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An unbreakable bond

Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms was in the film room when he got the text about the 8 p.m. team meeting. A couple of hours later he was shuffling into a room with the other Vols players -- some of them whispering that coach Lane Kiffin had taken the USC job, others guessing that Kiffin had told USC no, that he'd meant what he said about building something exciting and championship-worthy at Tennessee.

Moments later, after a visibly uncomfortable Kiffin told his players that they were now his former players -- news that was greeted by stunned silence, then loud cursing -- Simms walked stoically out of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center to find "600 people outside burning mattresses."

January 12 was an emotional day for many people, and it was seized upon by the media for its elements of broken loyalty and hurt feelings, but for Simms, who had arrived in Knoxville just three days earlier after a successful junior college season in California, the day Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for USC "was just another day for me." The smoke from the mattresses wafted over Simms' shoulders as he walked to his car, wondering who the new coach would be and when he could see some film of his offense.

Kenbrell Thompkins was driving with his nephew through his hometown of Liberty City, Fla., when a friend called and told him Kiffin was leaving. A Tennessee signee who had starred with Simms the previous fall at El Camino (Calif.) College, then signed with the Vols to continue their partnership, Thompkins recalled that when he heard the news he "turned the car around and rushed home so I could get in front of a TV."

That fateful Tuesday night was the point at which Thompkins and Simms were pulled apart after a most unlikely coming together. Their paths had converged the previous summer at El Camino, a junior college in the seaside Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, where they arrived as strangers from opposite ends of the eastern seaboard and opposite sides of the tracks. They left California six months later destined for the SEC, thanks in large part to each other and a relationship they each described as "like brothers."

The youngest son of Super Bowl champion and NFL broadcaster Phil Simms and the brother of Tennessee Titans quarterback Chris Simms, Matt probably had a better understanding of football's cutthroat business side than anyone playing Division I last year. Instead of Division I, though, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Simms played the 2009 season in the National Central Conference, after an odyssey that included a decorated high school career in New Jersey and two years at Louisville, where the Cardinals had a head coach who left unexpectedly one January, too.

Bobby Petrino's departure for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, however, had little to do with Simms' lack of playing time at Louisville. That had more to do with an inconsistent work ethic and a photo of Simms rolling a joint that made its way around the Internet. Incoming coach Steve Kragthorpe suspended Simms four games for the latter offense, and Simms threw a total of 10 passes in 2008. He left Louisville no longer a top recruit with all the right genes, but as just another kid on the outside looking in.

*****

That summer, a couple thousand miles west of Louisville, El Camino College coach John Featherstone needed a quarterback. He had a receiver -- a tall, physical Andre Johnson-type who had somehow gone unrecruited out of the best high school program in Miami, Northwestern High -- but he didn't have anyone to throw him the ball.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Phil Simms mentioned to his friend and fellow NFL commentator Chris Mortensen that Matt was considering the juco route in trying to get back to a Division I school. Mortensen, who had put a son through the college football gristmill himself, put Simms in touch with Featherstone, a longtime friend with a reputation for helping talented players "get out of their own way."

Matt Simms had decided he wanted to be an NFL quarterback when he was in eighth grade, and had charged toward that goal under the tutelage of a dad and brother who had already achieved it, along with the coaching staff at powerhouse Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep. Thompkins, on the other hand, "never looked at the big picture of football. I played because it was what we did in the area where I grew up. It was in our veins."

Thompkins played far more snaps on the street than he did at Northwestern High in Miami, which annually produces one of the best teams in Florida, and some of the worst standardized test scores in the country. Located in Liberty City, which has the highest violent crime rate in the country's poorest metropolis (Miami), Northwestern High and its football program were the subject of a 2004 documentary, Year of the Bull, which depicted the hard-to-watch realities of high school football in the ghetto. Northwestern sits just half a block from the house on NW 70th St. where Thompkins lived with his mom and younger brother, Kendal.

Thompkins fell prey to the area's pressures. He was arrested seven times between age 15 and 18 for misdemeanors like loitering, and felonies like armed robbery and possession of cocaine with intent to sell.

In the robbery case, someone other than Thompkins allegedly held a gun on two students while $750 was taken from them by two accomplices, one of whom, according to the police report, was Thompkins. The charge was "dropped due to [the] victim being uncooperative," according to police records.

The drug arrest occurred in February 2007, when an 18-year-old Thompkins was pulled over for reckless driving and, according to the arrest report, "removed from his right rear pocket a clear Ziplock bag and dropped it on the ground." The bag held 18 small packets "containing suspected powder cocaine ... and another bag tied in a knot with forty-four pieces of suspected rock cocaine." Adjudication was withheld in the case, and Thompkins was given two years probation.

