The Helicopter Kid: How a family got behind a dream

Tyler Simmons with family members, including father Shon (third from right) and step-mother Leah (second from right.)

POWDER SPRINGS – It wasn’t that the family needed the money. It didn’t. It wasn’t that Tyler Simmons needed football to get into college, or that football was his way out. He didn’t. It wasn’t.

There was just something that told all of them to push.

It went back to when Simmons was 4 years old. He turned into a different person when he got on the football field, his mother noticed. The quiet kid came alive. As the years went on, he kept loving the game. Even if it didn’t always love him back.

Then came the moment, years later, when Simmons went to his mother and expressed doubt about his dream, that maybe it was time to give up. It was his mother, Leslie Gray, and not just his father and football-playing uncles, who pushed back.

“No way,” Gray told him. “Football is in you. It’s embedded.”

The family – which included a father, mother, stepmother and five children — made a joint decision.

“We’re going to put everything into this,” Gray said.

The ‘frustrating’ recruiting process

When Simmons was around 8 years old, he was at Georgia Tech for a one-day youth camp. It was a short drive from where his family lived in Powder Springs. Now 18, he remembers approaching Paul Johnson, who had just been hired, and telling the Yellow Jackets’ head coach that he’d be back one day.

Confidence was never the problem. Neither was football knowledge; Simmons’ father Shon and Shon’s brothers had played in high school and at the small-college level. His speed shouldn’t have been an issue either.

Tyler Simmons at McEachern High School, where he enrolled last year. (SETH EMERSON/AJC).

But the football recruiting world, even as it has grown, still misses a few, for a variety of reasons. The family believed the problem was that Simmons, despite playing in the Atlanta area, didn’t get enough exposure at New Manchester High School. He was swallowed up in a sea of football talent.

So they began a near-constant tour of football recruiting camps. The first was in Athens during Simmons’ sophomore year. Then they went to Auburn, and a few others nearby. It didn’t yield any coveted offers.

“He was always fast, so he was always one of the faster kids there,” Shon Simmons said. “But without the film and without the push from the coaches, no one really wanted to take a chance on him.”

Shon Simmons, who played strong safety at Morehouse, is now in sales. He split with Gray after they had three children together, and later married Leah, who brought two children to their blended family.

All three of Tyler Simmons’ parents worked. The families weren’t struggling, and Simmons’ grades were good. But football, or at least his inability to get noticed, cast a pall. And not just on the kid himself.

“I sensed the vibe to him,” Tyler Simmons said of his father. “Basically what I feel, he was feeling. To see your son frustrated, when you know he wants to go D-1 in football, it kind of rubbed off on him.”

‘So we moved’

The family went all in. They went to camps at Penn State, Tennessee, Baylor, Florida, a combine in San Antonio. They didn’t have summer vacations. Those trips were the vacations.

“A lot of people laughed and thought it was useless and a waste of money and a waste of time,” Shon Simmons said. “But anything we could – we saw he was frustrated, we saw his dream and we wanted to make sure he had a shot.”

Leah Simmons, standing a few feet away, interjected.

“And we knew he had the talent to make it,” she said. “We just knew he wasn’t being seen at the school he was at. That it wasn’t being showcased.

“So we moved.”

Tyler Simmons with family members, including father Shon (third from right) and step-mother Leah (second from right.)

Yes, they moved. They were looking for a new house anyway, a bigger one given the new, bigger family. They did their research, and picked the district for McEachern High School, which was already stocked with highly-recruited players. One of Simmons’ new teammates and classmates was Julian Rochester, the future Georgia defensive tackle.

Simmons transferred in February of his junior year. A rather drastic personal step, but a necessary one, the family decided.

“I was nervous about switching schools, definitely, in his junior year,” Gray said. “What if it doesn’t work out, those types of things. What if this is all for nothing? I was nervous about that.”

The family was meticulous about the recruiting process. When Simmons was in the 10th grade, his father instructed him to list 10 schools he’d like to go to. Tyler did so, and then they got a camp schedule and tried to visit every school on the list.

There were the nearby schools, but more far-flung ones too. Baylor, for example, was on his dream list, because of its offensive system. So was Texas A&M, where there was a natural connection: Coach Kevin Sumlin’s father coached Shon Simmons’ father in high school. They also went to the Penn State satellite camp at Georgia State.

But the beginning of the breakout was a smaller one: Alabama State, where Simmons ran a 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash. His frustrations were about to end.

‘This is how much I believed in you’

Tyler Simmons was at school, on his way to lunch, when he got a Twitter direct message. It was from a Kentucky assistant coach, Derrick Ansley, whose name Simmons didn’t recognize.

“Is this a fake page or something?” he said. “(Ansley) was like: ‘What’s up dude? I watched your highlights. You’re a baller.’”

Simmons asked McEachern teammates who were deeper in the recruiting process whether they had heard or talked to this coach before. They told him to keep replying, which he did, and eventually he and Ansley spoke. It quickly led to an offer from Kentucky, his first full-ride offer.

