He'd had an equally enjoyable afternoon two Saturdays earlier, even though—or perhaps because—the Beavers had an open date on their schedule. While his teammates went hunting or nursed hangovers (or hunted while nursing hangovers), Simonton drove four hours to Ashland to check out a production of Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Four hours?
What did he think of the play? "From the moment I started understanding what was going on," he says, "Hamlet really jumped out at me. Dude found himself in a cold world, a world he couldn't trust. His world was breaking down in front of him. I've had to live that life. I've seen people live that life. You're watching this man put together a plan, then manipulate every friendship, every relationship, to execute it. He ended up losing his life in the end, but watching him manip through that, trying not to lose it, trying not to lose it"—Simonton snaps his fingers for emphasis—"it was just kind of easy to relate to."
Pittsburg is 30 miles east and several socioeconomic strata beneath Berkeley, the site of Oregon State's game last Saturday. It's an industrial city home to oil refineries and steel mills that have provided Simonton's father, also named Ken, a paycheck through the years. Here's Ken Jr.'s upbeat take on a tough place: "It has enough of a crime element so that I knew what was going on, and enough diversity and love so I could enjoy it."
Growing up in Pittsburg, Simonton and his five siblings had hard choices to make. One brother, for example, was a minor leaguer in the San Francisco Giants system and is now a hitting instructor for the Giants at the Double A level. Another brother is an ex-convict working hard to get his life back on track. One of Simonton's goals is to play in the NFL, and at least one former coach in that league ( Erickson) and a current one ( Riley) believe that he will. Even if he doesn't, Simonton is covered: He is on schedule to graduate next June.
Might he enter the draft after this season? "As a businessman, I'll weigh my options," Simonton says. "I have every intention of coming back, but if [the NFL] is speaking my language...." Simonton's garden-variety speed, 4-42 in the 40 and garden-gnome height make him an improbable early-round selection. "If you put him through those tests the NFL scouts do," Erickson concedes, "maybe he doesn't do so well. But when you see him on video and coach him live, he fascinates you more every time you see him."
Just as Simonton's running style is a perfect fit for Erickson's system, so does his independent streak mesh with Oregon State's policy of allowing some undergraduates to create their own majors. Simonton has fashioned a diversity-studies program and is sampling as many dishes as possible from the university's academic buffet. "I want to be exposed to everything," he says. His courses this semester include a poetry class, ballet and an advanced sociology class called Race and Ethnic Relations, taught by professor Dwaine Plaza, who's helping Simonton research a project examining the parallels between Division I football players and migrant farm workers. Last spring Simonton took a class in piano and another in women's studies. His professor in that class later told Trina Kudlacek, the football program's academic coordinator, "The only student in that class who really got me thinking about what I was saying was Ken Simonton."
Working in an office down the hall from the Beavers' weight room, Kudlacek has become inured to the din and the vibrations caused by metal plates crashing to the floor. In the middle of her office is a round table piled high with textbooks, binders and a weather-beaten dictionary choked with Post-it notes. This small mountain is the property of Simonton, who has conscripted the table into service as his unofficial office. He and Kudlacek take turns learning from each other. "I talk to him about Ovid, say, or Beethoven," she says, "and he tells me about the socio-historical significance of Tupac."
Simonton ruffled some feathers in the football offices earlier this fall by complaining to The Oregonian, the Portland daily, that, despite having "full athletic support," he and his teammates could use more academic support. "For all 110 athletes, we have Trina," he said. It wasn't an accurate statement. The players also have access to academic advisers and to tutors who work with her, Kudlacek says. "Of course," she adds, "Ken doesn't use tutors all that much. He's usually dealing directly with faculty."
Indeed, Plaza reports that Simonton often approaches him after class to request suggestions for extra reading. Simonton is one of four African-Americans taking the course, which has an enrollment of 35, and he stoically took notes last week as Plaza talked about how children are taught from their earliest years "to read the body as a text: Are you black, or are you white?"
Simonton's pet peeve is that some people do their reading so overtly—staring at him and then not saying hello. It used to make him angry. Then, three years ago, he had a minor epiphany at a Beavers basketball game. Simonton and linebacker James Allen were approached by a young woman who said to Allen, "I've never touched a black person's hair before. May I touch yours?"