The quantum shift in Thompkins' life came while he was wandering in and out of courtrooms, when his younger brother Kendal suddenly became the best athlete in the family. "It wasn't until I watched my younger brother earn a scholarship to the University of Miami that I woke up and realized I could do the same thing," Kenbrell said. (A sophomore wideout, Kendal Thompkins is expected to play a prominent role for the Hurricanes this season.) While attending one of Kendal's final high school games, Kenbrell heard the phrase "junior college" for the first time. After a little Internet research he found himself on the phone with Featherstone.

"Coach Featherstone talked to me on the phone for a minute, felt good about me, then took a chance and flew me out there," Thompkins said.

*****

When Phil Simms dropped Matt off at El Camino College last summer, he saw its brown practice field and meager facilities and thought, "This is good. This is just what he needs."

"Going from the locker room at Louisville to the locker room at El Camino, it's two different worlds," Matt Simms said. "In juco, to get out and get a [Div. I] scholarship, you have to show you're serious, that you'll do the work without a coach up your butt telling you what to do all the time. There was no one reminding me to do schoolwork at El Co. You have to grow up."

El Camino is a successful program that has posted four 10-win seasons in the last five years, but like all juco teams the Warriors' roster changes dramatically from year to year. (Last year's team had 50 incoming freshmen.) It isn't surprising, then, that roughly half of Simms' 159 completions and 2,204 yards in 2009 went to Thompkins; it was Thompkins' second year in Featherstone's system, and Simms saw immediately that he could trust the bearded sophomore. It also helped that they spent most of their waking hours together -- talking football in the cramped one-bedroom apartment they shared in Hermosa Beach, or driving to class together, or on a sun-browned field rehearsing Featherstone's wide-open offense.

As much as everyone at El Co loved Thompkins ("I've been here 17 years and he's one of my favorite student-athletes we've ever had," said academic supervisor Christine Jeffries), no one knew about his criminal past. Not Featherstone, not Simms, not their other roommate, tight end Erik Stewart (who would later sign with Nevada).

"We don't do background checks," said Featherstone. "No one does at this level. When schools like Oregon and Tennessee started recruiting Kenbrell they found out he had been charged with some felonies, but never convicted.

"Sure I was surprised, but I withheld judgment until I sat down with Kenbrell. He looked me in the eye and said, 'Coach, I made some mistakes. I was running around with some knuckleheads back then and I did some stuff I'm not proud of.'"

Before last season -- before Featherstone learned of Thompkins' brushes with the law -- he honored Thompkins by making him a team captain and awarding him the number 1 jersey worn by a popular teammate who had recently died. According to the El Camino media guide, Thompkins and every player after him who wears number 1 will do so because he has shown "leadership, courage, commitment, and unselfish concern for team ahead of self." Thompkins bestowed his old jersey number, 2, to the Warriors' new quarterback, who had worn it since grade school.

On off-days, Simms and Thompkins would sprint up a steep, 50-yard sand dune in nearby Manhattan Beach as if there were two scholarships waiting for them at the top. They broke down game film and talked football nonstop. "I told him I wanted to do the Carson Palmer-Chad Johnson thing," Thompkins said with a laugh, "like when Chad Johnson tried to move in with Carson Palmer. Me and Matt hung out together, ate together, we did everything together ..."

A YouTube clip of Simms' early-season game against Bakersfield is what brought Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney out to El Camino, but it was Thompkins who made Chaney stick around a few extra hours. Thompkins showed off his 4.4 speed and precision route-running -- skills he says he acquired competing "against the best players in the country" as a teen, either on 70th Street in Liberty City, or at football practice at Miami Northwestern. The kid who threw him a few extra balls for Chaney knew something special was happening.

"When you live with someone and you workout together everyday," Simms said, "your goals can kind of become the same goals." Shortly after Chaney's visit, Simms and Thompkins spoke their new dream out loud: "We should go to Tennessee together."

Word traveled fast about the two juco kids Lane Kiffin was looking at out in L.A. Simms and Thompkins played a road game at the College of the Desert one Saturday, then Thompkins spent the following Saturday inside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, surrounded by 92,000 fans. His recruiting visit to Alabama happened to coincide with the Tide's last-second win over Tennessee, which wasn't decided until Alabama blocked a field goal as time expired.

"When [Thompkins] got back from Alabama," Simms said, "he told me he actually spent more time watching the Tennessee sideline than the Alabama sideline."

The reason was the Vols' charismatic young head coach, and the confidence Kiffin inspired in his players, who from a talent standpoint had no business taking the eventual national champions to the wire. It didn't hurt Tennessee's chances with Thompkins when Lil Wayne dropped Kiffin's name into one of his songs (Talk s--- like Lane Kiffin / whole country in recession, but Wayne different ...).

Simms and Thompkins visited Knoxville together in early December. "We came out for practice, and Bang! Out of these speakers comes this loud hip-hop music, stuff me and Kenbrell listen to all the time," Simms said. "We were like, 'Oh my God, what is this?'"