“I’m running around my house, yelling,” Simmons said.

When a mid- or lower-tier SEC school is the first to offer, two things happen:

  • Similar or smaller schools take notice and jump in, too. Troy, Wake Forest and Syracuse offered.
  • The big SEC schools also start expressing interest, dipping their toe in the water while not quite offering a scholarship.

Simmons’ speed and highlight tape did the trick. Eventually, Georgia offered, in late spring of 2015. Alabama came next. And now Simmons was a full-fledged recruiting target.

Tyler Simmons finally got noticed for his speed. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

“When Georgia offered, we could’ve gone anywhere in the country and they would’ve known who Tyler Simmons was,” Shon Simmons said.

At first, Georgia’s offer was for Simmons to play defensive back, which was why then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was the lead recruiter. Then they watched more film and decided to switch him to offense.

Alabama’s lead recruiter was Kirby Smart.

Then the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator, Smart approached Simmons at last year’s state track meet. He showed him his phone, which had a video from the previous year’s track meet.

“This is how much I believed in you: I’ve been wanting you since Day 1. I recorded this,” Smart said, according to Simmons’ father.

Smart and Williams took pictures with Simmons, sent them back to Alabama coach Nick Saban, and invited him to Alabama’s first summer camp.

“Basically, Kirby was the one who wanted him the most,” Leah Simmons said. “That stood out.”

Alabama earned Simmons’ commitment in November. But Smart, verging on a new job, was upfront with the Simmons family.

“By this time he knew he was going to get a head coaching job. He just didn’t know where yet,” Tyler Simmons said. “He told me beforehand: ‘If you commit, if I get a head coaching job somewhere else, I’m coming for you.’”

Here come the helicopters

Saban was aware that Simmons’ commitment wasn’t firm, especially with Smart now at Georgia. So Saban sent word that day that as school ended they should watch for his arrival at the practice field. The whirring of the helicopter could be heard, and Saban got out, as students gawked, took photos and posted them to social media.

Kirby Smart flew to see several prospects in the “big banana” helicopter in February. TWITTER PHOTO

“I got called Helicopter Kid for a whole week after it,” Simmons said, laughing.

Smart had to answer. He landed his UGA-rented helicopter on McEachern’s game field, but it was during lunch time and Simmons wasn’t there – he was with Alabama assistant coach Bobby Williams. So Simmons found out via Twitter that Smart had landed at McEachern to see him.

Smart killed time instead talking to some of McEachern’s younger prospects.

Simmons also visited California, which was one of the first schools to recruit him. Then there was Miami, a visit that left an impression, if for no other reason than to see the former Georgia coaches – Mark Richt, Thomas Brown, Todd Hartley — in a different light. A happier one.

“It was different seeing them all in different colors, and a different environment. But they seemed more comfortable there,” Simmons said. “It wasn’t as much of a stress on them. They just seemed like they were having more fun there.”

It still came down to Georgia and Alabama. And it was excruciatingly close. The night before signing day, Tyler asked his father to give Saban a call. He was going to re-commit to the Crimson Tide.

This followed a day in which Tyler and his father had tried to isolate themselves, putting Tyler’s phone in airplane mode and going to the barbershop for a haircut.

“I need Alabama,” Tyler told his father. “It’s going to take me out of my comfort zone. It’s going to push me.”

“Are you sure?” Shon said.

“Yeah. Go ahead and give Coach Saban a call.”

They went home, sat on the sofa, and after an hour of being at the house, Tyler came back downstairs and said he had changed his mind. He wanted to go to Georgia.

“If you feel that same way in the morning, then you let the coaches from Alabama know,” Shon told his son.

Tyler literally slept on it. Then his decision was made.

“I woke up and said, ‘Go Dawgs,’” Simmons said.

On to Athens

Father and son seem to enjoy a relaxed relationship. At one point, Tyler was explaining about his first SEC offer.

Tyler: “From Kentucky.”

Shon: “February of this year.”

Tyler (deadpan): “Are you gonna let me talk?”

After Simmons’ recruiting heated up, another school to offer him was Georgia Tech. Simmons found himself in Johnson’s office.

“I told you I’d be back,” Simmons said.

Johnson didn’t remember the conversation.

It’s surreal, really. The family that struggled to get Tyler noticed is now headed to the SEC.

“It just shows you that hard work does pay off,” Simmons said. “A lot of people thought going to the camps and stuff was a waste. The people that were telling me it was a waste are coming to me now saying, ‘How can I get recruited?’”

Now there’s another Simmons about to enter the fray. Jordan, 14, is almost as fast as Tyler was at the same age. And he has something else going for him: The family won’t have to give up vacations to get him noticed.

Tyler took care of that.

“I had big dreams,” he said. “But I didn’t think they would be this big.”

Next Generation is a series of profiles on the individuals who have signed on with the Georgia Bulldogs and will join the team this summer.

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