When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young threw a swing pass to Adam Walker on the Niners’ first offensive play of the Jan. 6, 1996, playoff game at 3Com Park against the Green Bay Packers, linebacker Wayne Simmons anticipated the play, drilled Walker, forced a fumble and cornerback Craig Newsome picked up the ball and ran untouched for the touchdown.
The Packers went on to defeat the champion 49ers in the game – a turning point for the franchise that helped lift the team and Simmons to a world championship the following season.
Simmons, the hard-hitting, emotionally-charged linebacker who helped the Packers to the team’s first championship in 29 years, was the perfect fit for the Fritz Shurmer-led defense … but as fast as his flame burned hot, it extinguished as quickly.
His best years with the Packers were 1995 and 1996, but he was released in 1997, after which he played two seasons in Kansas City and his final year in Buffalo before retiring.
However, Simmons died Aug. 23, 2002, in a car crash in Kansas City. He was traveling too fast, weaving in and out of traffic in his Mercedes on the interstate 70 at about 2:45 a.m. when his vehicle left the roadway, rolled several times and came to rest in a ditch where it caught fire. Others who had stopped at the scene attempted to extract Simmons from the vehicle, but couldn’t undue his seat belt. The 32-year-old was alone in the car.
It was an end to one of those inspirational, yet tragic life stories.
Simmons was born in Low Bottom, S.C. By the time he was going to high school in Hilton Head, S.C., he was not doing well until he met Tom Gardo, a local businessman who was committed to helping athletes. Gardo would give Simmons a ride to school and spend time reading to him to get the young Simmons interested in learning.
It worked as Simmons improved his grades and began to excel on the football field and especially on the basketball court. At 6-2, and with a 35-inch vertical leap, he was an all-state selection in basketball as a power forward. As a linebacker and split end, Simmons was all-state and runner-up as South Carolina player of the year in football.
Attending Clemson, Simmons had NFL scouts at his door, but it was the fact that he graduated from the university in four years with a degree in finance that was most important to his mother and Gardo.
The Packers selected Simmons with the 15th overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he started eight games, intercepted two passes, had one sack and 34 tackles.
In 1994, he took a step back, playing in 12 games, starting one, but only registering eight tackles and five assists.
His status took an upward turn in 1995 when he had his best season with the Packers. He started all 16 games, had 68 tackles, 23 assists, four sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
He continued his solid play in 1996 helping the Packers to the Super Bowl XXXI win. He again played in all 16 regular season games, recording 47 tackles and 19 assists, one interception and 1 forced fumble. He also had an interception in the Super Bowl.
However, Simmons and Coach Mike Holmgren didn’t hit it off. The serious Holmgren wasn’t impressed with Simmons’ way with his teammates and ability to get everyone laughing. It didn’t help Simmons that he had some off-the-field run-ins with the law. He was convicted of drunken driving and was also tied to a sexual assault of a high school graduate at Hilton Head. Though he was never charged in that case, it didn’t sit well with Holmgren and may have hastened Simmons’ exit from Green Bay.
Six games into 1997, and with just 27 tackles, Simmons hadn’t made any big plays. He had been fined for being late to team meetings, and was facing a $5,000 league fine for punching a Minnesota player during a September game at Lambeau Field. He was traded to Kansas City for a fifth rounder. It was also the beginning of the end for Simmons.
Though he opened a nightclub in Kansas City and was initially very successful, there were a series of burglaries of the club and his apartment that put him into a financial bind. He had to close the club. A few months later, Simmons called his mother to say that he was coming home. He never made it.
At 32, Simmons, whose future was so bright in 1996, was dead in 2002.
His tragic end underscored a life where he raised himself from Low Bottom to the Super Bowl.
Packers fans remember him as a champion, and an emotional leader and like everyone who were close to him, were saddened when the news of his death hit.
He was lucky enough to play in the NFL and is one of those players whose life story will continue to inspire, despite his unfortunate end.