EAST LANSING – Work hard. Stay away from parties. Do what’s right. Don’t do what I did. Something good will turn out. You are going to have a great football season, son. I’m so proud of you.
Every few weeks, Antonio Simmons calls his son, Antjuan, who is the new starting linebacker at Michigan State. Antonio gets 300 minutes to use every month to call family and friends.
I’m going to see every game, son. I’ll be watching on TV.
They are typical father-son conversations in every way, full of encouragement and advice, except for one thing — Antonio is calling from prison.
“He is so much better than me, as a person, as a man, as an athlete,” Antonio tells the Free Press in a telephone call from Ashland Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security prison in Kentucky. “I’m just very, very proud of him.”
Antonio has spent the past seven years in the federal prison system after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute drugs. He was caught in a far-reaching DEA investigation that stretched from Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel to the infamous courier, then 90-year-old Leo Sharp, who inspired the movie “The Mule,” starring Clint Eastwood. The organization pumped millions of dollars’ worth of drugs into Detroit from 2008 to 2011.
Antonio, dubbed by prosecutors as one of the biggest drug dealers in Detroit, was guilty not only of a crime but of altering the lives around him. His incarceration was the defining moment of Antjuan’s childhood, drastically shifting the way he has been raised. And it might just explain why he has a fearsome attitude on the football field — as if he can’t waste a single second. Because time means everything. Doing time. Wasting time.
“Don’t follow in my footsteps because this is where you will end up,” Antonio says. “I try to make sure I talk to him about the hangin’ out on the weekends. The parties. What he needs to stay away from. The pitfalls I see other kids get into. … He has too much to lose to mess it up on something like that.”
By all accounts, Antjuan has learned from his father’s mistakes, proving the sins of a father do not automatically transfer to a child like a scarlet letter passed down from generation to generation. As if to underscore that point, Antjuan, a junior, is majoring in human development and family studies and dreams of making a difference in society, hoping to work with the most vulnerable. “I want to work with kids,” he says. “I want to teach them to be strong and to be resilient.”
“What do you tell them?” I ask.
“There are going to be times when you got the whole stack of cards, stacked up against you, and you gotta knock it down, one card at a time,” Antjuan says. “Just boom! Boom! Boom! You just gotta keep going and keep going. It’s trust. It’s blind faith at that point. You don’t see the end. You just know, if I keep doing this, something good will turn out.”
These are the words of a young man who hasn’t seen his father in three years.
These are the words of a player who broke his back during his freshman season and spent six months recovering from it.
Yes, something good can come from any obstacle.
Even one created by a father.
An early morning raid
Antjuan was at Lincoln Middle School in Ypsilanti when Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents stormed into his house on Feb. 26, 2012, and arrested his father, Antonio, also known as Pancho.
“Antjuan didn’t find out until he got home,” says his mother, Tawan Simmons. “It was early in the morning, maybe around 7 or 7:30. They busted in the house and pretty much put everything out of place. Didn’t tear up anything. I must say, they did show some respect.”
The DEA was investigating a branch of the Sinaloa Cartel, described by some as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere. It became a national story. The New York Times described it as a “takedown day.”
“All at once, they hit 10 locations connected with the cartel,” Sam Dolnick wrote in the Times. “They raided Antonio (Pancho) Simmons’ home in Willis, Michigan, a McMansion with a deluxe kitchen, canopy bed and flat-screen TVs.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan announced it had broken up a branch of El Chapo’s crime organization, which distributed 100 to 300 kilograms of cocaine per month in Detroit from July 2008 through 2011. “They would then sell it to Detroit’s biggest drug dealers, people like Pancho, the one-legged distributor,” Dolnick wrote. “Pancho could have been the target of his own major DEA investigation; but this case was so big that Pancho sat somewhere on the third tier of suspects.”
Prosecutors said that Antonio, 46, was one of the largest cocaine distributors within the Jose Bustamante criminal enterprise and he regularly received shipments of 110, 80 and 35 kilograms of cocaine. Dolnick described Antonio as a “fearsome” man “with a long criminal record.”
