It wasnt long after Coastal Carolina University found its first head football coach that it had its first player as well.
Soon after David Bennett signed on with the Chanticleers, little-known freshman linebacker Maurice Simpkins decided he also was leaving Catawba College and following his coach to Conway.
It only seemed logical. After all, Bennett was the only college coach who thought Simpkins could play at that level, so Simpkins, in turn, was ready to show a little faith as Coastal launched its football program.
If youve ever met coach Bennett, why would you not? Simpkins said over the phone Thursday in advance of his induction into the schools Sasser Athletics Hall of Fame. ... He was the only person who believed in me coming out of high school. I had nobody after me. Coach Bennett showed up at my house and I was like, Wow, I have a chance to play college football. Coach Bennett saw something in me I didnt see in me.
Simpkins has spent much of the last 10 years proving that to be true, first as a three-time All-Big South Conference selection with the Chants and then ultimately as an NFL player in brief stints with the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams organizations.
And Friday night, the linebacker and his former coach will reunite where it all began as Coastal honors Simpkins and Quinton Teal as the first football inductees into its athletics hall of fame as part of a five-person induction class.
Bennett will be making his first appearance on campus since finalizing his separation from the school following his removal as head coach after last season. He will give speeches on behalf of both of his former players -- like Simpkins, Teal was a three-time all-conference pick and one of the programs early stars.
It aint about me. Its way bigger than me, Bennett said in an interview this week.
While he didnt want to make much of his return to campus, he was happy to share a few recollections and thoughts about his former players. Naturally, that turned into a 40-minute conversation inside his office at Socastee High School, where he now works as athletic director.
Behind every person, theres a story, Bennett said.
And in Simpkins case, its an especially interesting one.
An active mind
Simpkins still works out four to five times a week and runs a couple miles a day while staying in shape in case another football opportunity comes his way, but for the most part hes moved on to his other passion.
He now runs his own company from his home just outside of Atlanta, Ga., as an independent IT consultant for higher education. Speaking over the phone Thursday, he talks about a new idea hes implemented at one school where students can view their admissions letters -- acceptance or otherwise -- online rather than having to wait for it to arrive in the mail.
Its a career path he began while still grinding through the lower rungs of professional football on his road to the NFL, and odds are he was the only professional computer programmer to suit up for the Packers during their 2010 run to the Super Bowl.
Im a natural-born programmer. Its my calling, he said. I love football. I love a lot of things in life, but I think in code. Thats how my brain operates.
So while hell be honored Friday night for his football accomplishments at Coastal, hell be the first to suggest that he was always stronger as a student than as an athlete. In fact, Bennett said, thats the first impression he made after transferring from Catawba in the spring of 2002.
Ill never forget a professor there at Coastal, I couldnt hardly understand what he said, but I saw him on the bridge outside the Wall College of Business and he gave me a thumbs up, Bennett said. Matter of fact, he went from one thumb to two thumbs, and he said Coach, yall keep bringing student-athletes here like that.
But, of course, it wasnt long before Simpkins was garnering attention on the field as well.
The following fall he was one of 17 players on the Coastal football roster as the program laid the foundation in practice for its debut 2003 season.
Bennett rattles off a list of names -- trailblazers of the program -- who could be considered for induction into the CCU athletics hall of fame, and Simpkins no doubt earned his spot as one of those driving forces in the early success of the program.
He still owns three of Coastals top-10 single-season tackles totals and ranks second in program history with 272 total tackles, tied for first with 34 tackles for loss and third with 14 sacks. He was an integral part of the Chants first two Big South championship teams in 2004 and 2005 as the program quickly rose into a relevant FCS challenger.
Football came to Coastal. Coastal wasnt ready for it, it wasnt ready for it, but it was neat seeing it work, Bennett said. And it worked because of the people.
An unlikely path
Simpkins journey after Coastal is even more intriguing, though.
He played indoor football for the Rock River Raptors in Illinois and then briefly the Columbus Lions in Georgia before deciding it wasnt the right fit for him after a few games. All the while, he had started on his other career path, working as a programmer for various small colleges in and out of football season.
