The Gift It took 20 years of dedication and sacrifice for Oklahoma State football coach Bob Simmons to land his dream job. It took the extraordinary devotion of his wife, Linda, to keep his dream--and him--alive

July 05, 1998

God did this. Every step they had taken, every slur they'd
endured, every mistake and happiness they'd known had built to
here and now. All for a reason. All for some plan. God had
brought them to Stillwater, Okla. God had soured her husband's
kidneys, shriveling them to pale bundles of scars. God had made
her a nurse so she would have the words to persuade her husband
of what to do, and now God had chosen this frigid November day
to bring Linda Simmons to her empty bedroom and impel her to lie
flat on the floor. Forehead resting on her flattened knuckles.
Daylight beginning to go dim. Lord, I need to know an answer.
Please let me know if this is what You want me to do.

God talked back. Linda heard this voice, inside her head but
outside too, and it said, "Yes, give your husband one of your
kidneys." The Holy Spirit told her to think of Isaiah 41:10, and
as she began the final line--I will uphold thee with the
righteous right hand--she felt enveloped in peace. All her life,
Linda Simmons had been a believer, but never had her faith
grabbed her so deeply: She tingled, she felt that right hand
lift her and hold her up over the rug, next to the bed. "As if
I'd been elevated off the floor," she says.

Maybe you don't believe this. Maybe you don't want to hear it.
Oklahoma State football coach Bob Simmons doesn't care. He and
his family have spent the last decade traveling farther and
farther beyond the secular pale, chasing something you can't
see. They take life's knocks in curious ways. In 1989, a year
after West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, a man Simmons considers a
"second father," led him to believe he was next in line for a
coordinator's job and then gave it to another man, Simmons stood
before a group of stunned coaches at a clinic and told how much
he loved Don Nehlen; then he hugged Nehlen.

By this time Simmons was firmly ensconced as one of Bill
McCartney's assistants at Colorado, where for the next five
years his family would revel in Boulder's ultraliberal
aura--even though much of that image was a lie. Their daughter,
Lelanna, would come home from kindergarten wondering why kids
called her names, spat on her because she was black. Their son
Nathan tells how an attendant at a rec center refused him entry
to play pickup basketball with some white friends, then called
the police when he protested. Yet the Simmonses hold no grudge
against Boulder or its cops or kids. "No, we had a great time,"
Linda says.

"Good family times," Bob says.

Last fall Simmons, 50, led Oklahoma State to its first winning
season in 10 years, beat Oklahoma in Norman for the second time
in his three seasons with the Cowboys and was named Big 12 Coach
of the Year. More important, for those eager to tap into a
revenge theme, Colorado, the school that passed him over for its
coaching job three years ago when it hired wonderboy Rick
Neuheisel, endured a humiliating season. But Simmons, handpicked
by McCartney to be his successor, never hinted at feeling
vindicated. Not when his squad became the first Cowboys team to
beat Colorado since 1988, not when NCAA infractions forced the
Buffaloes to forfeit their five wins. Not a word.

Yet even those accustomed to the family's casual iconoclasm were
blindsided on March 10 when news began leaking out of Oklahoma
City that Bob and Linda had just gone under the knife together.
Beyond the rarity of their surgery--only about 4% of kidney
transplants come from living, non-blood-related donors--lay the
odd fact that few people knew that Bob had been carrying around
rapidly disintegrating kidneys. Oklahoma State athletic director
Terry Don Phillips says that when a reporter approached him at
the Final Four in San Antonio and asked him to confirm reports
of Simmons's surgery, "I said, 'No way. I had a meeting with him
Monday'--and this was Tuesday--'and we met for 45 minutes. He's
healthier than I am!' It caught me completely by surprise."

Phillips wasn't alone. Back home in East Cleveland, Ohio,
Simmons's parents, Fred and Annabelle, had heard nothing until
friends called to say they'd read about the operation in a
newspaper. The elder Simmonses had spent three days last
December with their son at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio,
oblivious to the fact that his name sat on a national
transplant-recipient list and that, any second, his beeper could
sound off with news that a matching kidney had been found. "We
thought he was going on vacation somewhere," says Fred of Bob's
absence for the surgery. "It was shocking to us. We didn't even
know he needed a kidney."

