Ron Meyer was excited about his second recruiting class at SMU. He'd spent his first season trying to bear hunt with a stick and the results were typical, a 3-8 season thanks to a defense that allowed 30 points a game. Meyer was particularly excited about his group of young defenders, among them was a young defensive back from Parkview in Little Rock, Arkansas, John Simmons. Simmons grew up right under the nose of the home-state Razorbacks, at 5-11 185 pounds, Arkansas had concerns that Simmons didn't have ideal size or speed for the SWC. Meyer was more than happy to take Simmons in, SMU was his only Division I offer.
In high school Simmons was a running back and saw himself playing that position in college. His instincts and ball skills seemed to lend themselves to the position. Meyer and his staff had other ideas. They saw Simmons developing into an elite corner. They were right, by the time he was done at SMU he would be second in SWC history for most career interceptions. If that were all Simmons did, that would have been plenty, but John Simmons was a playmaker on a different level than the league had ever seen.
They say big players make big plays in big games. Some would define such a talent for timing and winning plays as clutch. You can't predict it, but you know it when you see it. Simmons had it and SMU's SWC foes saw it. A lot.
In his first season, the true freshman was on the squad as SMU traveled to Kyle Field and #11 A&M. The young Mustangs were trying to make a name for themselves and taking down the Aggies would go a long way. On the third play from scrimmage Simmons stepped in front of a David Walker pass and scooted untouched 34 yards for an SMU lead. SMU would expand it's lead to 14 before the Aggies ran away in the second half but the Aggies and the rest of the league were officially on notice that Simmons might be something special. The next year he confirmed suspicions.
In his sophomore year, SMU faced a brutal schedule that included a trip to Orlando to play Florida, at trip to #3 Penn State and a trip to horseshoe in Columbus in successive weeks. The Mustangs beat Florida, lost to Penn State and got on a flight to Ohio State. This was the Ohio State of Woody Hayes and #14 Buckeyes were stacked with a hot shot freshman quarterback named Art Schlichter. Schlichter went on to become the number 4 overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 1982. Simmons welcomed Schlichter to college with a pick and The Mustangs wound up tying the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.
A week later SMU trailed Baylor in Waco 21-0. The Mustangs began to claw their way back and Simmons' interception of Steve Smith helped pull SMU to within 21-19. They would go on to a 28-21 win over the Bears.
If there was one team that Simmons picked on and picked off above all others it was hapless Rice. In '78 Simmons picked off Owl QB Rob Hertel and returned it 44 yards to the Rice three to set up a Mustang touchdown in a 59-0 win. In 1979 Hertel tried to hit an Owl receiver in the end zone only to have Simmons step in front of that pass and help the Mustangs to a 35-17 win in Dallas. Then in 1980 he grabbed his third pick vs. the Owls that he returned forty-four yards to set up another Mustang score. Three interceptions in three years. You'd think the Owls would have gotten the memo: Don't throw at 34.
It was his 1980 season that showed Simmons' full range of abilities. In the opener he had a pick six against North Texas to add to the two picks he had vs. the Mean Green the previous year.
A week later Simmons put in a full days work vs. TCU in one of the greatest single efforts in league history. SMU led 10-0 over the Frogs. On the last play of the second quarter TCU kicker Kevin Porter lined up a 39 yard field goal to get the Frogs on the board but Simmons came through to block the attempt. At the end of the third, Porter lined up a 40 yarder but Simmons came through again with a second block.
Simmons would then step in front of a Kevin Haney pass to thwart another TCU scoring chance. The Frogs couldn't get over Simmons by kicking or throwing so they tried running it late in the third with running back Marcus Gilbert breaking free on a 51 yard romp that was destined for the end zone. He would have made it were it not for Simmons making a touchdown saving tackle. So for those of you scoring, Simmons saved at minimum 13 Frog points all by himself and likely more. The Mustangs would need all of it as they hung on for a 17-14 win.
Two weeks later Simmons heroics continued with an 82 yards punt return for a touchdown against Tulane in the SuperDome as SMU escaped 31-21. Simmons had a pick six against eventual SWC champ Baylor in Waco a week later. In three successive games Simmons had two interceptions, one for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, two blocked field goals, and a game saving tackle. That's a great season for most folks. That was a three game stretch for Simmons.
On October 25, 1980 the young Mustangs traveled to Austin to take on the #2 Longhorns. Texas was 62-4 in its last 66 games at Memorial Stadium. The 5-0 Longhorns had won thirteen straight over the Mustangs and nineteen of their previous twenty. Craig James had a great rushing day and SMU got out to a 20-6 lead over the Longhorns. Texas was driving in the fourth quarter to try and make it a one score game when Simmons intercepted his seventeenth career pass to stop the drive, preserve the win and bring him within one pick of the SWC record.
He wouldn't get that one elusive pick, but on November 1 against Texas A&M he did had another game changing afternoon. Simmons took a punt back 66 yards to stake the Mustangs to a lead, his second punt return for a touchdown on the season. On the day Simmons had 122 punt return yards. As A&M tried to break SMU's shutout, Simmons blocked another field goal, his third of the 1980 season and returned it 51 yards to the A&M 11 yard line to end any A&M hope.
Simmons would end his senior season with seven interceptions, two of which went for six. He averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return and 12.2 yard per punt return with two touchdowns. He was named All-SWC and First Team All-American in 1980, sharing the honor with some pretty legendary defensive stalwarts including Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, and Kenny Easley.
Simmons was drafted in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals. He played in Cincy from '81 to '86 when he went to Green Bay before finishing up his career with Indianapolis in 1987.
While it's easy to remember the Pony Express, the payments, and the death penalty, it's important to remember players like John Simmons who defined clutch with his play in big games and big moments.