This Trojan Isn't Your Everyday Football Redshirt
Nov. 19, 2000
LOS ANGELES - Even with a holiday like Thanksgiving approaching, it sometimes takes a whole lot to remind each of us of how much we have to be thankful for. The Trojans may be struggling, but sometimes in life, there are more important things to consider.
Like life itself.
Antuan Simmons is one who doesn't need to be reminded. He's been around that block once already. He's just happy to still be around.
A year ago at this time, the senior cornerback was watching the UCLA game from his hospital bed after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in his lower back. Six months later, he was in the hospital again, but this time it was to remove a benign abdominal tumor. What was supposed to be a five-day visit turned into a six week ordeal. Transformed from a 185-pound bundle of muscle into a sickly young man, Simmons found it hard to be thankful when even the phrase 'Well, you still have your health' couldn't even apply.
It was an arduous process--one that you don't expect when you are an invincible 21-year-old college athlete with your whole future in front of you.
'It was a shock,' said Simmons, who has 175 tackles, seven interceptions and six blocked kicks in his career. ' I was rehabbing my back from a previous injury and they did a routine MRI to see if everything was okay. They saw some swollen lymph nodes down by my stomach, so they did a biopsy and they said I had an abdominal tumor.'
That tumor meant that Simmons would have to sit out the entire 2000 season as a redshirt while recovering. It was an outcome more painful than the malady that he was dealing with physically.
'I wasn't scared of the actual surgery,' said Simmons. 'It hurt more that I couldn't play this year. I just wanted to get the tumor out and go on with my life. I was only supposed to be in the hospital for five days.'
It turned out to be a much harder journey than he expected. His days and nights in the hospital in May and June were often empty and frustrating. And often perilous, as various complications from the surgery threatened his life.
'There were times when I'd wake up in the morning and I'd be by myself and I'd just be looking at the ceiling,' recalls Simmons. 'I have a little daughter, Terisha, so I was always thinking how I had to get back to her. I knew I couldn't leave my little girl.'
Simmons may have been out of sight, but he wasn't out of the minds of Trojan fans everywhere. As news of his surgery trickled out, the cards and letters flowed in to his hospital room. So did his friends, among them USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett.
'Mike Garrett and his wife came to visit often,' said Simmons. 'I talked to him a lot. We had some long talks and it helped me out because it made me feel like I was part of the 'Trojan Family.''
Indeed, for the first time Simmons saw up close and personal what the fabled 'Trojan Family' was all about.
'I got a lot of support from my family and friends on the team,' said Simmons. 'I also got a lot of support from USC. The 'Trojan Family' feels real now. I just want to thank everyone who helped me through the surgery. People came out of the woodworkï¿½people I didn't even knowï¿½to see me and to help my mom. I just want to thank everybody.
'You hear a lot of talk about the 'Trojan Family.' But I found out what it really means now. I got cards from tons of people all over the nation, from places like North Dakota and North Carolina. It was nice.'
Buoyed by this support, Simmons went back home to Sacramento in July and began his road back to full health. Then, with football season just around the corner, he returned to his teammates. It was an emotional scene on the practice fields of Irvine, Calif., where the Trojans took a break from grueling two-a-day practices to greet him.
'It felt good to be back,' said Simmons. 'I walked on the field and Coach Hackett gathered everyone around and they gave me a standing ovation.'
And so Simmons started his return to normalcy. He went back to school, stood on the sidelines during the games, observed practices--everything short of playing for a young secondary that clearly missed his coverage skills and tenacious play. With this season drawing to a close, he can hardly wait for next season to begin. He has so much time to make up for.
'My biggest thing is I'll probably be nervous about proving myself again,' said Simmons. 'I know my teammates will be watching me and comparing me to how I was then, with how I am now.'
One thing is for sure--this is one Thanksgiving when Simmons will be especially thankful. It's easy for him to count his blessings now. They surround him everyday in a myriad of ways.
'I have so much to be thankful for,' he said. 'What I went through puts life in perspective. It's like when you get to college, football takes over your life. When the tumor was discovered, it showed me there's more to life than football.'
So maybe he's not invincible, but he's thankful. And he still has one more guarantee to fulfill before he's through:
'I'll be back,' he said.