For nearly two years Bob and Linda had known Bob's kidneys were
failing, but it wasn't until a week before the surgery that they
told their three children he was getting a new kidney--and that
their mother would be giving it to him. The oldest and youngest,
22-year-old Brandon and 15-year-old Lelanna, took the news
calmly, but 21-year-old Nathan, the Cowboys' starting tailback,
panicked. "It was like getting hit with a rock," he says. He
couldn't escape the fear that something would go wrong, that his
parents would soon be dead. In the ensuing days he kept praying,
but the fear dogged him. He kept having nightmares with the same
theme: His parents were gone.

Only Linda felt at ease. The plan was to make an eight-inch
incision in her left side, remove her kidney and implant it in
her husband. She had been a registered nurse for 25 years, knew
the risks of major surgery, had heard all the horror stories
about lives abruptly lost in an anesthetic haze. She understood
that Bob hated putting her at risk. She could read the
nervousness in her children's faces. But hadn't she felt that
righteous right hand lift her four months before?

So on that Tuesday morning in March, as husband and wife were
being prepped for the operating room, Linda reached over to Bob
and told him everything would be just fine. Her heart was
pumping wildly, she says, "celebrating." She wanted to leap off
the gurney and hug everyone. She wanted to shout as loudly as
she could, overwhelm the cool sterility of the place with her
joy. "Because I knew," she says. "The miracle was at hand."

The sound of screaming dragged him out of sleep. Bob Simmons
rolled over, opened his eyes and woke to a nightmare. Linda
stood by the sliding glass doors. Past the curtains, he could
see it burning, filling the night with blazing color: a giant
cross in his yard. A Dixie cliche, just as in all those old
tales out of Freedom Summer in the Sixties, except this was
August 1980, and the Simmonses had just moved to Morgantown,
W.Va., and lord, night riders were the last thing on Bob's mind.
He'd gone there to rejoin his college coach, Nehlen, to be an
assistant on the staff of the state's premier football program
and to think the usual ambitious thoughts about making contacts
and moving up. But now Linda was screeching, and his two little
boys lay bewildered in an adjacent room, and none of them knew
what would come next. Would rocks crash through the windows?
Would attackers set fire to the house?

"We didn't sleep the rest of the night," Bob says. The family
had no gun, so the two parents began a scramble for weapons that
would have been funny if it hadn't been so awful. Linda grabbed
a butcher knife. Bob picked up the next best thing, a pair of
pliers. They waited, the firelight dancing on their faces
through the glass. They heard nothing but the faint sound of
flame eating wood. They waited, but nothing else happened before
the police arrived. Their only neighbor, a white man, came over
to help Bob douse the cross with a garden hose.

The next day Simmons walked into Nehlen's office and told him he
was quitting. "It absolutely shocked me to death," Nehlen says
of the incident. "I'd have gone off with him. If we could've
found a place to go together, we both would have gone."

Nehlen stayed. Simmons stayed. He'd known Nehlen since high
school, trusted him, had leaped at the chance to help him
rebuild a program. "He understood me," Simmons says. Besides,
Bob Simmons was never known to take things to the extreme--no
matter the provocation. He has always been known as a solid man,
quiet and strong, not easy to rile. Born in Livingston, Ala.,
the grandson of a sharecropper, he learned early from his father
the virtue of getting along.

"You were in the South, and you knew you were black and had to
abide by the rules," says Fred Simmons, 73. "Sometimes you've
got to look the other way."

And if you get a job, you keep it. Fred moved to Cleveland as
part of the great black migration after World War II, landed on
an assembly line at General Motors and stayed there for 36
years. Young Bobby Simmons, coming of age in the radical 1960s,
stuck by the rules: Work hard, keep your nose clean. He grew up
living what was once an American dream, becoming the high school
football star who dated--and later married--the cheerleader from
his old neighborhood, and after earning All-Mid-American
Conference honors as a linebacker at Bowling Green, he became
the first member of his family to earn a college degree. His
father was so proud that he walked up and down the street waving
the young man's diploma. The next year, Bob got his master's
degree in college student personnel.

Then he began his climb. After spending a year developing and
running the academic adviser's program at Bowling Green, he
hooked onto Nehlen's staff as a receivers coach. When Nehlen got
fired two years later, in 1976, Simmons moved on for a
three-year stint at Toledo, then rejoined his mentor as
linebackers coach when Nehlen was hired in Morgantown. All the
while, Simmons adhered to the ambitious assistant's intense work
ethic: Weekends, nights, vacations all went to studying film or
giving clinics or visiting the next recruit. His children rarely
saw him, unless they went to the practice field. "I was at the
point where I couldn't tell you when their birthdays were,"
Simmons says. "I'd leave on a trip and come back, and they'd be
walking. All those little fine moments in your kids' lives? I
didn't have that luxury."

