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He’s the wanderer: Dartmouth’s Simpson works his way back into football role

  • Dartmouth College's T.J. Simpson during an Oct. 4, 2017, practice on the Blackman Fields. A senior end, Simpson is part of a defense that's helped the Big Green go 5-0 to start the season. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • T.J. Simpson, left, poses for photos while being honored as one of Dartmouth College's most improved defensive linemen on May 4, 2019, on Memorial Field. Coach Duane Brooks, center, and Jordan McGriff look on. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College defensive end T.J. Simpson chases Sacred Heat quarterback Kevin Duke during the Big Green's 29-26 victory on Oct. 14, 2017, in Fairfield, Conn. Simpson, now a senior, has helped his team start the season 5-0. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • Dartmouth College's T.J. Simpson (46) sings with teammates Ben Culmer (63) and Robert Crockett III after the Big Green's Oct. 12, 2019, defeat of Yale at Memorial Field. Dartmouth has started the season 5-0. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

  • T.J. Simpson, Dartmouth football

  • Dartmouth defensive end T.J. Simpson reacts to the snap of the ball during the Big Green's Oct. 12, 2019, victory over visiting Yale. Simpson has lifted his play this season as a senior, a year after hitting his low point with the program. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2019 9:22:02 PM
Modified: 10/24/2019 9:21:55 PM

HANOVER — In 1958, the West Point football team pioneered the use of a receiver split out almost to the sideline and who never returned to the huddle. All-American Bill Carpenter received foot signals from his quarterback and was nicknamed “The Lonesome End.”

Dartmouth College has a present-day version, but it’s not T.J. Simpson’s alignment that brings the old moniker to mind. It’s that when not in a practice drill, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end roams about, rarely content to stand and watch.

Up and down the sideline. Back and forth across the Memorial Field track. One half-expects the Floridian to clamber into the stands.

But let him wander, because it’s surprising the senior is here at all. Midway through last season, Simpson didn’t show up for practice. He didn’t dress for a game. Word filtered out that he had quit the team, despite playing roughly 25 snaps per contest.

“He kind of retired,” defensive line coach Duane Brooks said.

Said head coach Buddy Teevens: “I’ll term it a sabbatical.”

Neither man was happy with Simpson, who will describe his going AWOL only as having to do with “personal issues” and the feeling that “I was headed on the wrong path and couldn’t get out of the slump.” He surfaced after a few days and asked to rejoin the team, but Brooks left it up to the other defensive linemen during an emotional 45-minute meeting.

“I don’t know what was said, but I think it was the first time he actually looked people in the eyes and told them the truth instead of what they wanted to hear,” Brooks said.

Dartmouth, 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Ivy League, hosts Columbia (2-3, 1-1) at 6 p.m. on Friday.

Simpson is one of the team’s quietest players and was given to looking mopey early in his Dartmouth career. That demeanor, combined with his tendency to wander from the herd, sometimes caused him to be stamped as a loner.

“I’m reserved until I get used to the environment, but I’ve gotten better,” Simpson said. “The changes I’ve dealt with in these past few years have forced me out of my shell and to be a bit more sociable.”

Simpson grew up in Tampa, Fla., with his mother, Tamera, who teaches middle school math. His father, James, was incarcerated around the time of T.J.’s birth, and the boy didn’t meet him until he was 8. Simpson declined to discuss the circumstances of James’ legal troubles, other than to say that the two now have an amicable relationship.

After two years at Tampa Bay Technical High School, Simpson moved to Miami to live with a close friend of his mother, Derrick Gibson. The defensive line coach at Miami Central High, Gibson is a former Florida State and NFL player whom Simpson refers to as his uncle.

Simpson said the plan was for his mother to join him in Miami. However, family commitments forced her to remain in Tampa. The youngster nonetheless graduated summa cum laude from a school the Miami Herald described in 2009 as having Florida’s worst academic record and being “historically beset by chronic truancy, declining enrollment, dispirited staff and general disrepair”.

Simpson was planning on attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., and perhaps walking onto its football team, when a trio of Dartmouth coaches arrived at Miami Central on a recruiting trip.

The trio asked Simpson if he’d considered spending a year at a prep school to raise his standardized test score and prepare for the academic and social rigors of Dartmouth. Simpson himself was skeptical, but his mother bought the sales pitch and her son eventually received an athletic scholarship to the Berkshire School, in western Massachusetts.

“He’s from a primarily black place and he went to a predominantly white prep school in the middle of nowhere,” said Brooks, who is African-American. “It set him up mentally, but the football part he wasn’t ready for, because he didn’t think he was any good.”

It’s an odd self-assessment from the outside, for not only had Simpson excelled academically, but he’d helped Miami Central to a 27-2 record with two state titles during his time as a Rocket. He’d also attracted recruiting interest from Princeton during his prep school stint and now he was joining the defending Ivy League champions. Not any good?

The self doubt was amplified by playing on the junior varsity and some old-fashioned suffering. Simpson lived in the dormitories farthest from Floren Varsity House and he hit a low point rising at 5 a.m. and walking through the dark, snow and cold en route to weight-lifting and conditioning workouts.

“It was a very trying term,” Simpson said, in what to judge by his expression, is a substantial understatement. “I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but there are times when school gets tough. I knew I couldn’t be here for another winter.”

The good news was that Simpson juggled his term schedule to make that happen. The bad news was that when he landed a venture capital internship for last winter, it was in Manchester. At least he could work out in the evenings.

Simpson’s midseason exit last fall had landed him at the bottom of the depth chart, and he spent the season’s remainder starting over. Work life in Manchester didn’t seem so bad.

Spring term dawned, and with it arrived a new T.J. Simpson. So new that he shared the football team’s award as the most improved defensive lineman during spring practice. Overhauled to the point where he’s become a force on the outer edges of a Dartmouth defense that leads the NCAA Football Subdivision in fewest points allowed per game.

Rejuvenated to a degree that Simpson actually smiles.

“It only took him 3½ years,” joked Brooks, who’s learned not to chastise No. 46 for his sideline rambling. “He really wanted to bow out, but his mom pushed him through, thank God for her.”

Said Simpson: “She’s my bigger supporter and my biggest critic. Every day, she hounded me, telling me what I should be doing. She encouraged me to tough it out.”

Teevens finds Simpson’s story refreshing. Coaches too often see youngsters who are encouraged by parents to exit sports and social situations not to their immediate liking.

“He’s grown up and matured with some hard love, and I’m so proud of him and happy for us,” Teevens said. “We told him that if he came back, it had to mean something to him, that he had to be passionate about it, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.




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