In the life of an addict, there is what you take and what you lose. Roy Simmons took more than most. His laundry list of drugs and sex is too long to chronicle; he blew through money, fame and football with so much partying, you’re surprised he even remembers it. The ring they gave him for playing in a Super Bowl was supposedly stolen by a lover while Simmons was sleeping, and in his crash-and-burn saga, that is merely a footnote. Quitting the New York Giants on the verge of stardom, standing on the Golden Gate Bridge ready to kill himself, having Phil Donahue tell the world “Roy Simmons is now and has always been gay,” or hearing a doctor tell him he is HIV positive – these are all bigger moments than a ring disappearing in a hustler’s pocket.
But there is what you take and what you lose, and to understand this story – which will disturb you – you must look and listen to 49-year-old Roy Simmons sitting now across a table in New York City, his big frame suggesting the NFL lineman he once was.
He is talking about what he lost.
When he was 11 years old.
“We lived in a row house in a poor section of Savannah. Dirt road. The kind of place where you would knock on the wall and talk to your neighbors – at least until we got a telephone.
“Three doors down from us, there was this man, a postman. He was an alcoholic. His wife was one of my mother’s best friends. She would pay me to do chores, you know, Roy, take the garbage out, or put curtains up for me.’
“One day I went over, she had a list for me to do, and her husband, the postman, was around the house. She went out. He was in the bedroom. I commenced to vacuuming. I remember him coming down the hall and when he passed me, he bumped me. I didn’t think nothing of it.
“Then I was vacuuming, and he called to me from the bedroom. And he told me to come in there. So I did. And he started pulling down my pants. And I was just so I was frozen
“And he threw me on the bed, turned me around, and he did what he wanted to do.”
No child should suffer
You don’t go anywhere in judging Roy Simmons – the second NFL player to reveal he is gay, and the first to admit to being HIV positive – that doesn’t begin right there. Whatever chances he later threw away, however much money he wasted, however many bodies he slept with or however much cocaine he snorted, what happened to him as a kid can’t happen. Adults are supposed to protect children, not abuse them.
Simmons says he never more than kissed a girl on the cheek before the afternoon he allegedly was raped. He ran home. He hid from his grandmother. He scrubbed himself in the bathroom. And he threw his underwear in the hamper.
“They had blood on ’em,” he says. “I should have thrown them away. But this is a boy, maybe, who wanted someone to find out.”
Someone found out. His grandmother found the underwear. She confronted him. She first asked if his stomach was sick.
He said, “I ain’t sick, Grandma.”
“Did somebody touch you?”
“Did somebody bother you?”
He wanted to tell her. He couldn’t tell her. But a few days later, he confided in a female cousin, a bold young woman who raced outside and, as he recalls, yelled at the man’s house, “You bastard! You dirty bastard! We know what you did!”
Roy Simmons jumped off the porch and ran.
Taking a leave from the NFL
In a way, he has been running ever since. Simmons would grow to be a fast, powerful, 6-foot-3, 264-pound offensive lineman who starred at Georgia Tech and was drafted into the NFL and played for four seasons, protecting the likes of New York’s Phil Simms and Washington’s Joe Theismann. He even played in the 1984 Super Bowl – which proved to be his final game in the league.
Along the way, he says – and remember most of this is strictly his account – Simmons did everything the NFL doesn’t want you to do. He snuck out after curfew. He got high. He drank. He partied. He snorted cocaine. He slept with countless women and countless men. He fathered a daughter whom he mostly ignored. On road trips, he says, he would steal away from the hotel, visit men’s bathhouses, and get back in time for the 9 o’clock meeting. Before home games, he’d sneak out, go back to his place, do drugs, party with friends, and get back in time for the morning meeting.
And then he’d play football.
He played in 58 games – including every Giants game for three straight seasons from 1979-81. To the outside world, he was just another big man in pads – like the big men in pads you will see tonight in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field – who crouched on each snap then sprung up violently. He remembers “the greatest feeling – knowing the hole you opened led to a touchdown.”
But his lifestyle was so out of control that in 1982 he told his New York coach, Ray Perkins, that he was leaving football for a year.
“You can’t do that,” he remembers Perkins scolding him.
“Coach, I’ll be back,” he said.
“It’s not normal,” the coach said.
He had no idea how not normal it was.
Simmons worked as a baggage handler supervisor at Kennedy Airport. He made small money. And he kept up his double life. After a year of trying to cool down, he returned to the Giants. He came to training camp. But they had a new coach now, a no-nonsense guy named Bill Parcells.
“I thought it was a beautiful thing, I was coming back in good shape, I wanted to be there,” Simmons says, “but then they cut me. Parcells called me into his office. He said something like we’re not running a charity here.’
“First I was shocked. Then I was furious.”
He says he dealt with it by smoking some marijuana, then sitting on a rock in Central Park. He called a friend named Jimmy Hester, who always had looked up to Roy. Jimmy was like a little brother. Jimmy said, “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine.”
