Jerome Simpson isn't insulted when he's asked if he thinks the Bengals reached to pick him in the second round of the NFL Draft. The soft spoken Coastal Carolina receiver, projected by most to be a second-day pick, simply smiles and nods his head.
"I didn't think I would go that high," says Simpson, putting on his black and orange uniform for the first time during a trading card photo shoot in Los Angeles. "I wasn't even home when I got picked."
Simpson, who caught 41 passes for 697 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, was actually with his family, doing what he normally does on Saturdays in the spring. He was heading to the Winston Salem Flea Market after enjoying a family meal of pizza and wings at Elizabeth's, a local Italian restaurant near his home.
"We were about 15 minutes from my house when I got a call from a strange number so I looked at my mom and said, 'Turn the radio down, turn the radio down,'" says Simpson, who was also with his grandmother and two uncles. "I'll never forget it. We were driving down Highway 29 in Greensboro when I got the call that changed my life."
"Hi, Jerome, how you doing," said the voice on the other line.
"Doing good," said Jerome as he looked at the faces in his Toyota Tundra, which he had just pulled to the side of the road.
"This is Coach [Marvin] Lewis, get ready and turn your TV on because we're about to pick you."
Simpson and his family immediately got out of his car and began celebrating on the side of the highway as cars raced past them. "I told my family, put the hazard lights on and we were on the highway jumping up and down and going crazy," he says. "People were driving by, thinking what's wrong with those people, but if they only knew. It was the most exciting time of my life."
It wasn't until Simpson returned home that he finally saw himself getting picked as he TiVoed the first day on the off chance that he was selected.
"I was expecting to go in the third round or something," says Simpson. "My agent said I had a 5 percent chance of getting picked late in the second round depending on how the draft goes, but I was expecting to go later."
Picked ahead of bigger name wideouts such as Texas's Limas Sweed, Cal's DeSean Jackson and Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly, Simpson had solid tangible qualities and measurements, including a combine record 11-foot-4 standing broad jump and the largest hand measurement (11 inches) of anyone who worked out at the RCA Dome. But Cincy mostly liked Simpson because, unlike so many Bengals before him, Lewis won't have to worry about Simpson off the field.
As Simpson talks about his goals for the upcoming season -- pushing for playing time, scoring his first touchdown, learning from the veterans -- he pauses and shakes his head. His first real tangible goal, he says, is working with disabled children in Cincinnati, continuing a commitment he's had since he was a college freshman.
"My real passion is working with kids with disabilities," said Simpson, who often takes care of his uncle, James Brim, who suffers from a mental disability. "I've worked in wheelchair basketball games and I love doing that. My uncle has a disability and he's a little slow but he's a great guy and I love to go fishing with him. He's a guy that would do anything for you and I love spending time with him. It teaches you a lot about patience, being able to work with people with disabilities."
During his time at Coastal Carolina, Simpson befriended a young fan named Dylan with cerebral palsy who would come to every game in his wheelchair wearing the jersey Simpson gave him. The two talked after the game no matter the result.
"He can't do a lot but he loves sports. He loves baseball and football and he wants to be a catcher or a receiver one day. He can't do it, but I play for him," said Simpson. "He wears my jersey and comes to every game. He loves me and I love him. He's at every one of my games and win or lose he says, 'Jerome you had a good game,' and that's really an inspiration to me. I could easily be in that situation, but I'm out here running and catching passes in the NFL."
Picking Simpson may not have changed the face of the Bengals franchise as the Falcons hope the selection and subsequent record-breaking contract signing of Matt Ryan did. But Simpson believes he will not only boost a receiving corps in need of some stability but also improve the character of a team which has seen a dozen players arrested since 2006.
"I think my good character played a part in my selection," said Simpson. "I want to bring that good character to this team and help lead some of those guys that have been in trouble to help out in the community. I've always had that leader role even when I was a freshman. I have a good way of leading people and opening up people's eyes about things and I think I can do that here, too."