Kendall Simmons was living his NFL dream when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Kendall Simmons’ first football memories were watching high school games in Ripley, Mississippi, a tiny town near the Tennessee border where William Faulkner once resided and First Monday Trade Days have been held for over a century.
“In elementary school, we’d play behind the endzone with the little plastic footballs they gave out,” he recalled. He joined a team for the first time in middle school, and by then he saw that the football players were town heroes. “As I got older, I started sitting down and watching the high school games. There was this one guy I always wanted to be like. We used to watch the principal go by his house with bags and bags of letters from colleges. Everyone wanted him to go to their school. I thought, ‘Hopefully I’ll have the chance to do what he’s doing one day.'”
Soon, Simmons was a star himself. “I just enjoyed the game. God blessed me with the size and ability, and I knew football was the only way I could go to school because my folks couldn’t afford it,” he recounted. Though they lacked the means to pay for college, his parents played an instrumental role in his success. “They always wanted us to be the best we could be and put for the best effort we could. Effort beats the person with the most talent.”
Simmons attended Auburn University where as an All-American offensive lineman he was a part of two SEC championship teams, also winning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy awarded annually to the best blocker in the SEC. At a certain point it became clear that Kendall had a shot at continuing his football career in the NFL.
In 2002 he would have his chance. Joined by his family and a crowd of friends, Simmons spent Draft Day outside of Auburn, Alabama. It was a party atmosphere with TVs both inside and outside, boisterous friends cooking and eating when Simmons received a phone call.
“I answered the phone and held my hand up. Everyone knew someone important was on the phone,” he shared. The crowd fell silent. “I started pumping my fist,” Simmons continued. “Everyone inside went crazy, then the people outside saw it on the screen and they went crazy too. My mom and dad kept saying, ‘We’re proud of you. We knew you could do it.’ It was a special moment being around that many people that you care about and who care about you.” The Steelers were the ones to call. Simmons had been drafted in the first round, something he had not expected.
Simmons married his college sweetheart and then showed up at training camp eager at a time when it was still standard practice for players to hold out for better contracts. He recalled some of his teammates encouraging him to try to get more money. He had other plans. “I was just so excited about coming to camp. My parents always said, ‘Do the best you can do.’ I wanted to go in and prove myself. I didn’t want to set a bad precedent and have the media talk about me holding out,” he said. “I wanted to go in and work for it.”
He shared his rookie experience: “I did the run test. Then, it was pads on and time to go. I was completely overwhelmed with it.” Simmons was ready to play, but he was also starstruck. “It was just an experience I wish more people could have, seeing some of those guys you see on ESPN. Just being around them and finding out they are real people.”
The best memories of Simmons ten-year career were forged at training camp. “My wife called it little boy camp,” he disclosed. “One year everyone had flying helicopters and gas-powered monster trucks that we’d get out. We’d have competitions like little kids,” he said. “Sometimes we had offense versus defense softball. I miss that part of it.”
A first-round draft pick, Simmons started fourteen games during his rookie season. Center Jeff Hartings, tackle Marvel Smith, and guard Alan Faneca helped with Simmons’ transition to the NFL. “Those guys took me under their wing and just made playing that first year so much better. I could relax. It took a lot of pressure off from being a first-round pick.”
Hall of Fame inductee Jerome Bettis also made an impression on Simmons. “Jerome Bettis sticks out the most of anybody because he treated everybody the same from what I saw.” The former guard talked about his experiences blocking for the Bus. “Jerome was such a big guy you only had to open up a crease. Nobody could arm tackle him. It was fun blocking for him and watching that 36 go by. He also recalled Bettis’ pregame pep talks: “He’d say, ‘Fellas, my brakes ain’t working tonight. Whoever’s in my way, they’re coming along also.’ That fired us up.”
Simmons loved football and he loved playing for the Steelers. “I loved getting dirty when it was raining and snowing. Night games I had the most fun. I tried to approach it like Friday night football. Bust through the paper and it’s time to play.”
Though Simmons was having fun, he received some difficult news before the 2003 season. Simmons learned he had diabetes. Initially misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Simmons later discovered he had Latent Autoimmune Diabetes of Adults (LADA), which is treated the same way as type 1 diabetes. “I credit the Rooney family for helping take care of me while I was there. They had raised kids who had diabetes. I don’t think my career would have lasted as long without them. They made everything so much easier for me.”
Though the Rooneys, the Steelers owners and operators, were extremely supportive, playing with diabetes was still a huge challenge for Simmons. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It was a roller coaster ride,” Simmons shared. It was always hard to manage his blood sugar levels during the games, especially after the first quarter. “When your numbers climb, you lose focus. Concentration is hard. I’d forget the snap count walking up to the line of scrimmage or the play that was just called.”
Simmons did not want to let his offensive line down. “On an offensive line, you are a unit. You are counted on. The weakest link causes the unit to fail,” he disclosed. “I did not want to be that guy regardless of how I felt. I still had some terrible games because my numbers were off.” Attempting to get his numbers right involved testing his blood sugar between drives and injecting himself with insulin as needed with supplies trainers carried around in fanny packs. Despite these tremendous challenges, Simmons started every game in 2005 and helped his team win a Super Bowl victory.
Simmons’ success came at a price. Diabetes slows down the recovery process and increases the risk of infection, a problem if you are a professional football player with frequent injuries. After fourteen surgeries over eight years of playing in the NFL, Simmons realized the time had come to retire. “Your body is telling you it’s time to sit down.” he said. “One of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my entire life was to say, ‘I’m done.'”
The transition to normal life was brutal for Simmons. He even had trouble watching games. “To be perfectly honest with you, it’s still hard to watch the entire game, especially if I see someone who is wearing 73.” Retired life also wasn’t what he thought it would be. He played a lot of golf for a while and gave coaching a shot for his alma mater, Auburn. Still, he felt lost. “I was absolutely miserable for a year and a half,” he shared. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Do I have a purpose?'”
Simmons eventually found his purpose as a spokesman for Novo Nordisk, a global leader in diabetes care. “Speaking took those feelings of uncertainty away. Novo Nordisk gave me an opportunity to give a gift,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for the Rooneys and Novo Nordisk.”
In addition to educating people about diabetes, Simmons passes on the wisdom he gained from his time with the Steelers and lessons he learned growing up in his hometown of Ripley, Mississippi. “No matter what position you are in life, no matter what sickness or disease you are dealing with, try to serve others. It makes things easier and you see that your problems diminish a little bit because you aren’t putting the focus on you and you alone.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Behind the Steel Curtain.
Photo: Flickr/Jessica Abad