By Randy York
It’s no coincidence that Chapter One of The Omaha World-Herald book “Unbeatable”, written by staffer Henry J. Cordes, takes readers inside a California prison that Tom Osborne visited when Nebraska played in San Diego’s Holiday Bowl. The Hall-of-Fame football coach and soon-to-be-retired athletic director went to see Lawrence Phillips, one of the most talented, disparaged and defamed players in Nebraska football history.
Osborne once told a national writer that he made a mistake allowing Phillips back on Nebraska’s 1995 team after a six-game suspension, but that doesn’t mean the co-founder of one of the nation’s largest youth mentoring organizations abandoned his faith or his belief in the power of redemption. Phillips isn’t the first real-life version of someone who’s done something so dreadful that reconciliation and atonement seem unachievable.
Take Ricky Simmons, the Greeneville, Texas, native who was the second leading receiver on Nebraska’s 1983 “Scoring Explosion” team – the highest scoring team in college football history. Simmons went on to play in the United States Football League, and his addiction to cocaine put him in prison three times. It’s one thing to be down and out in Beverly Hills, but Simmons’ last prison stop was Tecumseh, Neb., the hometown of Husker stars Tony Davis and Matt Davison.
Prison in Tecumseh was an empty experience for a beleaguered man who also lost a loving mom and dad. On a daily basis, a guard would jab Simmons with this line virtually every time he walked by Ricky’s cell: “How ‘ya doin’ inmate Simmons? … FORMER Husker football star!” It hurt, but it was true.
This Letter Had a Red ‘N’ Insignia
Then one spring day in 2008 that same guard came by a bit enthusiastic because he was delivering a rare piece of mail to inmate Simmons – a letter with a red “N” insignia from the Office of the Athletic Director at the University of Nebraska.
Simmons was shocked, but not excited. He was so ashamed that he waited for the guard to move on before he rallied enough courage inside himself to open that precious letter. It was short and to the point: “Dear Ricky, I know your parents believed in you, and I believe in you. Upon your release, if there’s anything I can do to help you, feel free to contact me … Tom Osborne.”
Simmons read that letter a second time, a third and a few more times after that. Then he fell to his knees in the privacy of his cell. “I thanked God for taking away my negative thinking and for giving me a way to look at life in a completely different way. I don’t know how long I was on my knees, but it was a while. When I finally stood up, I knew I was still in prison, but the gates had swung wide open in my mind. I felt cleansed. Tom Osborne still believed in me and was willing to help me. I was born again. It’s been more than four years since I got that letter … four years since I turned my life over to Christ.”
Darkness passed and light shined through a rejuvenated man still incarcerated. Every day for the next 18 months, Simmons used his new frame of reference to advance emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Because of his new-found faith and a powerful man’s belief in him, a dark conscience became a radiant shade of white. He realized redemption would be tough, and he knew the only way that he could transform himself would be to fight for new hope in a very personal way. What he’d lost somehow could be regained, and so from that day forward, he woke up every morning and went to bed every night relishing Osborne’s belief in him.
Both Parents Were Admirable Role Models
On the night after receiving the letter, Simmons thanked God for bringing him back to paradise, where he grew up with good Christian parents. His dad, Clyde, was a junior high school principal and his mom, Bertha, was an elementary school remedial reading teacher. “Both had master’s degrees, and both raised me right,” Ricky said. “Everything I did wrong and every mistake I made was all on me, not them. I couldn’t blame anybody for my situation but own selfish self.”
Two years before Osborne’s letter arrived in Tecumseh, Ricky’s dad was dying. “He told me he wasn’t going to be around and that I needed to get God in my life,” Simmons said. “I tell people now whenever I speak that I retired from football to become a full-time drug addict. Football got in the way of my using, and then after football, so did life. I was brought up and coached not to make excuses, but cocaine teaches you to make every excuse there is.”
The drug took Simmons to such depths and destruction, he saw no way out. No life, no job, no future, no love, no hope. Two short sentences and one paragraph from Tom Osborne changed the entire landscape of a lost soul. Osborne showed some love and instilled such boundless hope that Ricky actually could close his eyes every night in prison and see employment to help others as his clear path to redemption. “I wanted to meet with a parole officer, show him my plan, pursue my license in drug and alcohol counseling, become a motivational speaker and stay accountable to Coach Osborne,” Ricky said. “That would be my future, my life, my job, my calling.”
What Simmons could see that others couldn’t was gladness in a God that did not leave him, just like his coach. Every night, Ricky would envision a God in heaven looking down on a sinner who prayed to Him with all his heart, just like his mother did when he was growing up. That sinner had prospered, then suffered, then lost, then sought redemption with every bone in his body and every thought in his head.
Getting Your Life Back Like Running a Marathon
The biggest key to Simmons regaining his footing was realizing that obedience to God is often marked by suffering and loss. Getting your life back is like running a marathon. Every mile requires taking one step at a time, and that’s what got him through prison.
Simmons has been a free, changed and inspired man for 36 straight months. He’s also been sober and drug free and alcohol free. “I look at every day,” he said, “as just another day in paradise.”
Today’s reality traces its roots back to a gracious Tom Osborne offer and his own grateful follow-up. Using his coach’s encouragement, counseling and guidance, Simmons is now a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in Lincoln. He operates a program that speaks both to youth groups about the pitfalls of abuse and outpatients who have made the same mistake and need to bounce back like he did. Simmons compares that journey to trying to walk up a “down” escalator, so they listen, learn and try to live differently.
Ricky speaks at high schools, churches, group homes and youth organizations. A year ago this month, I invited him to visit a small Fellowship of Christian Athletes lunch group. He spent most of the session listening (he learned that trait from Osborne) and then shared his story succinctly and successfully. Everyone in the room was swept away by his courage and candor.
Simmons’ Photo Was Taken One Year Ago
The photo you see at the top of this column was taken right before Christmas Day one year ago this week. I told Ricky if he continued to succeed in his road to redemption. I would write a column about him that would be published on Christmas Day, 2012. In the last 2½ years, he has made 76 presentations. Last week, he was in Hastings, Neb. Friday, he will be in Geneva, Neb., sharing a three-step process that’s worked well for him: 1) Always have a positive mental outlook and a humbled sense of accountability so you can treat others like you want to be treated; 2) Get a plan with details you can work out and stick with no matter what; and 3) Roll up your sleeves to make that plan a reality every day, knowing full well that there will be people out there trying to trip you up because they don’t want you to succeed. So use them as motivation to make sure you do succeed.
Ricky’s son, Tyler Bullock, now directs operations for the men’s basketball program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He’s stuck with his dad throughout this long process. He’s just as proud of his dad as Ricky is of him. And both will tell you that the ball that started everything rolling was a simple act of encouragement from Osborne, followed by Ricky’s authentic commitment to his Savior and his ultimate understanding that faith can be defined like Charles Swindoll describes it … believing in advance what can only be understood in reverse.
Ricky Simmons hopes others celebrate today like he tries to celebrate every day … as just another day in paradise. “My parents made sure I didn’t accept any extra benefits that other schools offered me when they recruited me,” he said. “They wanted me to play for Coach Osborne because all he offered was a chance. I took advantage of that chance while I was at Nebraska. I lost that chance when I became a pro and then got it back again when a man who believed in me made the decision to believe in me again. He was there when I had to change. I owe my second life to him. I visit Coach Osborne every week for a few minutes to let him know I’m still on the right track, and when I do, he recommends me to speak. I had to earn that accountability back, and I’m committed to never losing it again.”
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