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PADECKY: Simons looks back on great career that became painful

Keith Simons has 111 coaching wins at SRJC, second-most in school history. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Keith Simons has 111 coaching wins at SRJC, second-most in school history. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Keith Simons will sit at his desk and without thinking or purpose, his eyes will drift to what is hanging or resting in his office at Tauzer Hall on the Santa Rosa JC campus. It might be that check for $200 Joe Montana wrote to him when Joe sent his kids to Simons’ quarterback camp in 2004. It might be that USC helmet Scott Ware, one of his former players and a former Trojan defensive back, sent him. It might be one of those 66 photos he has on the walls, maybe the one with Simons and Bart Starr, or the one with Simons and Bill Walsh.

Unconsciously, as his eyes drift, Simons is reviewing his career, the path he traveled, the people he traveled with. When asked if the 10 footballs, 16 team photos, 29 plaques and 66 other pictures are “certificates of authenticity,” Simons opened up a smile and said, “Exactly.” He liked it phrased that way, his 17 years as SRJC’s head football coach represented in its totality, by plaques, pigskins and pictures, a testament to what mostly went right.

“If you could change one thing,” I asked, “what would it be?”

That question covered a lot of territory. Simons announced his retirement Dec. 12. With 111 victories, he’s the second-winningest coach in school history. He went to 10 bowls, winning seven. He had four All-American running backs. Seven times SRJC led the nation in passing. There isn’t a lot there to change.

But there is this one thing.

“I should have gotten out (of coaching) a couple years ago,” Simons said. “My health became my priority, not the team. That wasn’t fair to the program. My health affected everything. Everything.”

Keith Simons has 111 coaching wins at SRJC, second-most in school history. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Keith Simons has 111 coaching wins at SRJC, second-most in school history. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

From his energy and his patience and clarity of thought and restless nights — “I haven’t slept well in four years” — Simons was challenged at every turn. The zest he once had was still there but his body wasn’t cooperating. Generative disk disease, bone spurs, arthritis and spinal stenosis trouble him daily. His left hip will be replaced this summer; his right hip already has been. Anti-inflammatories, pain meds, nothing works.

“I kept telling myself I can get this thing turned around,” Simons said. “Whether I was being stubborn or not — I have been called stubborn by some people — I was determined to bring it back it to where it was.”

This is where the SRJC football team once was: The Bear Cubs averaged 40 points a game from 2000-2008.

This is where the team is now: SRJC was 5-5, 3-7, 5-5 and 3-7 the past four years. That’s a winning percentage of 40 percent. He had a winning percentage of 69 percent in the 13 years prior.

Simons has become the latest in a never-ending line of coaches and players who face the uncomfortable choice of perspective. Does one remember the end of a career? Caution: Rarely they finish like John Elway’s, who won two Super Bowls in his last two seasons.

Or does one choose to remember it all?

These are not easy answers because they’re all influenced by the most stressful and emotional question of them all.

What have you done for me recently?

Sports accomplishments are too often sacrificed for instant gratification. We have short memories and even shorter fuses.

“I remember we beat Reedley, 12-7, in 2009,” Simons said, “and people were walking around like we lost. ‘What the heck was happening?’”

So, does Simons dwell on beating Reedley by “only” 12-7 in 2009, finishing 16-24 his last four years, his program struggling?

Or does he remember his All-American quarterbacks Greg Alexander and Adam Froman? Would he rather savor those 33 linebackers and 43 defensive backs who went from SRJC to four-year schools since 2004? Will the pain of the last four years be dulled a bit by speaking at the NorCal All Sports Clinic later this month at a Foster City hotel? Would he rather embrace that 2003 season in which SRJC (11-0) had its first undefeated season in 53 years?

The answer to all those questions resides in the next sentence.

“That’s why I am going to keep all those pictures up on the wall,” said Simons, 54.

To remind him not to forget ex-players, like Diamond Weaver, an SRJC defensive back in 2007 and ’08 who went on to play for Akron University on scholarship and is now with Utah of the Arena league. Weaver is a human link to all those pictures, a link of flesh and bone to the better days.

“I was a hothead when I came to SRJC,” Weaver said. “I was out of control. Coach Simons taught me discipline. I wanted to please him. He didn’t want me back after my freshman year, but he gave me a second chance. I became a team captain. He prepared me for a four-year school. A lot of JC kids from other schools aren’t prepared for the next level. I owe a lot to him.”

Statistics are fine for what they are but numbers don’t give you a hug at night or a thank you on the cell. Numbers aren’t going to help Simons this fall — his first without football since he was 8. That’s being around the game for 46 years, 26 of them as coach.

“I’m not through coaching football,” Simons said, “but I’m through being a head coach.”

He would like to be an offensive coordinator somewhere, at a high school in the area most logically.

“Strange” is how he said it will feel, standing under the tree at the northwest corner of Bailey Field. That’s where he’ll watch the Bear Cub games this fall; sitting in the stands being too painful on his back. Someone will probably take a picture of him under the tree and it probably will end up on his wall, his 67th framed photo.

In a very real sense it will be one-67th of his life, a mere fraction of what Keith Simons is and what he’s done. And then Simons will have to spend the rest of his life, as all do who are in his situation, reminding himself of that. As challenges go, it might be the toughest one he’ll ever face.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.