Taryn Richard didn’t know it was coming. She had been dating her boyfriend for the past three and a half years, so a nice dinner and a trip to the beach just seemed like a good way to spend an early summer night. He didn’t even need to suggest they head to the beach—she brought it up first, and the couple agreed to go to Stuart Beach, a short stretch of coastline in their small Floridian city.
The two had met as freshmen in high school, but didn’t become good friends until junior year. They began dating the following December, which also happened to be the last time they could spend an entire winter together. Taryn played Division I basketball for two years at Presbyterian before calling it quits and transferring to Florida State last year. Justin Simmons is now entering his fourth year as a starting defensive back for Boston College football.
Justin had planned for a photographer to meet them at the beach, but it wasn’t until he asked her to stand up that Taryn had an idea of what might be going on. He then pulled out the ring, set his right knee down in the sand, and asked her to marry him.
“I was in shock for at least—probably a week before it set in,” Taryn said, laughing. “It was like, ‘Is this real?’”
It was—and she said yes.
Simmons has no doubt heard it already: “Aren’t you a little young to be getting engaged?” At 22, he’s certainly younger than most people to propose in this generation, but Simmons has never been one to back away from commitment.
As good as Tyler Murphy and Jonathan Hilliman were for the Eagles last season, BC’s run defense was better. BC finished ranked second in yards yielded on the ground, the only Football Bowl Subdivision school besides top-ranked Michigan State to keep opponents under 100 yards per game.
But when BC’s opponents threw the ball, the Eagles didn’t have the same level of success. The team finished 66th in yards allowed through the air and 86th in passing efficiency defense. These weren’t hideous numbers, but they were low enough to keep the Eagles’ total defense out of the top 10. It didn’t help that BC lost starting cornerback Bryce Jones midway through October for violating team rules. With injuries also hitting the secondary a couple weeks later, Simmons made a move from free safety—the main position he had played at BC—to corner.
These positions are based around the same general idea: don’t allow receivers to catch the ball. But they require vastly different styles of play. Simmons had to cram in several hours of film and work after practices with the coaches and another corner Manuel Asprilla to learn the different techniques and checks at cornerback.
This transition also came just after Simmons dropped two potential interceptions in a 17-13 loss to Clemson. In Simmons’ first game at corner a week later, BC’s defense held Wake Forest scoreless for the first 38 minutes of the game, and the Eagles took a 17-0 lead into the half. A fourth quarter touchdown put BC up 23-3 and seemingly put the game out of reach, until the Demon Deacons blocked the extra point attempt. Wake then put up two touchdowns in the next seven minutes, and had the ball down six with two minutes to go. As quarterback John Wolford looked to his left for wide receiver Jared Crump, he expected Crump to cut back in toward the ball. Instead, Simmons was there to snag it, allowing the Eagles to hold on for the win.
“My hat’s tipped to the coaching staff for helping me out, and Manny,” Simmons said, reflecting back on the game last week. “I just got put in the right position at the right time to thankfully end the game with a win.”
This year, BC defensive coordinator Don Brown will have Simmons return to start at free safety, at least to begin the year. After half a season at corner, Simmons would be prepared to move back if the need arose again.
“If you asked me last year [what I was most comfortable with], I would have said safety for sure,” Simmons said. “Now that I’ve played both and I’ve got used to playing corner at the tail end of the season, they’re both kind of natural.”
While their seasoned veteran is set either way, the Eagles will have to replace Asprilla and their two strong safeties, Dominique Williams and Sean Silvia. All the guys most likely to see time at those positions—corners Isaac Yiadom, Kamrin Moore, Atem Ntantang, and Gabe McClary, and safeties Cameron Steward and Christian Lezzer—are sophomores or redshirt freshmen. As the most experienced man in coverage (junior starting cornerback John Johnson would be the next closest), Simmons has already begun the task of getting his guys on the same page, getting them to spend time together as a unit to build their chemistry. Their head coach has noticed.
“[They’re] much more athletic, faster, talented,” Steve Addazio said about his secondary in a press conference on Monday. “I like where we are on the back end a lot. We got some guys who can run, I’m very encouraged.”
Addazio also singled out Simmons, saying he could have his best year yet. There’s nothing to suggest that he can’t.
Founded in 2010, Ask.fm is a site where users can perform basic Q&As with other people. Simmons has publically answered 366 questions on the site, most are simple queries you expect athletes to hear, like “How’s your offense looking?” and “How many pick 6s are you going to get this year?” Yet Simmons also addresses a couple far more serious questions on the site, such as, “My boyfriend cheated on me by having sex with someone … should I take him back or just forgive and walk away?”
That’s a question you would expect to be directed to a friend, or maybe a priest, not a 6-foot-3, 200-pound football player. But this jock’s response is thoughtful and genuine. When he tells her to forgive him and pray to God for advice, he isn’t just taking spitting out something his Baptist pastor preached on Sunday—he really believes in what he says.
It’s not exactly rare to see football players be religious. Many athletes will wear their St. Christopher medals and publically express thanks to God when it’s convenient, but Simmons’ displays of his faith aren’t for show. He paints a cross beneath his left eye every game and writes his favorite bible verses on his gloves to stay true to himself.
“You know, in the heat of the moment, whatever I’m doing, I always try to remember to the best of my ability what I’m representing,” Simmons said. “You can’t go out there and act the fool if you have that stuff all over you.”
Then again, anyone can say they’re religious—trouble comes when they have to follow through. But not for Simmons. He leads a Bible study group called Athletes in Action with teammates Alex Howell and Mike Knoll. He gave the opening prayer in front of hundreds at the end of year athletes’ banquet last spring. This summer, Simmons was put on the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, an award given out to the FBS player “who best exhibits exemplary community service.”
Simmons’ use and knowledge of bible quotes goes beyond John 3:16—a verse referenced on large signs at sporting events long before Tim Tebow came along. He has his favorite biblical verse ready to go: Colossians 3:17. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ thanking God the Father through him.”
Justin and Taryn have had to be patient over the years. Long distance is hard, everyone knows it, but they have both committed, and they’re sticking to it. They have had an easier time recently, since Taryn no longer has to deal with a Division I schedule. She will be up to Chestnut Hill next week for the game against Howard and will head to BC’s away game against Clemson. And although she won’t be coming up for the Florida State game, there’s no question she’ll be cheering from home, sporting her No. 27 BC jersey and watching Justin lead his new secondary.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor