Walking across the Oregon State campus, heedless of a nuisance
rain, Ken Simonton interrupts a soliloquy on the business of
college football to surprise a fellow student. "How you doing?"
he says to a young woman, who flinches at the question. "What?"
"How you doing?" he repeats, smiling.
"Fine," she says, glancing anxiously at her companion and then
"I just think eye contact should count for something," says
Simonton, describing a phenomenon he has observed for four years
in Corvallis, where, he says, many students seemingly have had
so little exposure to blacks that "they stare at you without
realizing they're staring. Where I come from, if you make eye
contact from 40 yards away and don't say hello or acknowledge me
in some way, maybe we're going to have a problem."
A 5'7", 194-pound junior running back who hides behind his
linemen until he sees an opening and then bursts through it,
Simonton is many things, but bashful isn't one of them. He's
equally at ease among teammates and professors. He's determined
not to be stereotyped. Do a little homework, Simonton pleads, and
recognize me for what I am: a strong student who happens to excel
in his other role as a collegian, which he describes as carrying
a football for the financial betterment of Oregon State.
After decades of football futility, Oregon State is putting on
performances worth paying for. Last Saturday's 38-32 win at Cal
improved the Beavers' record to 8-1, matching their highest
victory total in 36 years and increasing the likelihood that the
winner of the Oregon-Oregon State game, the Emerald State's
annual Civil War, on Nov. 18, will go to the Rose Bowl.
Exploiting seams opened by coach Dennis Erickson's spread
offense, Simonton has gained 145 rushing yards per game this
season. Against the Bears he ran for 125 yards and three
touchdowns on 17 carries before he felt tightness in a groin
muscle, which has hampered him periodically this season, and
benched himself early in the second half. (Simonton says he will
play against Arizona this Saturday.) The win elevated Oregon
State to 10th in the polls, its highest ranking since 1968.
The Beavers' renaissance has its roots, it can be argued, in a 7
a.m. phone call placed five years ago by Mike Riley, the Southern
Cal offensive coordinator at the time, to Ken's paternal
grandmother, Rosie. Riley, now coach of the San Diego Chargers,
was responsible for recruiting an area that included Pittsburg,
Calif., where Ken had averaged 16.7 yards a carry as a junior for
Pittsburg High. Riley wanted to contact the sawed-off sensation
the first day recruiting contact was allowed in Simonton's senior
year, but he had one problem: The phone at Ken's parents' house
had been temporarily disconnected. He got hold of Rosie's number,
called her first thing that morning and asked her to tell her
grandson that USC was interested in him.
"That set him apart from other recruiters," says Simonton, as did
the fact that no other Pac-10 school showed interest in him.
After Riley accepted the Oregon State coaching job, following the
Beavers' 2-9 season in 1996, he lured Simonton to Corvallis. As a
redshirt freshman in '98, Simonton rushed for 1,028 yards and
showed the rest of the conference why he might have been worth
recruiting. Though Riley left for the NFL after that 5-6 season,
Simonton has since become only the second back in Pac-10 history
to run for more than a thousand yards in each of his first three
seasons. As Riley notes, "That's a pretty impressive list of
Simonton says he bears no grudges against schools that spurned
him, but that's not to say the events of Sept. 30 weren't honey
on his tongue. He gained 234 yards rushing in a 31-21 win over
Southern Cal, whose courtship of him ceased when Riley left
there. Simonton's third touchdown of the game, a 36-yard run with
1:18 left, ensured Oregon State's first win over the Trojans in
He'd had an equally enjoyable afternoon two Saturdays earlier,
even though--or perhaps because--the Beavers had an open date on
their schedule. While his teammates went hunting or nursed
hangovers (or hunted while nursing hangovers), Simonton drove
four hours to Ashland to check out a production of Hamlet at the
Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Four hours?
What did he think of the play? "From the moment I started
understanding what was going on," he says, "Hamlet really jumped
out at me. Dude found himself in a cold world, a world he
couldn't trust. His world was breaking down in front of him. I've
had to live that life. I've seen people live that life. You're
watching this man put together a plan, then manipulate every
friendship, every relationship, to execute it. He ended up losing
his life in the end, but watching him manip through that, trying
not to lose it, trying not to lose it"--Simonton snaps his fingers
for emphasis--"it was just kind of easy to relate to."
Pittsburg is 30 miles east and several socioeconomic strata
beneath Berkeley, the site of Oregon State's game last Saturday.
