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'It's beyond what I thought': Justin Simmons reflects on third Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nomination and memories of the past year


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Justin Simmons stepped up to the lectern for his weekly press conference angling to talk about his highlight reel.

Not one with his favorite interceptions and pass breakups, but a different kind. As the Broncos' 2021 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award nominee, Simmons looked to put a spotlight on his work outside of the white-lined boundaries of the football field.

Flipping through memories of four of his favorite projects of the year, Simmons recalled the ‘March for Peace’ that was organized by two teenagers from the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club; connecting with the family of an organ donor who coincidentally had the same name; helping with an upcoming musical that aims to tour schools around the country to help end bullying; and his work with teammates and local groups like the Colorado Freedom Fund on clemency.

What Simmons aimed to do was not revel in reflecting on his role with those four highlights but to share the celebration with deserving friends, family and acquaintances who help him be seen as a leader in the community.

As a three-time nominee for the league's prestigious award that honors players for their community work, Simmons has earned that reputation through his countless hours of volunteering and unmeasurable impact upon the region, but he said he understands that an honor like this is unquestionably about more than just him.

"I always find myself trying to be quiet and listen," Simmons said. "[I] listen to what the Lord has in store for us, my family and I, just trying to be obedient and recognize nothing really in this world is even mine to begin with. I've just been blessed with the opportunity to give back in extraordinary ways. It's just figuring out, as time goes on, where the Lord has us, what He wants us to do, how He wants us to do it. It's just been awesome, honestly, going through the journey."

Even back when Simmons entered the NFL and began to realize the potential impact he could make, he had a hard time envisioning this future, he said. Forget three nominations for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year; Simmons said he didn't think he'd measure up to the likes of Wesley Woodyard or other nominees.

"To be completely honest, it's beyond what I thought," Simmons said. "I had goals — I'll never forget the first time I was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year. I was just completely in shock, because I thought that that was something that was almost like out of my grasp. You look at the guys that have been nominated, not only here but just around the league and guys that have won the national award. In my opinion … it's the most prestigious award you can have the honor of representing in the NFL. To know what Walter Payton, the man himself, what he stood for and have conversations with his family in the recent years at those events, it just means a lot."

After signing a long-term contract to stay in Denver this past offseason, Simmons is firmly entrenched in the community and forming even deeper bonds with those in the area after an already immensely impactful five years to start his NFL career. And while he has done some work in his home state of Florida, Simmons' focus remains largely concentrated at home in Colorado.

"One, it's where my feet are," Simmons said. "I don't like looking in the future, I don't like reminiscing in the past. I like being exactly where I am in the moment, and for the past six years, that's been Denver. And so, anywhere I am, my family and I, we're going to give 100 percent of us as long as we can. Secondly, the Denver community's where my family is a direct beneficiary of. And so, I want my daughters to grow up in a community that is circled around constantly building off each other and wanting a better world for each other. And so, that's why it's easy to just invest into the community."

Simmons' endeavors have drawn strong words of admiration from many around the NFL, including current and former teammates, media members, fans and others, including his head coach, Vic Fangio.

"It's a great honor for him, well deserved," Fangio said. "We have a lot of players that could have been considered for that award, but Justin, I think, does it with the right mindset and the right heartbeat, in that he likes doing it. He doesn't do it because he thinks he should. I think he enjoys doing it, and he does it with a good heart and a good mindset. … He's certainly very deserving, and I think he deserves strong consideration to get the big award at the end."

As a three-time nominee, that's the final hurdle to clear for Simmons. Like each of the 32 nominees, Simmons will receive at least $40,000 courtesy of the NFL Foundation and Nationwide toward the charity of his choice, but the league-wide winner will get $250,000.

But just like how Simmons could barely fathom him being nominated for the honor in 2019, he can't picture how he would react if he were to be picked as the ultimate winner.

"I don't even know if I could put it into words, honestly," Simmons said. "I don't know. I personally get just like choked up thinking about it. It would mean everything to me. Not even to win the award, but I know what that spotlight would come with the recognition of like, 'So, let's dive into what you're doing.' As I started this press conference off with, it's not me, but it's the opportunity to spotlight the amazing people that are doing the behind-the-scenes work that doesn't get talked about enough."

An individual honor as an opportunity to put the focus on the team behind him — Justin Simmons would have it no other way.

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