That night they went to Studio 54, where, Simmons says, after some serious partying, he wound up dancing with Joan Rivers.
A week of Super partying
Twenty years later, in the spring of 2003, Jimmy Hester found Roy Simmons living in a single room in a Long Island halfway house. “He had lesions on his back,” Hester says. “He was in such bad shape, he couldn’t walk up a flight of steps.”
What happened over those two decades is a long, sad tale of indulgence, addiction and waste. Simmons joined the Redskins for one season, but he never stopped the drugs or the sex. The Redskins made the Super Bowl, but for Simmons it was more like a toga party. He says he had women and men in the hotel all week. They did drugs. They drank. Then the game came. He played sparingly, and the Redskins were pounded, 38-9, by the Raiders. Afterward, Simmons buried his disappointment in his normal ways, a haze of substances.
He was cut the next year, joined the rival United States Football League, and the money kept him afloat for a while. All this time, he lived in fear of players discovering his homosexuality. “It’s paranoia,” he recalls. “You wonder, Do they know? Did they follow me? Did they see who I was with the night before?’ “
In the end, Simmons did himself in quicker than anyone else. The drugs ate up his money. He went from living in apartments to living in the streets. He says he pistol-whipped a man. He says he stole his friends’ possessions and sold them for crack. He was an addict, and he did what addicts do, lie, steal, prostitute themselves. He would go up and down. He tried cleaning up. He tried the church. He even tried honesty: He came out of the closet on, of all places, “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1992, admitting he was gay and hearing an audience gasp but eventually applaud.
When his former teammates found out, their reaction was, “Are you crazy?” The NFL wanted no part of gay athletes. If Simmons felt a burst of purity from his national confession, it didn’t last long.
Within a month, he was back on drugs.
And then, one night, he says he found himself standing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, with his eyes closed, with the water 200 feet below him, hoping to fall backward and end it all.
A chance to turn it around
You can try dying or you can try living, and fortunately, for Simmons, he had friends who insisted on the latter. Hester, who had success in the music industry, took in his friend a few years ago and connected him with a holistic detoxification program in Martha’s Vineyard. He also brought him to a church called the Apostolic House of Prayer.
“We baptized Roy, and he was doing well in the church, even singing with the choir,” recalls Pastor Marcia Buckley. “But he still wasn’t being totally honest about the rape he’d suffered. Today, he’s different. He loves the Lord, and he prays to continue to fight.
“I personally can relate to him, because I suffered molestation from age 10 to age 16. So many people do. As a child, you feel caught between were you wrong, or was the other person wrong?
“You either keep replaying it over and over, or you bury it. I think with Roy, he was acting it out and was covering up his pain with all the drugs.”
You look at Simmons now, across the table, his broad forehead, tired eyes, raspy voice, quick smile, and for all the horrors he inflicted on himself – and who knows, with HIV, maybe others – you can’t help but go back to that afternoon in a row house when he was 11 and a postman changed his world forever.
That man was never arrested. Never charged. Young Roy would walk with his head down and avoid passing the man’s house. Yet the man tried to do it again, Simmons says, a few months later, luring Roy to a hotel room by promising him money, before passing out drunk.
Statistics show nearly half of America’s rape victims are under 18, and almost two-thirds of perpetrators are known to the victim.
“Stop the rapists,” Simmons says. “Every day it occurs in the United States. Some child is being molested. Stop the rapists. That’s my message.”
Lessons from his struggles
Roy Simmons is in Detroit this weekend. He hopes to go to Super Bowl XL. He says he reached out to the league for a ticket, but he says he was refused.
Tickets are one thing. But for the NFL to shiver from stories like Roy Simmons’ is to deny the way the world really works. After all, not everyone fits the tidy, tucked-in image the NFL loves to exploit. Do you really think he is the only ex-player with a scary story? Do you really think among the 90 or so athletes who suit up for tonight’s game there isn’t someone with an issue, a problem or a secret?
Super Bowls already have seen Atlanta’s Eugene Robinson, arrested for soliciting a prostitute the night before the 1999 game, and Cincinnati’s Stanley Wilson, found in a cocaine stupor the night before the 1989 contest. No matter how bloated the Super Bowl gets, these are still human beings playing it.
Simmons, who says he has not been sexually active in three years, is essentially homeless and near-broke, living with Hester and trying to promote his life story, “Out of Bounds,” which was recently published.
According to Hester, Simmons was being considered for numerous high-profile TV shows, and then Oprah Winfrey and James Frey happened, and the shows all dropped the idea, because who wanted another rehab story that might blow up on them?
Well, Simmons is responsible for his own words and his own tale. But you can learn a lesson anywhere. And sordid details are not what this is about.
This is about what you take and what you lose. And for all the harmful taking he did later on, no one should have to lose what Roy Simmons lost on that afternoon in Savannah. You steal someone’s childhood, you haunt their adulthood forever.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. www.freep.com/mitch.