Greenville native and former star football player for the Nebraska Cornhuskers Ricky Simmons returned to his hometown with an important lesson to share with the young people of Greenville Middle School.
The usually restless students who packed their school’s gym Thursday were eerily still and silent as Simmons told the story of how he overcame the drug addiction that destroyed his career in the NFL before it really had a chance to start.
“I speak about this all over the country but this is going to be hard for me, speaking here in Greenville,” Simmons began.
“My parents both had master’s degrees, so I did all of this to myself,” he said. “My dad, who was a very physical man who really seemed to have no control over the volume of his voice – he always sounded like he was yelling. My mother couldn’t be more different, though. She was soft-spoken, would call you by your name the first time she met you, then call you ‘baby’ from then on.
“My dad really wanted me to play football, so he would buy me things for making it onto football teams,” Simmons recollected. “After the first time I tried out, I got a bicycle. Then, when I was in middle school I decided that girls weren’t all bad, so he bought me some nice clothes. Then in high school, it was a car.
“Then, at age 16, I became a ‘genius,’ and you couldn’t tell me anything,” Simmons continued. “That’s when I started smoking pot, and people all around me were saying, ‘Rick, you need to leave that alone. It’s gonna come back to haunt you,’ but I’d tell them, ‘Here’s a dime. Go buy you some business and stay out of mine.’”
Despite the drug and (later) alcohol abuse, Simmons enjoyed a successful high school football career until he graduated in 1979, he just doesn’t “remember much of it,” largely because of his “pre-game ritual” at the time.
“Before every game I would do five things: drink half a 40 ounce bottle of Old English 800 malt liquor, drink half a bottle of Thunderbird wine, drink half a bottle of Robitussin DM, smoke two joints and take a Valium.”
Simmons’ habit of being constantly under the influence almost cost him his chance at playing college football.
“One day, there was a knock on our door,” Simmons said. “I answered it, and there was a redheaded man who turned out to be Coach Tom Osborne from University of Nebraska (Lincoln).
“But, I was high, so when he explained who he was and that he was offering me a scholarship, I thanked him for coming all this way from ‘Alaska,’ but that us from Greenville, Texas ‘don’t do snow,’ and I shut the door on him,’ Simmons related.
When Simmons’ mother asked him who had knocked on the door and he explained what had happened, she quickly opened the door and Osborne was still “standing there with his arms folded.”
Simmons, who initially had his heart set on going to Oklahoma State University, eventually, after a tense conversation, decided to accept Osborne’s offer.
“I kept asking him (Osborne) what kind of car he was gonna buy me and he didn’t talk much but he would just kind of smirk,” Simmons said. “Eventually, for the only time in my life, I dared raise my voice at my father. He stood, hiked up his pants, balled up his fists at his sides and said ‘We’ve already made up our mind.’
“At that point, I made a ‘business decision’ to go to Nebraska,” Simmons said.
When Simmons began his college football career, he immediately impressed his coaches and teammates with his speed at the 40-yard dash.
“They looked at me like I was an alien, and told me, ‘Congratulations, you’re the fastest wide receiver in University of Nebraska history.”
Simmons’ playing with the Cornhuskers from 1979-1983 seasons led to him being drafted by the Washington Federals of the now-defunct United States Football League..
During his first years as a pro football player, Simmons began using cocaine.
In 1986, he was picked up by the Atlanta Falcons, but he “decided to give up the NFL to become a full-time drug addict.”
Over the course of 25 years, Simmons went through 10 drug treatment centers and went to prison a total of four times.
“The last time I was in jail, I received a letter, and I never received letters because my parents had already gone to Heaven, but I looked at it and it was from the University of Nebraska Athletics Department.
“It was from Tom Osborne, and it said, ‘I know your parents believed in you. I believe in you. Upon your release, if there’s anything I can do to help you, feel free to contact me.’
“At that moment, I dropped down on my knees and I turned my life over to God, and I decided that I would do three things,” Simmons said. “Those were to have a PMA, a positive mental attitude, to get out and be a motivational speaker and help others, and to prove all my haters wrong.
Toward the end of his talk, Simmons shared some sobering insight into the guilt that comes with addiction.
“Think about this,” He began. “When you get together with your families for Thanksgiving and are having dinner, I’m also in Greenville, from Nebraska, but I’m in a graveyard, crying over my parents’ graves because they didn’t get a chance to see me grow into the person that you see.”
Simmons has written a book about his journey, titled “The Explosion of Redemption.”