But another route could have manifested itself. The 2020 Olympic Games were scheduled to begin July 24 in Tokyo but have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Simmons could have taken the path of United States long jumper.
Before deciding to play college football at Clemson — following a late recruiting push by the Tigers — Simmons was a star long jumper at Olathe North High School in Olathe, Kansas. He won back-to-back state championships and set the school record with a leap of 24 feet, 5 inches — less than 2 feet from this year’s Olympic standard for the United States national team.
Track and field was Simmons’ first sport and first love.
“I will tell you this: If he were a full-time track athlete — I think he made the right decision, that kid has some ability like nothing I’ve seen — I think there definitely could have been some Olympic rings in his future,” said Chris Bostwick, Clemson’s jumps coach.
Simmons, who started by running for his parents’ track club as a kid, showed talent from an early age but didn’t seem to know his ceiling. His high school sprint coach, Eniak Mpwo, pulled Simmons aside during his freshman year to set him straight: “By time you leave the school, you’re gonna be one of the legends to go around here. You just don’t know. The ceiling is just so high. You have so much potential.”
Mpwo recalled the baby-faced Simmons looking at him with a blank stare.
Simmons went on to win long jump state titles as a sophomore and junior and missed a three-peat by 6 inches. As a senior, he finished second in the state in the 200 meters by .07 seconds and was part of the winning 4×100-meter relay.
“I could have sworn as a kid I was going to the Olympics,” Simmons said. “But then my body started changing, and football came along, and things switched up a little bit.”
Throughout high school, Simmons drew a crowd anytime he lined up on the runway. Opposing coaches and jumpers — even athletes in other events — gathered to get a glimpse of him. Physically, at least, he didn’t disappoint.
“He was just so much bigger than most of the guys anyway, and he’s got the uniform, he’s got a tank top and shorts, and he’s just chiseled,” said Chris McCartney, Simmons’ high school football coach. “He’s a huge guy.”
Instead of a track career, Simmons is days away from starting his first NFL training camp.
Track skills ‘like artwork’
The first time Bostwick met Simmons at Clemson, he vaguely knew who Simmons was.
It was early 2017, and the second semester of Simmons’ freshman year was just beginning. He was coming off a redshirt football season, with his freakish athleticism and dynamic football skills still under wraps. Bostwick knew that Simmons played football but knew his name because of his illustrious prep track and field career.
During their first meeting, Simmons expressed interest in competing in the long jump for Clemson. At first, Bostwick wasn’t sure. Sports at Clemson don’t usually share athletes — especially football players. But standing in front of Bostwick was a 6-foot-4½, 218-pound specimen of an athlete.
“I was definitely interested,” Bostwick said. “So we started talking from there.”
With football coach Dabo Swinney’s blessing and the compliance paperwork in order, Simmons joined Clemson’s track team in early February, Bostwick said.
It didn’t take long for Bostwick to see that Simmons hadn’t lost a step. Simmons, though, was still on the athletic schedule that he had all of high school: football in the fall and track in the spring.
“We got him going right away, and it was pretty impressive,” Bostwick said. “Our student-athletes usually have all of fall training — September, October, November, December — to get ready. Then this kid just pops in, and we start doing drills, and it just kind of blew me away.
“I’ve been around Olympic champions, had the chance to coach a couple of national record holders, and there’s only a few people that I’ve ever coached that, you know, technique’s good, this is good, this is decent, but when they come down the runway, it’s just like artwork. Nothing that I can teach. I can teach you to improve your technique, I can get you more explosive, but he’s one of those guys that when he just left the ground — it’s kind of like his football career — it’s just a storybook, never ending.”
In Simmons, Bostwick saw All-American potential and possibly the Olympics.
But Simmons jumped in just one meet for Clemson. He finished 13th in the ACC indoor track and field championships in late February, a few weeks after he joined the team, with a distance of 22.5 feet.
Bostwick put a disclaimer on that mark. Simmons, he said, was still learning how to jump in college, which has different rules than high school. In college, jumpers take off from a specific location on the board, but in high school, jumps are measured from wherever the feet leave the ground. That day, Simmons couldn’t figure it out, Bostwick said.
Mpwo believes Simmons could’ve increased his jumping distance to at least 26 or 27 feet had he continued jumping in college — 27 feet, 6 inches was the shortest of the U.S. Olympic qualifying jumps in 2016. The bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Games was won with a jump of 27 feet, 1.9 inches. The winning jump at last year’s NCAA Division I outdoor track and field championships was 26 feet, 11 inches.
That was the last time Simmons jumped. He returned to football for spring practice shortly after, and as is often said, the rest is history.
Looking at Simmons now — almost 240 pounds and carrying the weight necessary for an NFL career — it’s difficult to think that he could fly through the air so effortlessly (“We’d have to reinforce the boards,” Bostwick said). Then again, if he were only jumping, his frame would look vastly different.
“I say the sky’s the limit,” Bostwick said, “because I had the kid for a few weeks.”
Track still playing a role
Mpwo remembers seeing Simmons run the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine during a watch party with about 15 other people. He remembers seeing Simmons get down into his stance and then roll his shoulders and hips forward. That is a track technique, Mpwo said.
Simmons ran a 4.39-second 40, the fastest of any linebacker and sixth fastest of any player in Indianapolis this year.
ISAIAH. SIMMONS. 🔥
— NFL (@NFL) March 1, 2020
His career in track and long jump has helped Simmons’ fast-twitch muscles, Bostwick said, which has led to increased explosiveness.
“What translates the most would definitely be trust, that would be one, and then explosiveness,” Simmons said.
“And when I say trust, I mean that [to] be saying, so, in long jump, you have your steps that you and your coach commit to. So when it comes to meet day, just trusting your steps and not looking down at the board because you count, ‘one, two, three,’ and whenever you get to whatever number you are — me, I was seven — whenever I got to that, whenever I counted to seven to just jump. So that’s where the trust factor comes in.”
Track is something Simmons is still benefiting from, as it has granted him the kind of agility that could have him playing all over the field for the Cardinals.
“When you watch him on tape, you see him play the deep middle, the deep half, you see him play in the box, you see him blitz, rush the passer. He’s sort of a Swiss Army knife and does it all,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said after choosing Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick. “We call that kind of player an ‘eraser’ in this league, a guy that can cover tight ends.”