“I would definitely not consider myself one of the biggest drug dealers in Detroit,” Antonio says. “I think they got that from the agents and the people who did the investigation on me. To me, they did that more or less to get a lengthier sentence and to make sure they got a conviction.”
Antonio was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine and heroin. He took a plea deal on March 5, 2012, and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. While there is no parole in the federal courts, he expects to get out sooner because of good behavior. His release date is scheduled for Oct. 23, 2024.
“It’s possible that I can come home in 30 months,” he says.
“Your son could be in the NFL by then,” I say.
“I hope so,” he says, proudly.
Still a father, behind bars
Antjuan had no idea his father was distributing drugs. Neither did his younger brother, Dennis, who plays football at Olivet College. “I just hid what I did from them,” Antonio says.
Drugs were never present in the home, Tawan says — she wouldn’t allow it.
That’s far different than the childhood that Antonio experienced on the east side of Detroit. “Mr. Simmons grew up in an environment fueled with drug use and drug sales,” court documents said. “Both parents and stepparents were addicted to drugs. It was not an unusual sight for the young Mr. Simmons to see drug usage, sales and paraphernalia in his home. Mr. Simmons had his first alcoholic drink at 10 and started smoking marijuana on a daily basis at 11.”
Antonio says he wanted to give his own children a different life — a better home and better schools — and he did that, as twisted as it sounds, by getting involved in the streets.
“When did he get into it?” I ask Tawan.
“When did he get into the streets, dip and dab, or when did he get to that extent?” she says.
Tawan, who entered the real estate business 15 years ago, says she first realized he was “in the streets” in the early 2000s, after they were married, had two kids together and were living in their first house. “It wasn’t like that when we got together,” Tawan says. “I just did all I could to stay away from it and keep my kids away from whatever lifestyle he was living outside the household and he didn’t bring it here.”
But she made it clear: Nothing came before her children.
“I can’t really say when he started doing whatever it was he was doing,” she says. “I truly just wanted him to get away from it and wished those were his plans until it was too late.”
Antjuan was stunned when his father was arrested and took it hard. He viewed his father as the man who used to give money to friends and family, anybody who needed it. His father was his hero. It was devastating. “He went into a shell,” Tawan says. “I couldn’t get to him, tell him anything. He cried a lot. His dad played a big part in their lives. Antjuan loves his family and his dad would talk to them for hours. He was also a jokester and their friend. Once he left, it kind of sent him into a place that was not good.”
Antjuan remembers visiting his father when he was first locked up. “It’s hard seeing your dad, being so close but you can’t touch him through the glass,” he says.
Tawan decided to let her husband continue to parent from prison. “I had to allow his dad to play the same role in his life,” she says. “He had to play a role in every decision, even from jail.”
From prison, Antonio says he taught his children about the life he had lived and the mistakes he had made. “Just because we are in prison, it doesn’t mean we can’t be parents,” he says. “We still have telephones, we can still email. We can still talk and write. I think it would have been bad for me, as a person, and terrible for him, to step out of his life because I’m in prison.”
Years later, when Antjuan was being recruited to play college football, a couple of coaches talked to Antonio in prison, giving him their recruiting pitches. “I think I talked to two coaches,” Antonio says. “I know I talked to the coach from Arizona.”
Antonio also played a role in Antjuan’s college decision. Antjuan was a four-star recruit at Ann Arbor Pioneer and had dozens of scholarship offers. He was a two-time Detroit Free Press Dream Team member and one of the top 300 recruits in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite.
“I did get to voice my opinion about where he was thinking about going and which colleges he was thinking about choosing and even his final choice,” Antonio says. “I love Michigan State.”
Originally, Antjuan picked Ohio State, but he flipped to MSU just a few weeks before signing day, saying it felt more like “family.” When you consider his family was in disarray, it takes on even more meaning.
“I think he felt more comfortable and he felt more at home at Michigan State,” Antonio says. “I told him that I wanted the best for him.”
