Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Michigan State reporter Luke Srodulski has hit the road to visit this year’s incoming class of freshmen and give you an inside look past Hudl highlights and head shots. Today’s story is on Ann Arbor (Mich.) Pioneer outside linebacker Antjuan Simmons.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Antjuan Simmons didn’t know what to expect from adaptive physical education class.
Then a junior, he walked into the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School gym for his newest elective, where he would work with students with cognitive impairments. For them, it is their release, as most spend the rest of their school days in classrooms separate from the general education students. For Antjuan, it was a whole new experience.
“Antjuan, you’re working with Tyler,” the other students told him. “Good luck.”
What’s wrong with Tyler? Antjuan thought to himself. Tyler — whose name has been changed in this story — has autism spectrum disorder. He suffers from anxiety so severe that the school bells frighten him and he has fits of anger toward almost any student or teacher who tries to work with him. Almost.
Antjuan didn’t know that. Instead of asking Tyler whether he wanted to play basketball, Antjuan just passed him the ball. “Shoot the 3!” he implored. No cursing, no clashing. Just friendly interaction.
“That was a first for me,” says John Los, a Pioneer paraprofessional and assistant football coach. “I’ve been working with (Tyler) for a year and a half. Even days he was nice to me, he wasn’t very nice.”
But to Antjuan, he was.
Now signed to play for Michigan State next year as an outside linebacker, Antjuan prides himself on his leadership. He’ll talk to anyone, advise anyone, motivate anyone. He plans to continue that lifestyle, which started in middle school amid family turmoil, once he moves on to East Lansing this summer. The adversity faced in those younger years produced the person he is now.
More than a year after their first interaction, Antjuan and Tyler continue to work together, both in adaptive physical education and in a Peer Connections class that Antjuan now takes. There, he’ll assist in one of the self-contained classrooms with cognitively impaired students like Tyler.
Antjuan has become a friend to many in special education classrooms. The challenge becomes trying to work with as many students as he can.
“All the kids pretty much know me,” he says. “There’ll be days where I’m supposed to be in one class but kids will be like, ‘Can you come to our class today?’”
In these classes, Antjuan fulfills his yearning to lead. He had long been that way on the football field, from his days as a quarterback to a running back to a linebacker. His coaches called him “Coach Simmons” because of his selfless attitude and desire to help his teammates. Now that role extends to other areas.
“Instead of just being like that on the field,” Antjuan says, “I started trying to make a lifestyle so people can always have someone to look to for advice or go to.”
That mentality traces back to seventh grade, when Antjuan attended Lincoln Middle School. He lost the main role model in his life when his father, Antonio Simmons, was arrested. And instead of looking for a different male figure to fill the void, he instead decided to become that person himself.
‘They took your dad’
It’s been five years since the day Antjuan’s life changed, and he still remembers it vividly.
No one was home when Antjuan arrived around 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2012. His mother had asked him to get a ride home with a friend, and he didn’t have a key. Usually his younger brother Dennis would be around. He walked around to the glass door in the back through which he could see inside the house. Drawers had been pulled out and papers strewn all across the floor.
“The house was just trashed,” Antjuan says. “I got really worried. I called my mom 20 times. I was calling everybody to see what was going on.”
Antjuan sneaked into his own house and waited. Eventually his mother, Tawan, Dennis and an older cousin came in. His mother sat down and told him.
“They took your dad,” he remembers her saying.
Antonio had been arrested on one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute a controlled substance, per U.S. District Court documents. He was later convicted and is not scheduled for release from prison until 2025, according to court records.
Dennis reacted one way to the family turmoil. He stopped taking part in extracurricular activities after school. He would go home and lie on his bed in silence. Antjuan, on the other hand, got mad.
“I was really angry at the system,” he says. “I wouldn’t dare let somebody tell me what my dad is or what he isn’t. I know who my dad is.”
Antjuan talked and emailed with his father whenever he could, but that wasn’t enough. He said his mother tried to fill the void, but sometimes he wouldn’t allow it. He rejected her efforts to discuss girls with him and instead called Antonio.
The absence of a male figure in his life still loomed large. Instead of looking to coaches or teachers as mentors, though, Antjuan tried to take on a fatherly role himself. He kept an eye on Dennis who, at just over one year younger but two grade levels below, needed guidance.
“I was on top of him every day,” Antjuan says. “‘You got your homework? You doing it?’ Then working out like, ‘We’ve got to do these pushups together. We’ve got to do this together.’ And he’d be like, ‘Mom, can you tell him to ease off and leave me alone?’”
Antjuan eventually did ease off, but not until after three years of brotherly discipline and prodding. Dennis despised it at the time, but in retrospect he’s appreciative.
“It was really helpful, actually,” Dennis says, “because he toughened me up.”
Though he takes it a little easier on his brother now, Antjuan hasn’t slowed down. He works at Applied Fitness Solutions, mainly handling child care, twice a week. He makes the 30-mile trip to Total Sports Wixom twice a week to work out. And this is in the offseason.
“Coach Simmons” expects a lot of others because he does of himself as well. In the classroom, he overcame a slow start academically to push his high school GPA well beyond the necessary mark for admission to Michigan State. At Total Sports, he goes first in speed and agility drills to set the standards, then cheers on others as they try to come close to his times.
Antjuan is a 4-star prospect, per the 247Sports composite, who attended high school across the street from Michigan Stadium, so the Wolverines seemed like a logical landing spot for his college career. Instead, he found a better fit at their arch rival, Ohio State, where he was committed for nearly nine months before reopening his recruitment. Michigan State, meanwhile, put itself in good position by maintaining its relationship with Antjuan throughout his commitment to OSU.
The whole time, the absence of his father led Antjuan to put more pressure on himself to perform. That’s where his mother comes in. After a 3-6 senior season that didn’t reach expectations, she told him something that still resonates.
“You do not have to be perfect,” he remembers her saying. “You can make mistakes and be OK with it.”
‘He’s a leader’
Three years ago, the Peer Connections class had one general education student. Now it has about 50. Antjuan is one of them, and Dennis plans to take the class when he’s eligible as a junior.
Most of Antjuan’s classes are mandatory, but not this one. He could graduate without it but he feels privileged to work with special education students who otherwise don’t have much interaction with general education kids.
“It actually feels like a real class,” he says. “You might not have to do all the paperwork and stuff for it, but you’ll have to put just as much effort.”
Pioneer varsity football coach Bill Bellers cuts in.
“More effort,” he contends. “You’re definitely learning. The things that are taught there just through the experiences with other kids, you can’t learn in a classroom interacting with other gen ed kids.”
After de-committing from Ohio State in November, Antjuan chose Michigan State largely because of its kinesiology and special education programs. Arizona and Notre Dame didn’t offer exactly what he wanted. Los, an MSU alumnus, pushed for him to pick the Spartans.
Bellers, on the other hand, will be trying to persuade Antjuan to come back to Pioneer someday — potentially as a special education leader and to become a football coach, earning the title to match his nickname.
When Antjuan is the subject, questions about sports result in answers about character. Sure, Antjuan would make a good coach because of his knowledge of the game. But that’s not the main reason.
“He’s a good person who happens to play some good football,” Los says. “He works hard without asking.
“He’s a leader.”
For the complete Michigan State NextGen series, click this link.