YORK – It was easy to hear Ricky Simmons’ full-throated words accompanied by animated gestures and movement Wednesday morning.
What was also apparent to a silent observer was how deeply those words were soaking into the hearts and minds of his audience.
Simmons, a star Husker receiver during the Turner Gill, Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier “Scoring Explosion” era of glory, spent nearly two hours among just more than 40 of the women who live inside the wire at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women.
The connection between speaker and audience flowed deeply in both directions, especially during the lengthy question-and-answer period Simmons insisted on allowing plenty of time for at the end.
After giving him a thundering, standing ovation the ladies swarmed Simmons to say hello and thank you.
Simmons signed autograph after autograph on whatever bits of paper the women were able to lay hands on.
Simmons told of growing up near Dallas where he was an elite athlete possessed of “pass, pass, puff” marijuana inclinations.
He drew waves of laughter as he recounted how his dream to become an Oklahoma Sooner and play for Barry Switzer was suddenly and irreversibly derailed when Tom Osborne knocked at the door while an OU recruiter was in the house. Simmons answered the door, gave Osborne the brush-off and closed it again after telling him, “Thanks for coming all the way down here from Alaska.”
Osborne persevered, however, and spent some quality time with Ricky’s parents.
Mother demanded he hear Osborne out and he soon learned Alaska and Nebraska were not the same.
“I’m pissed now, but I’m respectful,” he recounted, and so in deference to his mother he spoke with the legendary coach.
“I asked Tom, what kind of car you going to buy me?” but there would be no car.
“In my mind that was strike 1,” he said, sparking another big laugh in the room.
Strike 2 came when he asked what his fancy apartment would be like to which his mother broke the news there would be no apartment - he would live in a dorm the first year.
His perception of the weather? That was strike 3.
“Being from Texas, I just assumed it snowed 365 days a year,” in Nebraska.
Simmons was a big factor in a slew of Husker victories during his career, and also one defeat that still lives in legend.
“We went for two and didn’t get it in Miami,” he said, needing no more than those 10 words to identify the game in which Osborne turned down a near-sure tie with the national title on the line in the Orange Bowl, instead choosing to go for two and the win on a Turner Gill pass that fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired.
Simmons went on to play in the United States Football League and thus did not earn his degree at Nebraska.
It was then his decline into serious, daily use of hard drugs began in earnest.
“I was a full-blown addict and didn’t even know it,” by the time he was picked up by the Atlanta Falcons a couple seasons later when the USFL folded.
It got so bad, he told his rapt York audience, “The drugs actually spoke to me. The cocaine told me football was gettin’ in the way of my using” so “I quit the NFL to be a full-time drug user.”
That led to four prison sentences on top of drug rehab and other programs.
“I had nothing. I gave up everything. The only reason I was alive was because I couldn’t bring myself to take my own life.”
Then, a miracle.
While serving that fourth hitch in prison, an envelope was delivered to his cell door. It had his name hand-written on the front with a Nebraska Athletic Department sticker in the upper left corner.
Inside he found a few sentences of encouragement and an offer to do whatever he could to help written over the signature of Coach Osborne.
Osborn reminded Simmons that his parents had believed in him and that he (Osborne) believed in him, too.
His reaction to the completely unexpected emotional boost?
“I fell down on my knees and gave my life to God” right then and there, Simmons admitted.
That day inmate Simmons obtained a tablet and pen then wrote down three things to guide him.
No. 1 was Positive Mental attitude.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated, but don’t expect it in return.”
No. 2 was to have a plan for his life of recovery, the motivation for which is still provided by No. 3.
“Haters,” he said to an audience of women whose own experiences led them to immediately relate to exactly what he meant.
“People waiting for me to fail. When people start hatin’ on me it fills me up with pride or something” and only deepens his resolve.
Simmons came to understand those he thought to be his friends were in reality the polar opposite. So he bought two friends upon whom he could rely; a floppy-eared rabbit and a little dog named Sophie.
“When I come home Sophie says, ‘Let’s go for a walk’ instead of ‘Let’s commit some crimes tonight and go back to prison,”’ the direction in which false human friends had all-too-often led him.
Simmons told the women it’s no accident that, to this day, he drinks his morning coffee from a prison mug.
“It reminds me where I got it and it works just fine,” he added with a shrug, “so I don’t need to go back and get another one.”
Out of prison since 2010, Simmons drives hours and hours back to Dallas to pay an annual Thanksgiving visit to his parents in the cemetery where they rest.
“I’m in the grave yard crying” on Thanksgiving, he said, “apologizing to my parents. They never got to see the Ricky you see here today.”
Simmons understands that frequently the main difference between an inmate and someone on the outside is that one got caught and one did not.
“Some of the smartest people I’ve ever known were incarcerated, but nobody believed in them. Somebody believed in me when I really needed it,” he added, “and now I believe in you.
“It’s not easy,” he said of turning one’s life in the opposite direction. “You got to get out there and put in some work” to make it happen.
Simmons unapologetically admits he’s “corny” in the view of some. “You know the funny thing about being corny? People leave you alone.”
Simmons said he’s right where he wants to be doing exactly what he wants to do and has no one pulling his strings.
“I work for Ricky,” he said laughing. “He’s the best boss I’ve ever had.
“There ain’t no place I won’t go,” he said in answer to a question about his travels, “because I love what I do.”
Simmons speaks to audiences from “seventh grade up” in business, academic, educational settings and more. He has been a mainstay among male inmates the past five years, but Wednesday was his first visit to talk with incarcerated women.
By the reaction of Simmons and the women to each other, it won’t be his last.
“I’m here to lift you guys up,” he said. “Society has the negative covered so I concentrate on the positive.
“For everybody who wants to do the right thing,” he said, “I want to offer myself as a living example. I’m not going to quit,” he exhorted. “I’ll quit when it’s over … when life’s over.
“Everybody’s got something they like. I like helping people.”
Simmons hears great news in York
YORK – In the audience, sitting in silence at the side of the room as former Husker Ricky Simmons spoke for nearly two hours with more than 40 inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women early Wednesday morning, was Barry Carlson.
Carlson’s MidAmerica Speakers Bureau represents some 100 top-drawer presenters, not least of whom are Tom Osborne, Husker volleyball coach John Cook and others among the crème de la crème of public speakers.
Carlson stood at the end of Simmons’ remarks, introduced himself, spoke of his 100 speakers and noted there’s a waiting list of 300 more who have asked to be included by the firm, too.
To the obvious surprise and leaping delight of Simmons, Carlson sent the room into a pandemonium of clapping, cheering approval when he announced, “I think we’ve decided today we’re going to represent him.”
After the session while Simmons was being swarmed by well-wishers and autograph seekers from his audience, Carlson explained that MidAmerica manages bookings for its client speakers and assures each receives a reliable income for which a percentage fee is retained by the agency.
So impressed has Carlson himself been with the women he’s met inside the wire on several earlier visits, he personally encouraged all 100 of his clients to also consider visiting the prison and speaking to the ladies.