In March, his alma mater, Martin County High School, trailed Ponte Vedra in the second half of the 6A high school state championship game in Florida. A late rally threatened Martin County’s lead, but trailing seconds combined with a two-possession margin sealed victory. For the first time in more than 40 years, Martin County will be the state champion.
Simmons, one of Martin County’s most beloved alumni and a former Tigers basketball player, was unable to watch the state semifinals in person, so he watched them that night the only way he could: stream the game live. on your phone.
When Ponte Vedra’s last-minute three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left missed the target and the buzzer sounded, the excitement of the Tigres returned to their field. Some ran the entire length. Some gathered near the central courtyard.
The former Tigre took his emotion to Twitter.
“State Champions! They may not like it, but they must respect it. Call them boys!” He tweeted immediately after the game.
As it turned out, Simmons had planned to “call” them himself. To help the school and give the team a game of rings beyond his imagination, the Bronx All-Pro safety told Martin County that he and his wife will donate the funds needed to give students the jewels that a champion team deserves.
To him, it represented what it was: a celebration of a team coming together to accomplish something greater than themselves, something that hadn’t been done in Martin County since 1979.
However, for the athletes, coaches and schools, it was much more.
“It’s a great thing he did,” said Martin County head coach John Leon, “but he’s a bigger person than just buying our team a ring.”
In a nod to his salad days in basketball, Justin Simmons’ glasses are no longer pink.
“He was watching a few years ago, I had some old DVDs of some movies when he was playing, and I definitely thought it was a lot better than it was,” Simmons said. “It is true.”
He may be underestimating his abilities. As a senior, he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per game, roaming the frontcourt as a 6-foot-2 forward/center. He had already received a scholarship to play Division I football at Boston College, and four years later, his vertical jump would measure 40 inches, the best at his position in his NFL draft class.
“We were a small group,” Leon said. “He was like, ‘Coach, I’m going to play center and just grab rebounds.’ He was the guy who was like, ‘Just tell me what to do. “Asking questions, asking what to do. Of course his talent was immense and he could have scored 40 if he wanted, but I think he wanted the team to do well, I think he played centre-back, some strikers. Mostly it was Blocking shots, getting rebounds, getting some dunks.
Surprisingly, Simmons was kind of the glue for the team. Martin County assistant coach Alton Edwards, a former teammate of Simmons in high school and middle school, said he can play any position asked of him.
“Probably one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever played with,” Edwards said. “He always competed: practices, games, off the court, in the movie theater, he competed everywhere. I mean, he took the intensity of the team to another level.”
In Simmons’ senior season, Martin County made their deepest run to the state tournament since being on the team. They won their first two games by an average of 27 points. But there was heartbreak in the state semifinals and the Tigers lost by one point. Simmons fired one last shot at the market.
“Our point guard had the ball and he got a double right away, so he passed it to me,” Simmons recalled. “I dribbled down the court to shoot and missed. So it was tough. You don’t care about the athlete you are, how you miss, how it looked, how hard the shot was. The chance to win. So I was just crying. I was mad that it was over. I was mad that I failed.”
A decade later, it’s just as memorable for Leon, who also coached Martin County at the time.
“That was his last game,” Leon said. “I remember, he just broke down. Me and him would walk off the court crying together… This guy had already signed with Boston College, so everybody knew he was a great football player. But he lost, that injury.” Bad it was one of those moments, I’ll never forget it. It means a lot to him…
“It was definitely his motivation: his teammates, me as a coach. It was the school. I felt like I was letting everybody down, you know? It was a great thing, just to witness a guy with that ability, and it meant a lot. .”
To this day, Simmons and his former coach remain close. Simmons goes to games and camps when he can, and the school makes sure he gets a seat behind the bench.
“That’s my guy,” Simmons says. “He’s a big reason why I’ve been so successful. Obviously in my career, but just in life. I really appreciate his insight and his confidence in keying me most of the time when we’re playing basketball. One of the reasons is when I’m out there playing safety. What I like to think of as a good problem solver is that I can figure things out, because Coach Leon used to figure things out for me when I was in high school. That helped me a lot. … I love that he’s like a father figure. He’s an inspiration to me.
Martin County’s most famous athlete, its most famous native, also plays in it all.
He left Stewart’s hometown for college in Boston in 2012 and then for the NFL in Denver in 2016, but he never really left the area. His wife, Terin, is also a Martin County graduate, so they return annually for extended periods.
Beyond the Simmons’ athletic interests, they also have an impressive profile in the community. Justin and Taryn run the Justin Simmons Foundation, whose goal is to make a difference in the lives of children, and that includes the Stewart case.
“Everyone looks up to him because that’s what we all want to be later in life,” said Martin County alumnus Ryan Davis. “That’s our dream, to see what he’s been and where he’s been. To see how he’s done, he’s done well and he’s always been a good guy and he’s always given back, it just shows an example. It gives us an example. That’s what we have to do, what we have to work on and if we can finally do it, give back to those who work for us and give us time.
Simmons’ athletic success has made him a role model for student-athletes like Davis, who was a senior on the Martin County championship team and graduated in May. But what Simmons does over him is what makes him ideal.
“He’s a professional athlete, so everyone here is obsessed with Justin,” Edwards said. “He’s been like this since probably 12th grade. He’s basically become a larger-than-life figure here. But you’d never know talking to Justin. He’s still the same. But if you go up to Martin County and Justin. They all know. illuminate”. when you say Simmons name. He’s basically the LeBron James of Martin County.”
However, Simmons doesn’t necessarily want to be seen as a big deal.
“Where I’m from, you know?” Simmons said. “… I want it to be natural for me to be watched in my hometown. Because I’ve been able to do something special to get to the NFL, and obviously the percentages aren’t always in your favor. But I want to be there. I want to be seen because I’m in I went to the same school, I took the same academic classes, I played on the same sports team, and it’s possible to do and pursue great things where we come from. Follow your dreams and your goals. You can’t do it alone, and that’s why Taryn and I do our charity work. Part of what we love to do. We want to be the resource to help kids achieve their goals, their dreams. They want to achieve everything they have.”
But if he’s seen as the LeBron James of Martin County anyway, it makes sense for him to help out with the rings. He and Taryn talked it over and the wheels were set in motion shortly after winning the championship. Edwards estimates that he found out half an hour after the game.
“We thought, ‘How cool would it be for these guys to win something [in honor of] something that hasn’t been done at our school in a while?'” Simmons said.
Typically, in these situations, the school will work with promoters, community members, and/or sponsors to gather resources for championship rings. Instead, they don’t have to worry about it.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” former Martin County athletic director Mark Cowley said. “…Justin moving forward like this saved us a ton of money.”
Simmons even encouraged them to go further than they did: “Justin said, ‘Shine it up, baby. Let’s do it right,'” says Cowley.
In June, almost three months after the game, the team gathered at the Fresh Catch restaurant for one last time as a team and to receive their rings.
“We knew it was our last time as a team,” Davis said. “…It was a special moment to close out the season…It showed that all the hard work finally paid off with the ring.”
And when Coach Leon says he thinks “it’s inherited,” he’s talking about the importance of rings for kids, but he could be referring to Simmons’ decision.
“It’s a memory of a lifetime that they can share with their grandchildren,” said Leon. “…The ring just means a place in history, and Justin doing that for us definitely adds to the family atmosphere that we have here: the community. We had a parade. We had grandparents, we had teammates from ’72. And ‘ 74. Tim goes out, stuff like that. So I think Justin is a part of it, that whole family.”