Young, Jackson County medical examiner.

The death left Gardo sad but not shocked. He knew that Simmons lived his life on the edge and didn’t worry much about the consequences.

“He didn’t have a death wish, but if he told me once he told me several times that he was not going to live long. ‘I need to live now,’” Gardo quoted Simmons.

Simmons never married, but he left behind three children. One of his children, a son, was a senior at his dad’s alma mater, Hilton Head High School, in 2005 — 2006. That son was the result of a relationship Simmons had in high school. Wayne Simmons always supported the boy financially, Gardo said.

Gardo was aware of a second child that Simmons had fathered. After Simmons’ death, Gardo learned that a woman was pregnant with a third child that belonged to Simmons.

Though his life was short, Wayne Simmons lived to make good on the promise he made his mother when he was just 12. When he signed with the Packers for $3.2 million in 1993, he told his mother she no longer had to work three jobs, no longer had to work — period.

With his $2 million signing bonus, he bought his mom a log house on the Savannah River in Hardeeville, South Carolina. He also gave her a monthly allowance.

Dorothy Simmons misses the son who always was the life of the party but who also once spent six weeks alone traveling through Europe and falling in love with history.

Tom Gardo will miss Simmons, too, the nights on the town in the limousine, Brett Favre giving Simmons big bear hugs in the bars, the times Gardo read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” to the teenage Simmons sitting in a van on a hot August evening in Low Bottom.

Even when Wayne Simmons was a grown man, a college graduate who had left his learning-disabled tag in the dust and was a pro football player wearing a Super Bowl champions ring, he would say to Gardo, just for old time’s sake, “G-Dog, read to me.”

   
In his follow-up to the best-selling Downfield!, Wisconsin writer Jerry Poling reveals the lives of the 1997 Super Bowl champions after they left the Packers.


 
                 
                       
       

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