He missed other things. Like the time Linda walked into a
Morgantown store, Nathan in hand, and was greeted by the owner
shouting, "You niggers go back to Africa where you belong!" Or
the day Linda took Brandon, then four, to be tested for
kindergarten. A school administrator told Linda her son was hard
of hearing, in need of dental work and mentally deficient; she
was asked to sign him into special education. Linda left without
signing. Brandon had never had a cavity and had already spent a
year in kindergarten. Two years later, he was placed in the
gifted program, the one black kid in a school of about 700.
Almost every day, someone would sting him with a racial epithet.
"That was my reality," Brandon says.

It was then that his mother embraced her faith with renewed
fervor. Being brought up in the church had laid the groundwork,
but the West Virginia experience shaped the walls, halls and
roof of Linda's belief. She pressed the church upon her boys.
"When you go through something like that, you have to have a
faith in God," says Brandon, who is now Oklahoma State's
director of football operations. "If we hadn't, there's no
telling where we would've been. When you grow up and see that
the infrastructure is not geared toward you--I'm not supposed to
succeed--you can't put faith in society or the people in that
society. You have to trust God."

Bob wasn't part of that deepening of faith. He was looking only
for the next hoop to jump through. Eight years of coaching
Mountaineers linebackers had given him skill and purpose; he was
now known as a well-organized assistant, a tough and effective
motivator, a great recruiter--and he was sure he could run his
own program. He also felt he had to be a defensive coordinator
before anyone would hire him as a head coach, but he had an ace
to play. Nehlen had told him he might get the next coordinator's
job to come open. But when it did come up, in 1988, Nehlen,
looking to keep staff jealousy to a minimum, hired an outsider
named Bob Shaw.

Today, Simmons says he understands Nehlen's rationale. At the
time, however, he confronted his friend and quit. He left
Morgantown embittered and, Linda says, "carried that anger with
him to Colorado."

Boulder changed everything. In McCartney, Simmons came to know
not only the second great coaching mentor of his life but also
someone who constantly rode him about the state of his soul.
Simmons began spending more of his free time with his family. On
recruiting trips, McCartney would read Simmons Scripture;
Simmons, nodding off, would pretend he was listening. On one
trip, to Shreveport, La., to try to land quarterback prospect
Josh Booty, McCartney gathered with Simmons, Booty and five of
Booty's coaches, "and before we'd even spoken to Josh we had a
prayer session," Simmons says. "Our purpose was recruiting Josh,
but they were recruiting me." In 1990, with the Colorado program
in a rise to prominence that would ultimately take nine
assistants to head coaching jobs, McCartney walked into
Simmons's office and said, "Man will never make you a head
coach. Get your life right with God."

Three years later, in the spring of 1993, Simmons got religion
and more. He attended a meeting of Promise Keepers, McCartney's
group of manly Christians, and felt moved by the sight of 50,000
men witnessing, sharing and lighting candles in the dark of a
Boulder night. His recruitment was finished. That year McCartney
named him assistant head coach on top of his defensive-line
duties, all but anointing Simmons his successor. When McCartney
resigned two years later, Simmons thought he had as good a
chance as anyone to get the job. Nine days later, athletic
director Bill Marolt named Neuheisel--a recent addition to the
Buffaloes staff with only seven years' experience as a full-time
assistant--as McCartney's replacement.

That sparked protests by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and a
national debate on the lack of black head coaches. But Simmons
stayed out of the fray. He never said he thought Colorado's
decision was racist, and none of the anger that attended his
departure from West Virginia surfaced. "Early in my career, I
was just like everybody else: There aren't many minorities in
college coaching, and that is the issue," he says. "But I got to
the point where it was an obstacle I couldn't control. As my
faith grew, I didn't worry anymore. It allowed me to be more
patient, more open, more receptive. If it was going to happen,
it was going to be ordained through Him."

Don't get Simmons wrong. Neither he nor anyone else in his
family harbors any doubt: Race played a part in what happened at
Colorado. But getting through his disappointment was easy, he
says, "when you understand what the Word says--that racism is of
Satan." In fact the Simmonses think the situation went beyond
some Colorado officials' not wanting Bob because he is black.

