Coach Bobby Bowden of Florida State has a 6'1", 240-pound All-America noseguard named Ron Simmons. You wouldn't hire Bowden to write a love letter for you, but when he describes Simmons you detect a hint of affection. "If he were three inches taller, he'd be illegal," Simmons says. "In one sense, Simmons reminds me of a cockroach. You don't worry so much about what a roach eats or totes off. It's what he falls into and messes up."
Nobody in the land plays noseguard better than Simmons, and it's a fair bet that nobody has messed up more things, including archenemy Florida's domination of Florida State. Before Simmons arrived, the Seminoles had beaten Florida twice. In history. In the three years Simmons has been on the scene, Florida State is 3 and 0. That helps explain why Simmons is the Seminoles' biggest football hero. Ever.
Last year, after Arizona State fell to Florida State 31-3, the Sun Devil coach, Frank Kush, said of Simmons, "We tried everything—double-teaming, running away from him, axing, holding, you name it. Nothing worked. That No. 50, he just plain ate our lunch. He may be the best noseguard I've ever seen."
After sitting out the first half of last year's Cincinnati game with a fractured left wrist and watching his teammates fall behind 21-7, Simmons came in for the second half. In the offensive huddle, a Cincinnati running back took one look at the new face across the line and realized that the next 30 minutes of play would be different. "Oh, hell, look what they've sent in now," he said. That concern was well taken. Simmons shut down the Bearcat offense and Florida State came back for a 26-21 win. Last April Simmons had a bone graft on the wrist. It kept him out of spring practice, but he is healed now and a relieved Bowden says, "The biggest thing is to see what happens to us when he's not in there. That's what's scary."
What's really scary is the way Simmons plays. In 1979 he had 65 solo tackles and two blocked kicks; he forced two fumbles and recovered two more. He had six sacks and 17 additional tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Primarily because of Simmons, the Seminoles were undefeated until they were beaten by Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
As it was for Pitt's Hugh Green, Simmons' pre-college major was hard knocks. His mother died when he was in third grade. Two years later, Ron came home from school and saw a truck in front of his house. He was thrilled because "it meant something new must be being delivered." But on closer inspection, he saw the men from the truck were carrying things out of his home. At which point Simmons' father drove up in his '65 Pontiac and Ron asked, "Why are they taking everything out. Daddy?" He never got an answer. Simmons recalls, "The only thing I remember is that Dad made a right at the corner. I've never seen him again. Never heard from him. I don't know if he's dead or alive." Seven brothers and sisters were left on the curb; Ron subsequently was raised by an uncle and a grandmother.
The next few years weren't a lot better for Simmons. Going to school one day in Warner Robins, Ga., he fell and broke his right arm, and when the cast came off, the arm was much thinner than the left. Simmons wore long-sleeved shirts that sweltering summer to conceal the disparity and started weightlifting to build up his arm. At first he worked out with cement-filled tin cans, then he moved up to bench-pressing anything at hand: his bed, and any kids who happened by. Finally, with money he had earned working in a cafeteria, he bought a home gym that he had seen advertised for $40 in a comic book. Nowadays Simmons lifts 90 minutes a day (he has a 20-inch neck) and can bench-press a whopping 525 pounds. But more than strength, agility and smarts is needed to play noseguard, perhaps the least desirable position in the game. When asked what kind of person is ideally suited for it, Simmons replies, "Someone who likes to be abused." He laughs and says, "No, I don't really mean that, but believe me, you do get misused in that pileup of players. If someone told me you don't have to be strong to play this position, I would call him a liar. I know."
Nonetheless, whether taking it or giving it on the field, Simmons relishes the challenge. "You set out to do something in life," he says, "so you can say you're proud. Still, right now I'm a long way from doing all of what I set out to do." Which is gloomy news for the 11 teams on Florida State's schedule.