Antonio originally was housed at a federal institution near Milan, south of Ann Arbor, although it was only a holding facility until he was sentenced. “Milan is only 12 minutes from me, so we saw him every weekend,” Tawan says. “We would sit with him for hours and he would talk to Antjuan.”
Antonio tried to teach Antjuan and his brother about consequences: “Basically, I was telling them, ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t follow in my footsteps because this is where you will end up. Any reward for bad is bad, any reward for good is good and I did bad. And my reward is bad.’ ”
Antonio was transferred to prisons in West Virginia and Connecticut, as his risk level dropped over time, before arriving at a low-security correctional institution in Ashland, Kentucky, near the West Virginia and Ohio borders. Antjuan has not seen his father for three years because he’s been so busy with college and football, but they talk often on the phone.
“My main concern is making sure he is successful in life with football or without football,” Antonio says.
“I don’t think it’s just me doing the time,” he says. “Even though they aren’t locked up, they are doing time, they are the ones who are without a father to sit at their games, to take them out to dinner, to spend time and talk to them and give them advice.”
The glue of the family
With her husband in prison, Tawan kept the family together.
“She is the rock,” Antonio says. “She is the family. She is the most valuable part of our family. None of this could have taken place, him being who he is as a person today and me being the person I am today, we couldn’t have done it, in no way possible, without her.”
Antjuan calls his mother the “light” of the family. “She is the glue that holds our family together,” he says.
This situation is hardly unique. Nearly 2.2 million adults were held in America’s prisons and jails at the end of 2016, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means millions of family members — sons and daughters, wives and husbands — are on the outside.
Tawan kept her two boys busy in sports and school. “How was I able to do it on my own and continue to guide these two boys down the right path? And to show two boys right from wrong, and how to grow into productive good men, strong men?” she says rhetorically. “I wasn’t going to have it any other way. I’m very stern, and kind of a lightweight militant. I wasn’t having it. I believe in discipline. Structure. And I’m going to have that in my house. I’m going to have peace in my house. I’ve dealt with enough.
“When it came to my husband, I didn’t allow them to play a part in whatever he was doing. He understood that. I wouldn’t compromise my kids for no one.”
Tawan loved football — Antjuan gets his athleticism from her. She played it on the streets as a kid and once tried to sign up to play Detroit PAL youth football, but her mother “wasn’t having it.” She made sure that Antjuan continued to play football so he would learn discipline. His youth coaches helped shape him. “I’m very stern but so were those coaches,” Tawan says. “They played a big part in his life, especially when his dad left. They kept him focused. They showed him how important it is to stay dedicated to something and not be a quitter, to always work hard and not give up. They have played a big part in his life.”
Antjuan has a Clark Kent quality. He looks so serious and studious off the field, wearing glasses. But something switches when he puts on the pads. “He’s laid-back,” says Daevon Mitchell, who coached Antjuan on the Eastside Cowboys in PAL. “But when he steps on a field, it’s like Superman.”
Mitchell is still in Antjuan’s life. “Last season, he did come and talk to a couple of my players,” he says. “He’s phenomenal. He’s definitely one of my favorite kids that I’ve ever coached. He’s very coachable and very humble.”
A compassionate heart
Antjuan took a class called Peer Connections his senior year at Pioneer, working as a tutor and mentor for students with impairments.
“Antjuan has some real depth,” John Conley, a Pioneer special education teacher, says. “Anybody who spends 10 or 15 minutes knows it. He’s got this aura around him that kids just love. He’s very patient, very kind.”
But Antjuan didn’t take the class seriously at first. “At the beginning of all of this, he was using it as a blowoff class,” Conley says. “It was the second semester of his senior year. I mean, it was the last hour of the day, too. I stopped him in the hall on the way to class. I said, ‘Here is the deal. These kids don’t care about football. They don’t care about anything the people like to toot your horn and love to kiss your butt for. They just want you, for you. That’s a very rare thing. As you move onto Michigan State, you are going to find a lot of people who kiss your butt. But very few of those butt kissers will want to be there with you, because of you. You should take this as an experience and run with it.’
