Brenda Simmons watched as her son, Jeffery, became a public villain.
Then they leaned on each other to deal with the fallout.
This was in the immediate aftermath of March 24, 2016, the day Jeffery Simmons struck Sophia Taylor. An altercation at the Mayfair Apartments in Macon, where Jeffery and his mother lived, led to Jeffery striking Taylor multiple times — after Taylor allegedly said something derogatory about Jeffrey’s deceased nephews, according to a deleted Facebook post Jeffery made after the incident. The fight caught on video, and Jeffery ultimately pleaded no contest to simple assault.
At the time, Jeffery Simmons was the crown jewel of Mississippi State’s 2016 signing class: a U.S. Army All-American, rated as the best player in the state and second-best defensive tackle in the nation according to 247 Sports. Then he became the lightning rod for criticism: there were cries for MSU to strip his scholarship, to cancel his impending addition to the football team, even for Simmons’ arrest.
“I wanted to reach out and tell people, you don’t know my child. You don’t know him,” Brenda Simmons said. “I just let them do it, because one thing I know: people are going to talk. That’s one thing I tell my kids, people are going to talk.”
They reached that conclusion out of faith — faith in Jeffery. They knew the events of that day were not a true representation of him, and they knew time would prove that belief.
That faith has paid off.
Over the last three years, Jeffery has slowly transitioned from being defined by a mistake to being known as one of college football’s best defensive linemen. The MSU junior and Macon native declared for the 2019 NFL Draft earlier this month, making the 11 a.m. Tuesday Outback Bowl (ESPN2) his final game as a Bulldog.
His exit from the program will be celebrated for the actions that came after his incident, and he will always be celebrated in Noxubee County for his actions even before it.
“You cannot judge 12 minutes, 15 minutes, however long that incident was, compared to 17, 18 years of his life,” his high school coach, Noxubee County coach Tyrone Shorter, told The Dispatch. “(Because of) his character, he didn’t allow that situation to pull him down. He realized people are going to look at him different, but he realized he had to prove people wrong, he had to let them know, ‘That’s not me. I’m just being a protector.’
“The kid’s character speaks for itself,” he added. “He didn’t allow anything negative to hold him back and I think that’s what inspires him to be what he’s become today.”
A Noxubee County icon
Part of what he’s become today is a Noxubee County icon.
The football-crazed area was likely to treat Simmons as a legend anyway, given the consecutive state championships his junior and senior season with eight of the 10 playoff victories coming by 20 points or more.
He’s beloved even more because he has embraced that role and never let it slip.
“It would’ve been easy for him to go to Mississippi State and you never see him here anymore,” Shorter said. “He comes to every (Noxubee County) game he can come to, I see him at the peewee football games. It’s huge for somebody at his level right now to care about this community, come down here, be with these kids, visit school, come to the weight room and talk to the guys and work out with the guys.”
As Brenda put it, “Jeffery really cares about kids that look up to him.”
He was comfortable with this mantle at a young age. Brenda Simmons remembers the 2012 Noxubee County team, when Jeffery was a freshman and his brother Dylan Bradley was a senior. Dylan was injured and started receiving calls from teammates, doubting their ability to win in his absence. Jeffery saw the opportunity to lead, telling his teammates that playing the way they had been playing as all they needed to win.
That team went on to win the state championship.
Experiences like these are nothing new for those that are close to Jeffery. He is always in the interest of building people up, even telling his nephews to be better than him and encouraging them to reach that high plateau.
He will also be building his mother up sooner rather than later. If the first-round projections for Simmons come true and he receives a signing bonus of several million dollars, Brenda will be one of the first beneficiaries.
“That’s all he’ll talk about: taking care of his mom. He doesn’t want her to suffer,” said Gary Naylor, a longtime fixture in Noxubee County and its athletics scene, often as an assistant coach for the high school. “I talk to Jeffery at least once a week, myself. He wants to do it for his mom.”
Brenda has never doubted he would do so. She doesn’t know what that means exactly, not ruling out a move to whatever NFL city Jeffery ends up in.
Building a positive legacy
When Jeffery does suit up in his professional uniform, he’ll be doing so with the football gifts that will make him remembered in MSU lore for decades.
His name is already all over the school record books: his 30 career tackles for a loss are seventh in school history, and two more would tie him for sixth with Tyrone Keys. He is one tackle for a loss short of cracking the top five in school history for single-season tackles for a loss.
He entered this season with three blocked kicks, all from last year, second-most in a given MSU season and tied for fourth-most in a MSU career.
The evidence of greatness to come was obvious from the beginning.
“Honestly, even when he was being recruited in high school, you saw the potential when he was playing high school ball,” Nelson Adams, a senior defensive lineman when Simmons entered the program in 2016, told The Dispatch. “Jeffery’s probably the strongest person I’ve seen in college ever. Weight room strong, naturally, both. He worked hard in practice, ready to get better every day with the right attitude, all that stuff.
“What impresses me the most is how much better his technique has gotten since he was a freshman,” he added. “When he first came in he was mostly going on pure strength; now, he’s learned how to play a game, his technique’s gotten a lot better.”
He’ll never totally escape the incident from 2016. But he doesn’t intend to stop building a legacy of positive behavior to counter it.
“I always try to block distractions out. Seeing stuff like that’s a distraction, so I see that and keep on scrolling,” Jeffery said. “It’s life. You have stuff like that in life, but you have to move on and scroll right past it.
“I always had that ability, but during the incident that happened with me, it made me much stronger than what I was,” he added. “After that, everything inside me tightened up and made me stronger.”
That mission speaks directly to what Jeffery has wanted to accomplish all along, Shorter said.
“He was determined to be a great person, he was determined to be a great football player, he was determined to be a great student,” Shorter said. “He’s had people around him that would steer him in the right direction, but the most important thing: that kid wanted to be great, that kid wanted to make something out of himself, I remember that.”