"We knew what was going on," Linda says. "I believe this: What
happened there was God's wake-up call to Colorado and eventually
the whole country. Where is your heart? Where are you with your
fellow man who happens to be a different color than you? Are you
going to love him like I say? Love thy neighbor as thyself. God
wanted people to see it as a race issue. God was saying, I want
Boulder and Colorado and the sports world to see that racism is
alive in this country. And it's really prevalent in sports."

But Bob didn't dwell on it. The day after Neuheisel's hiring he
faxed his resume to Oklahoma State. And the Cowboys, searching
for a coach with a pristine reputation, needed him more than he
needed them.

Simmons wowed school officials in his interviews and quickly
passed four other applicants, including two Oklahoma State
alumni, to become the leading candidate. But he was done
counting chickens; he counted on nothing. In the early evening
of Dec. 14, 1994, he sat in his office at Colorado's Dal Ward
Center. All the other coaches had gone home. The phone rang.

"Bob?" It was athletic director Phillips. "We'd like to offer
you the job as the next head coach at Oklahoma State."

Simmons took the news calmly, just as you'd expect from a man
who had come to a new peace, who had given himself over to God's
plan. "Cool and collected," Simmons says. He accepted the job,
and the two men spoke about logistics--when to come down, how to
keep the news from leaking. Simmons thanked Phillips. He hung up
the phone.

Then, in the quiet of his empty office, he began to shout. He
jumped out of his chair and ran into the hall, yelling, "I'm the
new head coach at Oklahoma State!" In the deserted center his
words echoed back into his ears. Twenty years he'd been waiting.
He ran into the foyer and down one hall and then another,
backsliding every step, allowing himself just this one pure
moment of oh-so-human pride.

"I'm the man!" he shouted, as loud as his lungs would let him.
"I'm the man!"

Pile on the required reading, throw in another pop quiz, assign
one more paper to write; after a while, Nathan Simmons didn't
care. Bring it on. He just put his head down and kept shuffling
books. By the end of his freshman year Nathan, who wanted to get
ahead as fast as he could, had passed more course
hours--44--than any other athlete in the school's history. After
three years, still a sophomore athletically, he graduated from
Oklahoma State with a 3.49 grade-point average and a bachelor's
degree in psychology. (He'll take graduate courses while playing
football this fall.) "Where'd he get that from?" his dad
marvels, but Nathan shrugs off the notion that he has run
himself through the academic mill. You want difficult? Try
playing for the ultimate critic, a man who's never been shy
about dressing anyone down. Try playing for your father.

"Sometimes it's just so hard," Nathan says. "He wants me to be
the best running back I can be. He's a nitpicker. He wants it
perfect. Make a good run, and he'll praise you a little bit, but
it's every little thing: 'Why'd you do this? Why'd you do that?'
It's taken me three years to get used to it."

Understand: Nathan knew what he was getting into. He had a
chance to play wherever he wanted. Coming out of Boulder High as
a cover boy for SuperPrep, the football recruiting magazine, he
was one of the nation's top prospects--so good that Colorado had
the gall to continue recruiting him even after it snubbed his
father. Stanford wanted him, Northwestern wanted him, West
Virginia thought it had him sewn up. "But when Bob got the
[Cowboys] job, we decided we better find another tailback,"
Nehlen says. "That family is so strong."

Nehlen was dead on. The night Bob learned he'd landed the
position, Brandon, then a sophomore at Bowling Green, began
thinking about transferring to Oklahoma State. Nathan moved
faster. He cornered his dad and said that he was committing to
the Cowboys. Bob tried to talk him out of it: You haven't even
been to Stillwater yet. What about the education you can get at
Stanford? "It doesn't matter," Nathan said. "I'm going to help
you build that program. I want to be with you."

What could Bob say? Looking at his son, he felt honored and
humbled all at once. "It broke me down," Bob says.

Besides, he was going to need all the help he could get.
Oklahoma State, once a proud program that produced Thurman
Thomas and Barry Sanders, hadn't recovered from the four-year
probation the NCAA levied on it for sundry violations in 1989.
"They just gutted us," says longtime Cowboys booster Jack
Griffith. "Bob did not come into a healthy situation."

Facilities were inadequate. Attendance had sunk, and the team
was riding an 18-game in-conference winless streak. The players
didn't care. Oklahomans had so little interest in the program
that when Simmons was hired, little was made of the fact that he
was only the fifth black man to run a Division I-A program. Many
people believed Cowboys football had sunk too low ever to
compete at the highest level again.

