An unbreakable bond
Matt Simms, Kenbrell Thompkins are opposites but became close at L.A. juco
The quarterback and receiver both signed to play for Lane Kiffin at Tennessee
When Kiffin left for USC, Simms stayed and Thompkins transferred to Cincinnati
Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms was in the film room when he got the text about the 8 p.m. team meeting. A couple of hours later he was shuffling into a room with the other Vols players -- some of them whispering that coach Lane Kiffin had taken the USC job, others guessing that Kiffin had told USC no, that he'd meant what he said about building something exciting and championship-worthy at Tennessee.
Moments later, after a visibly uncomfortable Kiffin told his players that they were now his former players -- news that was greeted by stunned silence, then loud cursing -- Simms walked stoically out of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center to find "600 people outside burning mattresses."
January 12 was an emotional day for many people, and it was seized upon by the media for its elements of broken loyalty and hurt feelings, but for Simms, who had arrived in Knoxville just three days earlier after a successful junior college season in California, the day Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for USC "was just another day for me." The smoke from the mattresses wafted over Simms' shoulders as he walked to his car, wondering who the new coach would be and when he could see some film of his offense.
Kenbrell Thompkins was driving with his nephew through his hometown of Liberty City, Fla., when a friend called and told him Kiffin was leaving. A Tennessee signee who had starred with Simms the previous fall at El Camino (Calif.) College, then signed with the Vols to continue their partnership, Thompkins recalled that when he heard the news he "turned the car around and rushed home so I could get in front of a TV."
That fateful Tuesday night was the point at which Thompkins and Simms were pulled apart after a most unlikely coming together. Their paths had converged the previous summer at El Camino, a junior college in the seaside Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, where they arrived as strangers from opposite ends of the eastern seaboard and opposite sides of the tracks. They left California six months later destined for the SEC, thanks in large part to each other and a relationship they each described as "like brothers."
The youngest son of Super Bowl champion and NFL broadcaster Phil Simms and the brother of Tennessee Titans quarterback Chris Simms, Matt probably had a better understanding of football's cutthroat business side than anyone playing Division I last year. Instead of Division I, though, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Simms played the 2009 season in the National Central Conference, after an odyssey that included a decorated high school career in New Jersey and two years at Louisville, where the Cardinals had a head coach who left unexpectedly one January, too.
Bobby Petrino's departure for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, however, had little to do with Simms' lack of playing time at Louisville. That had more to do with an inconsistent work ethic and a photo of Simms rolling a joint that made its way around the Internet. Incoming coach Steve Kragthorpe suspended Simms four games for the latter offense, and Simms threw a total of 10 passes in 2008. He left Louisville no longer a top recruit with all the right genes, but as just another kid on the outside looking in.
That summer, a couple thousand miles west of Louisville, El Camino College coach John Featherstone needed a quarterback. He had a receiver -- a tall, physical Andre Johnson-type who had somehow gone unrecruited out of the best high school program in Miami, Northwestern High -- but he didn't have anyone to throw him the ball.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Phil Simms mentioned to his friend and fellow NFL commentator Chris Mortensen that Matt was considering the juco route in trying to get back to a Division I school. Mortensen, who had put a son through the college football gristmill himself, put Simms in touch with Featherstone, a longtime friend with a reputation for helping talented players "get out of their own way."
Matt Simms had decided he wanted to be an NFL quarterback when he was in eighth grade, and had charged toward that goal under the tutelage of a dad and brother who had already achieved it, along with the coaching staff at powerhouse Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep. Thompkins, on the other hand, "never looked at the big picture of football. I played because it was what we did in the area where I grew up. It was in our veins."
Thompkins played far more snaps on the street than he did at Northwestern High in Miami, which annually produces one of the best teams in Florida, and some of the worst standardized test scores in the country. Located in Liberty City, which has the highest violent crime rate in the country's poorest metropolis (Miami), Northwestern High and its football program were the subject of a 2004 documentary, Year of the Bull, which depicted the hard-to-watch realities of high school football in the ghetto. Northwestern sits just half a block from the house on NW 70th St. where Thompkins lived with his mom and younger brother, Kendal.
Thompkins fell prey to the area's pressures. He was arrested seven times between age 15 and 18 for misdemeanors like loitering, and felonies like armed robbery and possession of cocaine with intent to sell.
In the robbery case, someone other than Thompkins allegedly held a gun on two students while $750 was taken from them by two accomplices, one of whom, according to the police report, was Thompkins. The charge was "dropped due to [the] victim being uncooperative," according to police records.
The drug arrest occurred in February 2007, when an 18-year-old Thompkins was pulled over for reckless driving and, according to the arrest report, "removed from his right rear pocket a clear Ziplock bag and dropped it on the ground." The bag held 18 small packets "containing suspected powder cocaine ... and another bag tied in a knot with forty-four pieces of suspected rock cocaine." Adjudication was withheld in the case, and Thompkins was given two years probation.
The quantum shift in Thompkins' life came while he was wandering in and out of courtrooms, when his younger brother Kendal suddenly became the best athlete in the family. "It wasn't until I watched my younger brother earn a scholarship to the University of Miami that I woke up and realized I could do the same thing," Kenbrell said. (A sophomore wideout, Kendal Thompkins is expected to play a prominent role for the Hurricanes this season.) While attending one of Kendal's final high school games, Kenbrell heard the phrase "junior college" for the first time. After a little Internet research he found himself on the phone with Featherstone.
"Coach Featherstone talked to me on the phone for a minute, felt good about me, then took a chance and flew me out there," Thompkins said.
When Phil Simms dropped Matt off at El Camino College last summer, he saw its brown practice field and meager facilities and thought, "This is good. This is just what he needs."
"Going from the locker room at Louisville to the locker room at El Camino, it's two different worlds," Matt Simms said. "In juco, to get out and get a [Div. I] scholarship, you have to show you're serious, that you'll do the work without a coach up your butt telling you what to do all the time. There was no one reminding me to do schoolwork at El Co. You have to grow up."