It's an industrial city home to oil refineries and steel mills
that have provided Simonton's father, also named Ken, a paycheck
through the years. Here's Ken Jr.'s upbeat take on a tough place:
"It has enough of a crime element so that I knew what was going
on, and enough diversity and love so I could enjoy it."
Growing up in Pittsburg, Simonton and his five siblings had hard
choices to make. One brother, for example, was a minor leaguer in
the San Francisco Giants system and is now a hitting instructor
for the Giants at the Double A level. Another brother is an
ex-convict working hard to get his life back on track. One of
Simonton's goals is to play in the NFL, and at least one former
coach in that league (Erickson) and a current one (Riley) believe
that he will. Even if he doesn't, Simonton is covered: He is on
schedule to graduate next June.
Might he enter the draft after this season? "As a businessman,
I'll weigh my options," Simonton says. "I have every intention
of coming back, but if [the NFL] is speaking my language...."
Simonton's garden-variety speed, 4.42 in the 40 and garden-gnome
height make him an improbable early-round selection. "If you put
him through those tests the NFL scouts do," Erickson concedes,
"maybe he doesn't do so well. But when you see him on video and
coach him live, he fascinates you more every time you see him."
Just as Simonton's running style is a perfect fit for Erickson's
system, so does his independent streak mesh with Oregon State's
policy of allowing some undergraduates to create their own
majors. Simonton has fashioned a diversity-studies program and is
sampling as many dishes as possible from the university's
academic buffet. "I want to be exposed to everything," he says.
His courses this semester include a poetry class, ballet and an
advanced sociology class called Race and Ethnic Relations, taught
by professor Dwaine Plaza, who's helping Simonton research a
project examining the parallels between Division I football
players and migrant farm workers. Last spring Simonton took a
class in piano and another in women's studies. His professor in
that class later told Trina Kudlacek, the football program's
academic coordinator, "The only student in that class who really
got me thinking about what I was saying was Ken Simonton."
Working in an office down the hall from the Beavers' weight room,
Kudlacek has become inured to the din and the vibrations caused
by metal plates crashing to the floor. In the middle of her
office is a round table piled high with textbooks, binders and a
weather-beaten dictionary choked with Post-it notes. This small
mountain is the property of Simonton, who has conscripted the
table into service as his unofficial office. He and Kudlacek take
turns learning from each other. "I talk to him about Ovid, say,
or Beethoven," she says, "and he tells me about the
socio-historical significance of Tupac."
Simonton ruffled some feathers in the football offices earlier
this fall by complaining to The Oregonian, the Portland daily,
that, despite having "full athletic support," he and his
teammates could use more academic support. "For all 110 athletes,
we have Trina," he said. It wasn't an accurate statement. The
players also have access to academic advisers and to tutors who
work with her, Kudlacek says. "Of course," she adds, "Ken doesn't
use tutors all that much. He's usually dealing directly with
Indeed, Plaza reports that Simonton often approaches him after
class to request suggestions for extra reading. Simonton is one
of four African-Americans taking the course, which has an
enrollment of 35, and he stoically took notes last week as Plaza
talked about how children are taught from their earliest years
"to read the body as a text: Are you black, or are you white?"
Simonton's pet peeve is that some people do their reading so
overtly--staring at him and then not saying hello. It used to make
him angry. Then, three years ago, he had a minor epiphany at a
Beavers basketball game. Simonton and linebacker James Allen were
approached by a young woman who said to Allen, "I've never
touched a black person's hair before. May I touch yours?"
Permission was granted. Rather than offend him, says Simonton,
the incident "helped me let my guard down. I realized that there
are people here who just haven't been exposed to black people.
That's not their fault. It helped me understand, when I'm walking
around, that not all the people who look at me realize they're
Allen has his own theory: "Half the people Ken sees looking at
him are probably just thinking, Wow! That's Ken Simonton!"
A Grand Runner
Not only is Ken Simonton (left) the lone Pac-10 player to have
rushed for 1,000 yards in his freshman, sophomore and junior
seasons, but he is also third in the three-year totals for the
six Pac-10 runners who have had three 1,000-yard seasons. And
he's still running.
PLAYER, SCHOOL, 1,000-YARD SEASONS TOTAL
Charles White, USC 1,291 1,760 1803 4,854
Napoleon Kaufman, WASHINGTON 1,045 1,299 1,390 3,734
Ken Simonton, OREGON STATE 1,028 1,329 1,288* 3,645*
Anthony Davis, USC 1,034 1,038 1,354 3,426
Russell White, CAL 1,000 1,177 1,069 3,246
Darrin Nelson, STANFORD 1,069 1,061 1,014 3,144
*Two games remaining in junior season.