A month later Simms was enrolled at Tennessee and had began studying the Vols' 2009 game tapes. Thompkins had also signed and was expected in Knoxville soon. It was then, in a seemingly unrelated development, that Pete Carroll was hired away from USC by the Seattle Seahawks.

"As soon as that happened I knew it was only a matter of time until USC called Lane," said Phil Simms. "I'm surprised they didn't hire him sooner, actually."

"I told Coach Kiffin the day he left, 'Thank you very much for giving me a scholarship here at Tennessee and I hope you do well at USC,'" Matt Simms said. "I told him, 'I just left California and now you're going back, so I guess it's a fair trade.'"

Thompkins handled Kiffin's departure differently. He says he never got a call or a text from Kiffin or his recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron (who accompanied Kiffin to USC). "I still haven't to this day," Thompkins said. He says he harbors no hard feelings -- "I wish them the best ... I'm grateful they showed interest in me" -- but for a kid who had always found it difficult to trust others, Kiffin's departure affirmed for Thompkins that college football is a world where many promises are made to be broken. Instead of waiting on a new coach to be named, Thompkins told Tennessee that he was re-entering the recruiting process.

Simms empathized. Hearkening back to the team meeting when Kiffin told the Vols players he was leaving, Simms said: "For the freshman guys who just got here I could kind of see it in their eyes, they had a look of panic on their face. But I trusted [athletic director] Mike Hamilton, I trusted all the people who were committed to this program way before Coach Kiffin was here ... this was just kind of another experience where you realize, in a harsh way, that this is a business."

"I called and texted Kenbrell, trying get him to stop messing around and get his butt up here to Tennessee," Simms said jokingly. But by then Thompkins was fielding interest from Oklahoma, Cal, and UCLA. On the advice of a cousin who'd played for Butch Jones at Central Michigan, Thompkins took an official visit to Cincinnati, where Jones had just been hired to replace Notre Dame-bound Brian Kelly. Despite a late push from UCLA, Thompkins signed with the Bearcats in late March.

"Like any student-athlete we recruit here, we did background checks and we did our due diligence," Jones said. "I also spoke [about Thompkins] with several people I trust ... and what I saw was a kid who had come a long way in a short time, a kid who was focused and who was hungry to succeed."

During spring practice Thompkins developed a rapport with Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, whose style and abilities are similar to Simms'. Tennessee, however, had yet to release Thompkins from his letter of intent. Thompkins appealed to the NCAA committee that presides over such matters, and on Aug. 9 Thompkins was ruled ineligible for the 2010 season. Because of the circumstances, the NCAA mercifully ruled that Thompkins' year on the sideline would not cost him a year of eligibility. He has two years remaining.

It's not clear what Tennessee stood to gain by declining to release Thompkins (Tennessee athletics officials did not respond to requests for comment), but in the wake of their decision a troubling irony remains: football saved Thompkins, but now that he's found a home, he can't play.

So it's Simms who's starting for Tennessee at quarterback on Saturday. The guy who had been promised number 1 by Kiffin will instead be wearing the red and black version worn last year by All-America Mardy Gilyard -- another Floridian who overcame a checkered past -- albeit solely on Cincinnati's practice field.

Another coincidence: Thompkins' roommate during fall practice was Bearcats receiver Vidal Hazelton, who knows plenty about Lane Kiffin and NCAA transfer rules. Hazelton played 11 games as a freshman at USC when Kiffin was the Trojans' offensive coordinator and receivers coach. He transferred to Cincinnati following his sophomore year and sat out last season per NCAA rules. Hazelton advised his roommate "to keep a positive attitude," Thompkins said. "He told me, 'The games fly by so fast, it'll be next season before you know it.'"

"I watched him to see how he'd react [to being declared ineligible]," Jones said. "He came out of it fully committed to our scout team ... He's been joking with Vidal that he's going to break his record as the alltime leading receiver in scout team history.

"What summarizes this thing best for me," Jones added, "is that Kenbrell came in and earned a 3.9 GPA here in his first term, taking all core classes."

The second game Thompkins will be eligible to play next fall is at Tennessee. He says it will be "just another game," but that it will be played beneath a skybox filled with administrators who didn't grant him a release, suggests otherwise. "I did everything I could have possibly done [to be eligible this fall]," Thompkins said. "One of the things I've learned is to let go of what I can't control. I feel like I'm at the perfect spot here with coach [Butch] Jones and his staff, even if I can't play this year. I just feel blessed to be part of this program."

"It'll be special to step on the field with him again," Simms said of their 2011 meeting. "We won't even have to say anything. I'm sure we'll just smile ...

"It'll be a little bittersweet because of what might have been, but at the same time it just shows that two guys from totally different backgrounds can come together and find their way and succeed, by finding each other."

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