“I’ll tell you what. It changed his total perception on everything. He came every day early and stayed late.”
Simmons was part of a group of students who promoted a classmate with impairments to become homecoming king. “If I could show you the video of when they announced him, at a pep rally, Antjuan was the first person out there,” Conley says. “Even after he’s graduated, he’s coming back to Special Olympic events. He’s come to picnics we have done. He has done an amazing job with the kids in our program.”
Mandy Chandler, the head academic coordinator for MSU football, has seen those same traits.
“I remember meeting him on his recruiting trip,” she says. “At that time, he was committed to Ohio State. I remember saying, ‘Wow, I really like that kid.’ I don’t know what it was. He has this instant ability for people to like him.”
Antjuan was interested in becoming a special ed teacher, but his plans have evolved. “Antjuan has always been extremely interested in helping people who are less fortunate — either special education or working at the YMCA or students with special needs,” Chandler says. “He just has this compassion in him to help others.”
The broken back
Antonio has seen his son play football “plenty of times” on TV in prison. “We watch sports all day,” he says. “In the other prison I was at, they had sports TVs in recreation. Me and the guys would sit around and watch the college football games. That’s how I would get to see him play.”
But Antonio was not watching when Antjuan broke his back playing against Washington State in the 2017 Holiday Bowl. “The prison I was in had just switched cable networks,” Antonio says. “So I didn’t get to see that.”
It happened in the third quarter. “A (running) back leaked out and I just hit him — it was a freaky collision,” Antjuan says. “I knew something was wrong, when I hit him. I just didn’t know what.”
His mother didn’t see it, either. “You know what? I think God turned my head so I wouldn’t see it,” she says.
It took him six months to recover. “Of course, that was pretty scary,” Antjuan says. “It was six months of not doing anything at all, just constant rehab, ice and (stimulation). Massages. Just constantly being in the books, finding different ways to keep my mind going and stuff. It was hard.”
He missed spring ball after his freshman season. “That was a really tough time, those six months,” Antjuan says. “But I figured out how to get through it. Mandy Chandler, my mom, (MSU assistant Mike) Tressel, everybody was there for me.”
He admits that he wasn’t in great shape at the start of his sophomore year but still finished the season playing in 13 games, getting 284 snaps at linebacker and had 32 tackles: “I just had to get the rust off and get going.”
‘I think this is the year’
Antonio has had plenty of time to reflect on his life. He describes himself as a “sacrificial lamb” to help his family.
“I did things and made sacrifices to make sure that my kids weren’t in the same environment as I was,” he says. “I made sure they had good schooling, and tried to raise them better than my parents did.”
If he had to go to prison for it, so be it. He wants no sympathy and knows he doesn’t deserve it. He created this situation. He is responsible. But he says he has changed.
“I definitely think I have grown,” he says. “I definitely realized that the decisions I made in life weren’t the best decisions. I know now there are consequences behind the decisions I make.”
Antjuan is not ashamed of his father. He talks openly about his father’s situation and brought it up with the Free Press in a casual interview during media day.
He is expected to start at the Star linebacker position, taking over for Andrew Dowell on one of the nation’s top defenses. It is a hybrid position, requiring a great athlete who can do it all — make a tackle, blitz the quarterback or drop back into coverage.
“Antjuan Simmons had a lot of opportunity last year to play, and he played very well,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio says. “He was probably in there one-third of the time at the very least. He’s played extremely well, really in the spring, and he’s picked right up where he left off. I think that hopefully there will be no drop-off there, and he’s very motivated.”
Antonio will be watching and cheering from prison. “I think this is his year,” he says.
“He’s going to shine, as he always does,” Antonio says. “But I think this is going to be the year when he really breaks out. I know what he’s capable of doing. I think this is the year he’s going to show it.”
His pride is bursting through that phone — from a prison in Kentucky.
And he sounds just like any other dad, talking about his son.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.