As Washington State’s football program churns through summer workouts without Mansel Simmons, the former receiver is in Phoenix with family and friends and playing a whole lot of Monopoly.
Also, he’s polishing his jump shot. He’s hiking. And he’s able to lift weights and ride an exercise bike. Those trips to the gym must feel like Disneyland for a guy who two months ago was found battered and beaten unconscious in a church parking lot.
“It feels amazing, in all honesty,” Simmons said via telephone. “It’s a blessing. People take this stuff for granted all the time. I’m just happy I can do this.”
Simmons announced his retirement from football in April after suffering facial fractures and a severe concussion in a March 24 altercation outside a party in Pullman. The days since have been full of doctor appointments and frustration and reflection.
Simmons, who lived in the Phoenix area when he was younger, is back there now with his godparents’ family and his brother, a move his doctors hoped would be beneficial to his recovery.
“It’s actually been the best possible thing that could have happened to me, because I’m kind of away from everything,” Simmons said. “For the most part, people don’t know who I am down here. I can just relax.”
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Growing up in south Sacramento (his family moved there from Phoenix), Simmons learned the concept of fight-or-flight on the streets.
Walking home in his neighborhood was dangerous. Knives were brandished. Decisions had to be made.
“I’ve had that happen to me a lot of times where I’ll be walking down the street and someone on drugs will pull a knife out on me, and I’ve had to defend myself,” Simmons said.
So maybe he had that in mind on that early morning in March, when police allege that a man named Roman Runner, a wide receiver at Idaho, first pulled out a knife, then put it away, then punched Simmons in the face after the former WSU player ran at him.
Runner, 21, could face a second-degree felony assault charge. Pullman police completed their investigation last week and recommended charges to the Whitman County Prosecuting Attorney.
For his part in that altercation, Simmons could face a lesser, misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The case was so murky at times that police once wondered if charges might be impossible to file because of conflicting witness reports.
The short of it, according to police: Runner and a group of friends from Moscow were asked to leave a party at a residence in Pullman. While trying to return to their car, a group of men who were attending the party approached them.
Witnesses told police that Simmons and Runner were each being held back by friends. Then Runner allegedly pulled a knife, according to police, but put it away before Simmons broke free and charged at him.
Simmons remembers it similarly, with some variation: “There was a fight about to happen with people on my team, and I was trying to stop it. I walked to the guy, the leader pulled a knife out on me and from that point on I was trying to defend myself, and got hit in the face and woke up in the hospital.”
Runner punched Simmons in the face, knocked him to the ground and fell on top of him, police say. The scuffle ended shortly thereafter. Runner, who was struck by an unknown assailant and suffered a bruise on his forehead, left the scene with part of his group while one of them remained and called 911. Both Runner, 21, and Simmons, 20, admitted to drinking alcohol that night.
Pullman Police Cmdr. Chris Tennant said it is believed both Simmons and Runner were willing to participate in the fight, though Simmons never actually engaged in it.
“You can’t charge Simmons with assault for wanting to fight, because he didn’t fight him,” said Tennant. “He didn’t throw a punch.”
Simmons said when he woke up in the hospital he thought he was still outside the party.
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Perhaps the starkest evidence of Simmons’ mental anguish is found in the text messages he sent in the days following the fight.
Quite simply, he says, they didn’t make any sense. Simple words were misspelled. He doesn’t even know what he was trying to say.
“My ability to process information was nowhere near where it needed to be,” Simmons said. “I was at 30 percent, in all honesty. It was scary because I knew how slow I was. It’s like you can’t wake up from a bad dream is how I would describe it.”
The first few weeks after his hospital release were a struggle.
“I literally could barely walk around without getting tired and passing out,” Simmons said. The mental haze lingered, too.
Slowly, the fog began to lift, though it was already too late for Simmons to finish the semester, an unfortunate occurrence, he said, because he had just started taking business classes necessary to complete his major.
The headaches are far less frequent now – at first, it was like “a never-ending migraine,” he said – and the left side of his face isn’t quite as sensitive to the touch as it was a few weeks ago.
He speaks clearly and with conviction during a phone interview, but there are times, says Ronald Gordon, his oldest brother, “you can still tell certain things affect him depending on what questions or whatever it is you’re asking him. For the most part, he’s definitely coming back around.”
That’s the good news. The bad, of course, is that his football career is over, something doctors and trainers told him after it became apparent that his recovery would be a long-term process.
That wasn’t necessarily shocking news to Simmons, who also suffered a concussion in practice last season and had a feeling football wasn’t going to be an option anymore.
The final verdict wasn’t easy to accept.
“It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Simmons said.
He plans to return to WSU as a student in mid-June – he’ll remain on medical hardship scholarship – with doctors recommending he take one summer class to help transition into the fall semester. He’ll take a full course-load then, the start of his third year at WSU. He intends to finish his degree and pursue a career in business administration.
“It’s like a second love to me,” Simmons said.
His first love, football, is gone now. And it eats at him every day.
“I ask him about it, and he definitely doesn’t want to talk about it,” Gordon said. “I do think it’s playing a big part on him right now.”
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It’s unclear whether a court of law will satisfy Simmons’ desire for “the truth to come out,” as he put it. There’s no guarantee charges will be filed. An Idaho spokesperson said last week that the school will wait for the legal process to unfold before taking further action.
Runner, who will be a senior, is still with the team and participated in spring practice after the incident, before Pullman police announced their recommendation for assault charges last week.
Simmons said he doesn’t know anything about Runner – not even his name, until last week’s announcement – and doesn’t want to. He also said he isn’t seeking monetary compensation beyond the cost of his medical bills.
“It’s bad enough that I can’t play football,” Simmons said, “but it’s even worse that the truth hasn’t come out.”
What that truth is, exactly, might be for a judge or jury to decide.
This is Simmons’ truth now: he’ll never play football again. He can’t even play pick-up basketball. Not for the next couple of months, anyway. The risk of re-injuring his face is too great. And it could be a while before his mental capacity is back to 100 percent, though it’s certainly much closer now than in the weeks following the fight.
Still, he maintains no regrets about what happened in the early-morning hours of March 24. It is his belief that he had to try to protect his friends, and he says he’d do it again if the same situation were to arise in the future.
But Simmons knows there is a lesson to be learned.
“Anything can change in a matter of seconds. I’ve worked hard and I’ve loved football for my entire life,” he said. “This is something I’ve lived and breathed my entire life, since I was 3 years old. For something like that to be taken away from you so quickly, it really humbles you.
“It’s a lesson I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life. Just to live day by day and stay close to God and continue to make wise decisions and continue to be there for the people you love. … I could have died that night. I just try to tell the people I love how much I think about them.”