Steer Crazy Chris Simms is all football, all the time in his fervent quest to quarterback the Longhorns to a national title and find his place in Texas football lore

August 12, 2001

What did you do, Chris Simms, on your summer vacation--all two
weeks of it?

That's right. Following the spring semester at Texas, Simms
arrived home in Franklin Lakes, N.J., had a fortnight of his
mother's cooking, then returned to Austin, where workouts
beckoned. Simms, however, made those 14 days at home count. He
threw to one of his high school buddies, Rob Milanese, a wideout
at Penn. He caught bronchitis. He watched a 17-year-old videotape
of the Los Angeles Rams' 33-12 win over the New York Giants while
sitting alongside that game's losing quarterback--his father,
Phil. And he broke up with his high school sweetheart. "We're
still on good terms," says Chris. "I really do love her, but I
have a lot going on in my life right now. I'm trying to
accomplish something here."

A 6'5", 222-pound junior quarterback, Simms is trying to take the
Longhorns to the national title that was predicted for them, in
some quarters, last year. Before he does, the southpaw passer
must finish the job of making the Texas offense his offense. It
was that task into which he hurled himself on June 11, the day
after returning to Austin.

He began that day with a weight workout (chest and arms),
followed by a running session under a broiling midday sun
and--more daunting still--the baleful eye of Texas strength
coach Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden. Later, Simms and a handful of his
teammates jogged onto a grass field adjacent to an elevated
freeway near the Texas campus. It was 5:30 p.m. and could not
have been a degree below 95, but the assembled Longhorns put on
quite a show for stalled rush-hour commuters. Sophomore wideout
B.J. Johnson snagged a Simms bullet in stride, a red shower cap
protecting the extravagant waves of his coiffure. ("I let the
ladies see 'em on weekends," he said, declining an invitation to
remove the cap.) Sophomore tight end Bo Scaife, on a post route,
ran like a wide receiver despite having blown out his left knee
the previous August. The physical marvel pulling footballs out
of the sky one-handed, the 6'5" man-child with the shaved head,
was wide receiver Roy Williams, a true sophomore who could play
in the NFL this minute.

"This is what you gotta do, when you gotta do it," said Williams,
whose full extension snag of a 70-yard Simms bomb provided a
spectacular finale to this session. Wiping rivulets of sweat from
his shaved head, he added, "Can't make those plays during the
season if you don't make 'em out here." Johnson and Williams also
spent the summer working to expunge memories of the waning
moments of last season, when each dropped a Simms pass in the end
zone, sealing the Longhorns' 35-30 Holiday Bowl loss to Oregon.

Simms's calm in the face of those last-minute drops--Johnson
muffed another pass on which he could have scored--stayed with the
team after the game. "He's a natural leader and probably the
least conceited person I've met," says Sloan Thomas, the third of
Texas's outstanding sophomore wide receivers. "He has all these
God-given abilities, but he still works as hard, or harder, than
anyone else on the team."

Will this group, the core of the most talented offense in the Big
12, put it all together in 2001? Much will depend on Simms, who
isn't leaving much to chance. He was the one who got on the phone
and organized this unofficial passing session, the first of many
that Simms would initiate over the summer. He's the one who never
misses a voluntary workout and finishes near the front in the
sprints, "even though," as a teammate points out, "he's nowhere
near the fastest guy on the team."

Simms is determined to realize the potential he showed as a
Parade All-America at Ramapo (N.J.) High, where he played in
every game for four years, threw 63 touchdown passes, led the
Green Raiders to a Group 3 state championship as a junior and
became the most celebrated schoolboy quarterback since Peyton
Manning. You don't hear those two compared much anymore. While
Manning started three full years at Tennessee, Simms at most will
start two full years at Texas--if he remains injury-free and if he
performs well enough to hold at bay the gritty and talented Major
Applewhite, a senior who already holds 40 school passing records.

Simms also has a fair amount of grit, though you wouldn't know it
from his nickname: the Prince. His moniker works in several ways.
Simms's hair sometimes falls straight down, reminiscent of Prince
Valiant's bangs. He is descended from football royalty,
certainly, his father having been the MVP of Super Bowl XXI. He
pays princely sums for the stylish ensembles he favors, including
designer shirts and Kenneth Cole shoes. On the morning he
reported to camp as a freshman in 1999, he was driven from his
hotel to the campus in a limousine. Simms's excuse--that his
mother, Diana, had arranged for the limo unbeknownst to
him--failed to sway his fellow Longhorns, who called him Limo the
remainder of the season.

The grief he gets is good-natured. Simms has earned the respect
and affection of his teammates, including both the
hunting-and-fishing crowd and the African-American players. His
roommate and close friend is Rod Babers, a cornerback from
Houston who coined the Prince nickname. "That's right, I came up
with it," Babers says. "He's not the King yet, but he's working
on it."