Needless to say, he was not on any sort of well-traveled path to the NFL.
Then in 2010, he got a call from his old coach with the Raptors, who was working with the Green Bay Blizzard of the Indoor Football League.
He told me he was coaching a team in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and would I be interested in coming to play? Simpkins recalled. And I was like Yeah, Titletown USA, what are you talking about it?
While he was there, he was flooding the inbox of a Green Bay Packers football operations guy with emails of his stats from each game and YouTube highlights, etc.
His persistence paid off when the Packers called him on a Tuesday morning during their 2010 training camp and asked if hed be interested in coming in for a tryout.
I was sitting at home on the computer working one morning, about 9:20-9:25, and my phone rung, he said, telling the story. It was a 920 number -- I didnt recognize it -- and it was Eliot Wolf (now the teams director of pro personnel). He said Are you in town? Wed like to bring you down for a workout if youre in town. He said, Can you be here by 10 oclock? I jumped up screaming and yelling and made a few phone calls, started stretching and I went down there. ...
And from there, it was a dream come true.
His first preseason exhibition game came against the Cleveland Browns in the Packers historic Lambeau Field, and he remembers delivering a tackle on his first play on special teams.
I came out on the field in pregame, and Im teary eyed. Straight up, Im not even joking, he said, telling the story. In my head, Im saying Im ready to play ball ... but in my soul Im saying, Dude, youre standing in Lambeau Field right now in a Green Bay Packers uniform. Do you realize that? I did my full pregame routine with tears in my eyes because it meant so much to me to get to that point from where I started.
Simpkins was sent down to the Packers practice squad before the start of the season, but in week five he was called up to the roster to play against the Washington Redskins. Hed spend three weeks with the team, playing in two games -- primarily on special teams -- before ultimately being released.
A few weeks later I get the call to come into the office and that basically that whirlwind honeymoon was coming to end pretty much, he said. It was before that I realized it was a business, but at that point it solidified it that it was a business. And I cant disrespect that because Im a business man myself.
So Simpkins said he went back to his other life, as a computer programming consultant, before getting a call late in the season from the Rams. They wanted to fly him in for a tryout, so he brought enough clothes for two days.
But they said, Youre not going home, he recalled.
He was put on the practice squad there too and was later released before the following season, but he had reached his goal -- one even Bennett admits seemed unlikely at a certain point.
He kept playing arena ball, and I said, Why? Just go on and work your job, Bennett said. He was doing both because he wanted to prove he could make it to the NFL -- the highest level of football -- and he did. He can always look back the rest of his life and on into eternity and say I did it.
Hall of Famer
These days, Simpkins is focusing on his business -- A.M. Simpkins Associates -- and looking to hire other programmers who share his passion and skill set. He also runs a clothing line -- Young Black Successful -- that operates online.
Hes not saying hes done with football just yet, but if he is, well, hes satisfied with where it took him.
Friday night offers an opportunity to celebrate a part of that journey.
Its real big to me, he said. This is a real big accomplishment in my life. Its something that I looked forward to, but its not something I saw coming to fruition this soon.
And whether or not it gets brought up Friday night, he reiterates that his academic career at Coastal has been every bit as influential in his life as his success on the field.
[Football] opened so many doors for me, he said. I opened a clothing line. I started my business. So theres a lot of things that have come out of it. This event this weekend is more or less to praise my athletic accomplishments at Coastal, but I also want to shed light on my successes in my career based off of the academics I received at Coastal Carolina as well. I think so many times that side of it gets left behind.
As for the ceremony itself, he has a pretty good idea what stories Bennett will tell about him in his introduction speech. Probably the one about the professor outside the business school. And the one about Bennetts first recruiting visit to see Simpkins, when he tapped the player on the thigh and told him he was going to develop into a linebacker one day even though he had always been a defensive back.
Mostly, hes looking forward to reuniting with his old coach and reliving some of those memories at the place where it all began.
Said Simpkins: As soon as they told us we were going to be presented by someone, he was the only person in mind.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.