Simmons, encouraged by Phillips, began changing that. He
insisted that the program think big again, that it gun for a
conference title. He had the team's academic counseling program
revamped. He organized retreats and postpractice get-togethers
so that players would care for each other as more than
teammates. "From the first, it surprised me he'd been only an
assistant all those years," says senior safety Trent Alexander.
"The way he acts, the things he does, his organization, how
particular he is--he didn't need any time to adjust."

The Cowboys went 4-8 in 1995, but with a bright spot: They beat
Oklahoma in Norman for the first time in 19 years. After going
5-6 the next year, Simmons had reason to be optimistic. But a
week before last season's opener, against Iowa State, Simmons
lost 11 players--including six starters--when they were
suspended for academic reasons. Another player had already been
suspended for disciplinary reasons. Instead of folding, the
Cowboys won six straight, beating Texas and Colorado
back-to-back, and lost the next two games in overtime by a total
of only four points. They finished 8-4. Though a defensive
specialist, Simmons had his hand in every aspect of the offense,
delegating to his coordinators but never relinquishing control.
"I didn't come this far to give it to anybody else," he says.

Nathan knows. He moved into the starting tailback slot when
those 12 suspensions were announced and went on to gain 711
yards on a 4.3 average, but even during his best games he looked
over his shoulder. Against Northeast Louisiana he rushed for 106
yards, but his most vivid memory is of a moment in the first
half after his father demanded to know why he'd made a certain
cut. Facing a similar run a few series later, all Nathan could
think about was his dad. He froze. "I should've scored easily,
because there was just one man," Nathan says. "When my dad got
on me on the sideline, I said, 'Well, you didn't want me to cut!'"

Still, Nathan has no regrets. What if his parents had undergone
surgery and he had been off at some distant school? Throughout
the season, Bob had been experiencing more and more stiffness as
his kidneys began shutting down and his body scrambled to
excrete waste. Doctors suspect that years of stress caused
Simmons's kidney disease, and by last fall he was reaching a
crisis point. His skin took on an ashy tone. He came home from
work exhausted. He kept insisting he felt good, and his
nephrologist, Chris Kaufman, kept asking him why he didn't feel
sicker. "You should be on dialysis," Kaufman told him. His
transplant coordinator put it in blunter terms. Inside, she
said, you are a train wreck.

Bob resisted Linda's insistence that he take her kidney, but she
kept pushing the idea. The doctors didn't discourage her. The
wait for a cadaver kidney averages two years in Oklahoma, so the
threat of exhausting, time-consuming dialysis loomed. A living
donor was Bob's one shot at a normal life, and he refused to
consider his parents, his two sisters or his children. Linda, as
a universal donor, was a perfect match. "I was trying to get him
to understand this was a gift," Linda says.

Both surgeries went off without incident. Bob returned to
practice 11 days later. But what struck outsiders most was
Linda's sacrifice; the donor's recovery is always tougher, and
it took months before she returned to normal. When Bob first
addressed the team afterward, he couldn't describe Linda's act
without breaking into tears.

Brandon heard stories about spouses refusing to donate to
spouses. "That's what people should get excited about," Brandon
says. "What Mom did should be the norm."

Linda might deny that. People should get excited about what has
happened to the Simmons family, she believes, because it
happened for a reason. For some plan. Bob got the job, and
Brandon and Nathan came home, and Brandon and his wife had a
baby, and now Bob can watch his 16-month-old grandson, B.J.,
take his first steps. He can even tell you when B.J.'s birthday
is. What's more, judging by other people's reactions to Linda's
sacrifice, the world needed such a dramatic testament to a
strong marriage.

"If you leave out God, you have no story," Linda says, which, of
course, was the plan's most important part. God did this, made
it all happen, so there would be a good story to tell.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE TRUE BELIEVER Linda is certain that God had a hand in her decision to donate one of her kidneys to Bob. [Linda Simmons and Bob Simmons]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BE PREPARED Sprinting in the stands of Lewis Stadium shows the kind of dedication Simmons loves. [Bob Simmons sitting on stadium steps as players exercise around him] COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG GOOD ENOUGH? Nathan gained 711 yards last year at tailback, but Coach Dad never stopped demanding more of him. [Nathan Simmons carrying ball in game] COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN HOLMAN/STILLWATER NEWSPRESS JOB HAZARD Simmons's doctors have speculated that years of stress were the principal cause of his kidney deterioration. [Bob Simmons arguing with referee]

Simmons insisted that the program think big again, that it gun
for a conference title.

The day of the surgery, Linda's heart was pumping wildly. She
wanted to leap up and hug everyone.