FAMU football coach Willie Simmons still remains close to his humble roots in Quincy

By Rory Sharrock
Tallahassee Democrat

There's no question that Florida A&M football head coach Willie Simmons enjoys the fruits of his labor. 

His participation in football has allowed him to play or coach throughout nearly half the United States. 

Earlier this summer, he took a trip to Europe with his wife Shaia to celebrate her birthday.

He's dined on international cuisine. During his college days at Clemson and The Citadel, Simmons suited up alongside and against future NFL players. Additionally, with the press of a button, he has the direct contact info of championship coaches stored in his cellphone.

Nevertheless, through all his journeys and connections, Simmons remains grounded in humility. This high-quality content of character was embedded and shaped in his hometown of Quincy.

Simmons is as synonymous with Quincy as the Marching 100 is with FAMU.

The Gadsden County native remains close to his roots. No matter the person, he's quick to correct anyone who mistakenly says he's from Tallahassee.

His sharp wit, charisma, sense of humor, athletic gifts and passion for excellence stem from the loving environment of family growing up in the Shiloh community.

Within the welcoming domicile of his grandmother Mildred McNeal's home, Sunday dinner is the still the glue which bonds the unit.

Soul food delicacies such as fried chicken, savory collard greens, rice, homemade cornbread, fresh-brewed sweet tea and ice cream are culinary staples for the relatives.

During any given moment, random family members walk through the door to share laughs, reminiscence on yesteryear and provide support for one another.

This is the environment which is at the core of the talented football coach.

"We didn't have a big-city life or industry life. Playing sports kept you busy and out of the streets. That and going to school is what I came grew up on. That's what gave me the foundation to stress the importance of family," Simmons said.

"Having a true 'big mama' experience every week. To be able to share stories, laugh, pray together through tough times. If you need a hug, smile or someone to let you know you're special, you get that around here. That's what makes Shiloh special. That's what makes Quincy special. That's what made coming home so special. To be able to get that again." 

To outsiders beyond the Quincy and Gadsden County borders, he's Willie Simmons.

To those throughout the confines of the region, he's simply 'Ray.' 

He is the youngest child of and only son of Willie and Phyllis McNeal Simmons. His older siblings are Valeka Simmons and Catina Simmons-Russ. 

They first resided in a small house on 308 McArthur St. His living quarters were smaller than the office area of the Galimore-Powell Field House.

Although the square footage was tiny, love loomed largely.

These emotions spilled across the rural area to the homes of several relatives and friends. It also extended to his place of worship at St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church.  

Simmons' father was a superb mechanic. Tragically, he died from a work-related accident in 1987. This occurred one year after moving to their new home on Sikes Street.

His mother was a math teacher in the Gadsden County School District. She served in this role until her retirement due to health reasons. Phyllis later died in 2005. 

As a child, Simmons showed a gift for academics and athletics. 

Although his maternal grandfather, Roman, didn't finish school, he was adamant about his children and grandchildren excelling in the classroom.

Much to the chagrin of Roman, five of his nine children kids graduated from FAMU. This list includes Simmons' mother. The patriarch was a die-hard Florida State fan and jokingly referred to FAMU as that "dumb school."

Simmons played football, baseball and basketball in his childhood years. Tim Lane Park was a popular venue for local youths to hone their skills.

His introduction to organized football came as a 9-year old playing with older kids. He was a wide receiver in a Wing-T offense. 

As time progressed, he moved to quarterback. Coaches and teammates quickly realized he had a knack for throwing the ball. He patterned his game after Randell Cunningham and most notably, 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. 

"I was trying to emulate Charlie Ward," Simmons said. "I wore No. 17 and had a shotgun knee-lift. He influenced me a lot. He was one of the first African-American quarterbacks of our era to garner that type of attention. He was a legend for all of us. It shaped and molded how I played the position."

His status skyrocketed playing for the Shanks High School Tigers. He switched to No. 7 and became a household name across the football inner circles. 

As a senior, he was named Big Bend Player of the Year. Simmons tossed for 2,505 yards and 32 touchdowns. In high school, he also earned the moniker of "Shotgun." This was the result of the public address announcer giving him the clever nickname for his accolades during games.

Simmons would go onto play at the Division I level and in the Arena Football League. 

He later worked his way up the coaching ranks from being a graduate assistant at Clemson to now the head Rattler at FAMU.

Shotgun Simmons is beloved by his wife and children. He's respected by his assistants and colleagues nationwide. 

However, when it's all said and done, he was is and always will be Ray. The grandson of Roman and Mildred McNeal. The loving baby boy of Willie and Phyllis Simmons.

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