While Applewhite is also liked and respected, the team appears
solidly behind coach Mack Brown's selection of Simms as the
starter going into this season. "They both played very well [in
spring practice]," Brown says of his two quarterbacks. "Chris
played great, so that's the way we'll go into the fall."

At his best, says offensive coordinator Greg Davis, Simms makes
plays with "his feet and his head." He throws hard, with accuracy
and, when required, touch. Even if a play breaks down around him,
he can scramble out of the pocket and launch the ball 70 yards.
Simms still needs to take better care of the ball: His eight
touchdown passes last fall were offset by seven interceptions,
three of which were returned for touchdowns.

Word around the conference was that Simms tended to telegraph his
throws. "He might be better now," says Oklahoma safety Roy
Williams, "but last year, if he looked in one direction, he threw
in that direction. But I'm pretty sure his dad can help him with
that."

Dad isn't talking; Phil politely declined SI's interview
requests, clearly indicating that he wants his gifted son to be
free of his father's shadow. Chris, though, speaks of the many
happy hours the two spent together throughout his youth,
fast-forwarding and rewinding through videotapes of Giants
games, in which Phil played for 14 seasons after graduating from
Morehead State in 1979. Still, it seems obvious that the son's
skull sessions with his father can take the boy only so far. All
those happy hours watching the old man hook up with Mark Bavaro
and Phil McConkey, all those discussions of audibles and
progressions and two-deep zones--none of it proved to be a
substitute for taking snaps and dropping back in a major college
game. No matter how closely he studied his father's mistakes,
Chris had to learn from his own.

In fact, his decision to attend Texas marked a major step for
Chris toward becoming his own man. Recall that as a senior at
Ramapo High he had whittled his college choices to Tennessee and
Texas. Phil, mindful of his own past, made no secret of which
school he preferred. After turning in one of the most
statistically successful seasons of his NFL career in 1990, he
was mired in a hotly debated and divisive quarterback
controversy, eventually losing his job to Jeff Hostetler.
Believing the family had already endured its share of such
carnivals, he encouraged Chris to start memorizing the words to
Rocky Top because the succession at quarterback was clear at
Tennessee: After a one-year apprenticeship under senior Tee
Martin, the job would belong to Chris. No muss, no fuss. At
Texas he could expect to compete with Applewhite for three years.

Trying to be helpful, Chris's mother phoned one of her husband's
former bosses. After hearing her question--Where do you think
Chris should go to school?--Bill Parcells thought carefully, then
said, "Diana, listen to me. [Pause]. Are you listening?"

"Yes."

"Cut the umbilical cord!" he said. "Just cut it! The kid'll
figure it out for himself!"

He did, but it was a tortured process. Upon returning from an
October recruiting visit to Tennessee, Simms held off on making a
commitment. He visited Texas a month later and had a blast.
Heretical as it had been in his household, he'd grown up admiring
the Dallas Cowboys in general and Troy Aikman in particular. A
pigskin junkie in the gridiron backwater that is New Jersey, he
was fascinated by the football culture of the Lone Star State.
"From high school to the NFL, football is a religion in this
state, and Chris was drawn to that," says Tim Brewster, the Texas
tight ends coach who recruited him. Simms got along well with his
Longhorns hosts and fellow recruits, and went away impressed by
what he remembers as an absence of factions on the squad. (Little
did he know that his rivalry with Applewhite would sorely test
that unity.)

Even after orally committing to Tennessee in mid-December--at a
televised press conference in Madison Square Garden--Simms still
regaled his high school buddies with stories of his visit to
Texas. He rose early on New Year's Day (noon constitutes "early"
for a high school senior on Christmas break) to watch the
Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. "Something was pulling at me," he
says. In late January he called Brewster and asked if Texas still
had a scholarship for him. I think we can find something for you,
came the reply. A few days later, more than a month after that
televised press conference and three weeks after he had watched
Tennessee win the national title with a Fiesta Bowl victory over
Florida State, Simms followed his heart. He phoned the Volunteers
to deliver the bad news.

Upon his arrival in Austin--and even with the grief he took for
that first limo delivery--Simms's Texas teammates quickly warmed
to him. Despite his athletic gifts and pedigree he remains down
to earth: one of the guys. He uncomplainingly marked time as a
freshman, backing up Applewhite, who blew out his left knee in a
27-6 Cotton Bowl loss to Arkansas. While Applewhite rehabbed his
surgically repaired left knee, Simms had a terrific spring. A
quarterback controversy was born.

Simms represented one of the biggest recruiting coups in recent
Longhorns football history, and Brown ached to see what Simms
could do. The coach soon felt an ache of a different sort. In
the season opener, against the designated crash-test dummies of
Louisiana-Lafayette, Simms got the start and threw an
interception that was returned for a 43-yard touchdown as the
Ragin' Cajuns jumped to a 10-0 first-quarter lead. Simms
immediately got the hook, only returning to the game after
Applewhite had put it out of reach. The revolving door was set
in motion. Over the next three games the quarterbacks split
time, an uncomfortable arrangement that lasted until Oct. 7.

