ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — About 10 months ago, after Justin Simmons earned his first Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nomination, he joined the other nominees in Miami for an event at a Boys & Girls Club during the week before the Super Bowl LIV.
It wasn't just an event with some of the NFL's best players; it was a gathering of some of the league's most philanthropic people, huddled together to play games with kids and to give them a memorable day. It was just as memorable for Simmons, too.
"It was inspiring," Simmons said Thursday. "That's what I left there with. Obviously there's a lot of big-name or bigger-name guys there, and it was just inspiring having these conversations and getting to talk them. I still talk to a good amount of them to this day. And when I say inspiring, it was just really cool to see the same type of passion across the league. You get so caught [up] in your own little bubble here, what you do with the guys and what you do, and it's great, but it was cool to see the same passions and desires and future plans that they have in communities, different foundations that those guys are supporting."
In the months that followed, Simmons would take that inspiration and, combined with his own goals and dedication to purpose, make an indelible impact in the communities he calls home.
In late May, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Simmons spoke out about the need for justice during a protest in Florida. A week later, he spoke at the protest most of the team attended in downtown Denver. Less than two weeks after that, he announced the establishment of his own charitable foundation.
And since then, he's continued to be involved in community outreach through his foundation and through the team. He was a speaker in a Youth for Change Town Hall with the NFL Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, took part in virtual visits with kids at Children's Hospital Colorado and he did weekly sessions with members of the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club for RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.
Even with the pandemic preventing in-person visits, Simmons saw he could still make an impact, and in turn, they made quite the impact on him.
"It was tough trying to navigate through that, but I had an opportunity for, I think it was a month and a couple weeks, to do kind of like a virtual Zoom series with … a select group of individuals from the Boys & Girls Club," Simmons said. "That was a life-changing experience. We had an opportunity to work with a program called RISE and we were doing different activities and different tasks that kind of talked about what's going in our world today and all the things that come with it. We had really good conversations. And that was life-changing for me, just to be a part of those calls and hear those kids and to hear their voices."
So when he got the news that he had been nominated as the Broncos' Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for a second straight year, Simmons felt honored not because what he had done, but for what the work represents.
"It means everything," Simmons said. "I know I've talked in depth about it last year but this award is the most prestigious award, in my opinion, in the NFL. … All-Pro, Pro Bowls, all the things that come with what you're chasing after as an NFL player, this award means the most to me, personally. … You don't do it for the accolades or anything like that, but to be recognized as a nomination of someone at the stature of Walter Payton, it just goes above and beyond. I'm just truly humbled, once again, by the nomination."
What would be even better is if Simmons won the honor at the league level. A Bronco has only won the award once — John Elway in 1992 — since the award was started in 1970. Elway told DenverBroncos.com’s Phil Milani on Thursday that he'd love to see Simmons become the second.
"It is time," Elway said. "And I think Justin's a great guy to do that one, a great person to be in that situation because of what he does in our community. So hopefully this year he gets all the way to the top and can be that guy."
Take a look back at some of the highlights of the community work of Justin Simmons, the Broncos' 2019 and 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee.