BOISE — The tattoo just above Dextrell Simmons’ right eyebrow says “Pain.”
While it’s a constant reminder of how far he’s come, it also makes the Boise State senior reflect back on days he isn’t proud of.
In fact, the Broncos’ newly-named starting nickel has already undergone three procedures to remove the tattoo, along with the ones that cover his hands and on his knuckles. It’s all part of his realization of what could be awaiting him in 2012.
“Getting those tattoos were a dumb decision,” the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Simmons said. “But this is a life-changing time for me. I have a great opportunity ahead of me, and I know football won’t last forever. Someday I’ll need to provide for my family, and I can’t have my mistakes showing like that.”
There is no doubt Simmons always had the talent to find himself starting for a team like Boise State. It was only a question of whether he could do what it takes to become a Division I athlete.
“I knew I could play, but I also was out there, running on the streets, not caring about my grades or that sort of thing,” Simmons said.
At Houston’s Westfield High, Simmons was part of a talented linebacking corps that included his good friend Herman Mitchell, who had committed to Oklahoma. Just before their senior year started in 2007, Mitchell was shot to death in an apartment parking lot.
It was the second time that summer alone Simmons dealt with another teen’s death. Just weeks earlier, he was in the back seat of a car, tending to a friend that had been shot. His friend died on the way to the hospital.
“He just died in my arms, and that changed my life,” Simmons said. “I didn’t want to end up like that, or in jail. I knew I had a chance through football to do that.”
Soon after, he got that word — pain — tattooed onto himself because “that’s everything I was feeling in my life.”
Football was a way for Simmons to cope, and a way for him to find a life away from that pain. He found his way to one of the top junior college teams in the country at Blinn Junior College, about an hour west of Houston.
Simmons twice was on the school’s leadership council and was a captain his final year in 2010.
“First knowing Dextrell, saying he was rough around the edges is putting it lightly,” said former Blinn coach Brad Franchione, now the linebackers coach at Texas State. “Dextrell’s been through some things you and I can’t even imagine. But he knew what he wanted. He wanted to play football. He wanted to win, and he used all the tools available to him — tutors, coaches, teammates — everything.”
Last season, his first in Boise, Simmons played in all 13 games, making 16 tackles and forcing a fumble. For what Franchione calls “a very fierce competitor,” playing a backup role wasn’t easy.
“I had a small window to make something happen when I came here,” Simmons said. “I didn’t get a lot of action last year, it was kind of a downer, but I have a big role now and have to make the best of it.”
With the nickel spot open this spring and in fall camp, Simmons took advantage. He’ll get the start Friday at Michigan State, though sophomore Corey Bell and junior Jonathan Brown will see time, too.
“That nickel’s an important spot for us, and he’s really taken ownership of it,” nickels coach Bob Gregory said. “He’s taken everything he’s gone through and used that to push himself.”
Like Simmons, Bell was a reserve last season who also played a fair amount of special teams. He said it wasn’t until this offseason he got to know the senior better, working more closely with him.
“We went to a camp this summer, and we drove together,” Bell said. “It was really incredible to hear some of the things he’s experienced.
“He plays tough and he looks tough, but he has a gentle heart.”
That tough demeanor plays out on the field, however.
The Broncos missed the tough, playmaking presence of Winston Venable at nickel last season, but Simmons’ teammates say he fits the bill.
“He flies around and he’s looking to run you over if you’re in his way — that type of Winston Venable attitude,” cornerback Jamar Taylor said. “... As a person, he really cares about his teammates.”
Considering the fates of his friends back home, that last part is hardly a surprise.
“He’s overcome a lot of things — Dextrell has goals for his life that show up every day,” Franchione said. “He’s working for more than just playing college football and getting a degree.”
The chance Simmons has waiting for him Friday and the rest of this fall is a culmination of hard work, perseverance and the will to strive for improvement in any facet.
“I had a revelation that this is a big year for me,” Simmons said. “I’m trying to improve myself, but it’s all about the team. I just can’t wait to get out there and help.”