That was the day Oklahoma gangster-slapped the Longhorns all over
the Cotton Bowl, punishing their Red River rivals 63-14. In an
afternoon crowded with humiliating moments for Texas, the lowest
belonged to Simms. Called upon to replace Applewhite with the
score 28-0 (a pretty serious downer in its own right), the
sophomore promptly served up an interception to linebacker Rocky
Calmus, who returned the ball 41 yards for a touchdown. The next
day Brown decided he was going with Applewhite as the starter for
the rest of the season. Then he called Simms into his office to
tell him that he was being demoted. "Chris was great," recalls
Brown. "He said, 'The team has more confidence in Major than me
right now. I don't like the decision, but I agree with you.' At
the lowest moment of our season, when he could've said, 'This is
unfair. I'm out of here,' he said, 'I understand completely.'"

His exile lasted for four weeks. Applewhite sprained his right
knee late in the game at Texas Tech, spinning open the door for
his rival, who stumbled as he went through it. On the Longhorns'
second possession of the next game, at Kansas, Simms threw
another interception that was returned for a touchdown. Now seems
an appropriate time to ask, What the hell is up with that?

Some of Simms's interceptions, like any quarterback's, were the
result of bum luck: Against Houston he zipped a beautiful pass to
senior Montrell Flowers, who watched the ball go through his
hands, carom high off his face mask and into the hands of a
grateful Cougar. Three of his top receivers were true freshmen,
and they didn't always run where they should have or come back to
the ball. For the most part, however, Simms was trying too hard
to make a big play--"forcing the ball into cracks," says Davis,
the offensive coordinator. Adds Babers, Simms's roommate, "He
knew if he didn't move the team in two series, one of the best
quarterbacks in college football was waiting in the wings."

Simms also was trying to meet his own self-inflicted
expectations. Babers recalls a recent conversation with Simms
and Scaife, the tight end. "We were talking about the NFL,
talking about cars and houses and stuff. Chris asked me, 'Do you
want to be the best corner ever?' I told him, 'To be honest, no.
I just want to play in the league, make a little money, take
care of my family.' He said, 'I wouldn't waste my time playing
if I didn't want to be the best ever.' It's crazy how high he's
set the bar for himself."

Crazy, but understandable, says flanker Kyle Shanahan, another of
Simms's close friends on the team and another son of a famous
football father. Shanahan's dad, Mike, coaches the Denver
Broncos. "When you're in our situation, people think everything
is handed to you," says Kyle. "You've got to work even harder to
prove them wrong. Does having Phil Simms for a dad help Chris? Of
course, [because he has helped] Chris understand how hard he has
to work to have success in this game, but it also puts a lot more
pressure on Chris. No matter what he accomplishes, he'll fall
short until he does what his dad did."

A funny thing happened after he threw that interception against
Kansas. Simms smiled. He went to the sideline and said to Brown,
"Can you believe that?" With Applewhite on crutches, Simms knew
he could screw up royally and not get the hook. So he relaxed and
played his best football of the season, leading the Longhorns to
a 51-16 rout. Two weeks later, with his confidence soaring, Simms
completed 16 of 24 passes for 383 yards, three touchdowns and no
interceptions in a 43-17 win over Texas A&M. For the first time
in two years at Texas, he'd lived up to his billing. The Golden
Boy was golden. "I wasn't golden," he corrects. "I was pretty
good."

There is a self-awareness in Simms, a sense of perspective that
is missing in many exalted young athletes. He knows he must keep
improving to make these Longhorns his Longhorns. He knows his
game must continue to mature if he's going to make the leap from
Prince to King.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL KINGPIN With number 1 on his shirt and in his dreams, Simms will anchor a passing game featuring receivers (from left) Thomas, Williams, Johnson and Scaife. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH RIGHTY, LEFTY Some fear Chris will always fall short in the eyes of critics until he achieves what his Super Bowl-winning dad did. COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT Applewhite (11) holds a host of Texas records, but Simms now holds the reins to the offense. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL SWEATING THE DETAILS Simms devoted his summer to working on his rhythm with (from left) Johnson, Thomas and Williams.

The Eyes of Texas Are upon Them

Chris Simms Major Applewhite

CLASS Jr. Sr.
GAMES 16 33
STARTS 6 27
COMPLETIONS 86 582*
ATTEMPTS 153 1,019
COMP. PCT. 56.2 57.1*
YARDS 1,287 7,974*
TD 10 57*
INT. 8 27
QB RATING 137.98 136.00

*school record

No matter how closely he studied his father's mistakes as a
Giant, Chris (below) had to learn from his own.

"Chris says he wouldn't be playing if he didn't want to be the
best. It's crazy how high he's set the bar for himself."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)