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Justin Simmons’ heart for people goes back to family, faith

The Denver Broncos’ All-Pro safety is a three-time Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for the franchise - and there’s great reason for that.

You would be hard-pressed to find a Denver Broncos’ community event that didn’t have safety Justin Simmons involved.

Or a teammate’s foundation event.

And when he’s not helping the Broncos or a teammate, he and his wife Taryn are leading their own charity events through the Justin Simmons Foundation.

But he’s not just an observer doing his duty for the team; he’s a truly involved participant.

Just like you wouldn’t find the league’s highest paid safety standing on the sidelines for virtually any defensive snap, you won’t find him hanging back when the team is out helping those who could use a little extra.

It’s just in his blood to commit his time to those in need.

From his family upbringing to his faith, that has been of the utmost importance to the All Pro safety.

“You hit it on the head — faith and family,” Simmons told me last weekend. “Faith has been there my whole life, and I’m thankful for my parents ingraining that in me. Down the road, I found my own path. I have a real heart for people. The same way Jesus had a heart for people and was so selfless and giving of his time. I think the most important commodity we have is to give our time.”

And Simmons has done just that since being drafted to the Broncos in 2016.

Whether it is building houses with Habitat for Humanity, playing with kids at the Metro Denver Boys & Girls Club, talking with cancer survivors at Fight Like a Bronco, hosting a fashion show with the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, visiting children battling terminal illnesses at the Denver Children’s Hospital, or literally any of the hundreds of events the team has done, Simmons is right there in the middle of it, flashing his smile and showing people the side of the NFL we don’t get to see enough on Sundays.

The Broncos certainly know how fortunate they are to have a team leader and team player like Simmons.

“Justin is special and has an ability to connect that is very rare,” said Patrick Smyth, Broncos’ chief communication officer. “Watching him grow into such an incredible community leader over the last six years has been fulfilling for everyone in our organization. I think he has a natural curiosity to find ways to help those in need and make an impact, and you’ve seen that with how passionate he has been serving the community. The way Justin has done it - become a great player and gradually build his platform along the way - has been impressive. We are fortunate to have him!”

‘Time is the best commodity we have’

In fact, his parents, Kimberly and Victor, taught Simmons and his siblings from a very young age that “time” was not actually theirs but God’s — and how they spent that time would be everything about who they are.

“I just feel we are called to impact the world and spread the love of Christ,” Simmons said. “It’s not our time, it’s God’s time and how we steward that time is important.”

Fans may not have the same spiritual beliefs as Simmons, but they can’t argue with the way he is stewarding his time — selflessly helping many in the Denver community.

Though, Simmons recalls being a teenager and not always having the same appreciation for giving his time. He laughed remembering a few Saturday mornings where he didn’t want to get up and coach Pop Warner football after playing his own high school football game the night before.

But his parents were having none of his complaining.

“Now looking back, I can see that my time was important to those kids,” he said, acknowledging that he won’t have the same hesitation when the time comes to help coach his daughters’ flag football teams the way Peyton Manning coaches his son Marshall’s.

“Now that I can’t wait for,” he laughed.

But even as a sometimes unwilling teen, Simmons had an extra special place in his giving heart for kids.

“Kids are the future, and I know the power of people believing in me and investing in me,” Simmons said, adding the world would be a lot happier if we invested in more kids’ futures. “I was able to accomplish a lot, not because I was any more special than anyone else, but because I had a lot of people speak their truth to me. I try to show that same energy to every kid and give every kid I can those resources to empower them to reach their goals.”

Justin Simmons joins teammate Chris Harris Jr. for a Christmas shopping spree with kids at the Denver Children’s Home in 2019.

Emerging as a team leader

But even as Simmons has been groomed for this kind of role, he acknowledged much of his growth as a leader in the locker room as well as the NFL came in Spring 2020.

COVID-19 had hit and sports teams were among those affected first by shutdowns. At the same time Black Lives Matter protests were gaining steam around the country following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and others.

Simmons found himself compelled to stand up and speak out — no matter the risk to his “job” as an NFL player who was coming up on a contract year.

After having participated in a march for racial justice in his home state of Florida, Justin Simmons helped organize one in downtown Denver in June 2020.

He credits some of his leadership to mentors like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas who had led the team in kneeling protests back in 2016 and 2017.

Simmons recalled listening to Marshall and Thomas share their stories, which helped him formulate his own position as well as influence the path he would take three years later when tensions between the NFL and the players once again came to the forefront.

“I was at a stage then [during the anthem kneeling protests] that I didn’t feel as though I could speak up,” Simmons recalled.

But in the spring of 2020, he was ready.

“I was able to be the BMarsh and DT for the younger guys, the way they were for me,” Simmons said. “I’m really appreciative for those guys and still follow BMarsh and his work in the community.”

Sharing his own story and having open conversations with teammates allowed Simmons to help the Broncos bond as a team during a tense time in the country as well as the NFL.

“When people get to know who you are and what you stand up for, you build that bond that makes it easy for guys to follow your lead because they know the care factor,” Simmons said. “That really cracked the door for us to grow closer as a team.”

Honored by others

Given DT’s role in helping to shape Simmons as an eventual team leader on and off the field, it’s fitting Simmons was the inaugural recipient of the Demaryius Thomas Team MVP award this season.

Chosen by local media, the honor goes to the player who best reflects Thomas’ legacy on and off the field. Thomas, who passed away unexpectedly in December at age 33 just a few months after retiring from pro football, was a five-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl 50 champion.

Simmons was an obvious choice given his immense work off the field in addition to his All Pro season on it.

Leading Denver’s third-ranked scoring defense, Simmons had five interceptions and four tackles for loss, 12 passes defensed, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits. And for the second time in his career, he was named second-team All-Pro by AP. The Broncos’ veteran safety is only the fifth Denver player in the last decade to earn multiple All-Pro nods — joining Von Miller, Peyton Manning, Chris Harris Jr. and Demaryius Thomas — and the third Broncos safety along with Steve Atwater and Billy Thompson.

In addition, Simmons was chosen by his teammates and coaches for a third year in a row as the Broncos’ nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award — a league-wide honor to the player who best exemplifies Payton’s giving spirit and commitment to his team’s community.

The winner will be announced during the primetime NFL Honors program Feb. 10, and he will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice. Each nominee also receives up to a $40,000 donation in his name to the charity of choice.

Whether he wins, Simmons is really appreciative to his teammates for the recognition. in fact, he considers it probably the highest accolade he could get.

“It’s just a tremendous honor. I think the best type of recognition you could get is from your peers, the people I work with day in and day out,” Simmons said. “Their opinion of me matters — how I interact as a teammate and a friend. To receive this honor from them is really just humbling.”