Tre’Vour Simms is one mountain of a man.
At 6-foot-5 and 338 pounds, the East St. Louis High School graduate and sophomore offensive lineman at the University of Missouri is capable of moving similarly large men with brute force and technique that might one day lead to a career in the NFL.
But for Simms, 20, life has always been about taking one step at a time.
As a portly and uncoordinated boy, Simms was laughed at as he learned how to play football. As a high-school star, temptations and danger were part of his everyday existence as he grew up on 29th Street. Gangs lurked in the dark around the next corner.
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Although Simms never had a father to lean on, he had an angel.
East St. Louis native Toni Wallace, 51, is Simms’ mother. She has been by his side for all of life’s unpredictable occurrences, employing a delicate combination of tenderness and tough love to make sure her son didn’t become another statistic.
“My mom is my backbone. She motivates me every day,” Simms said. “She’s been through everything I’ve been through and am still going through. She can tell me tips and pointers. Therefore, I listen to everything she has to say and just use it.”
Wallace, a 1983 graduate of defunct Lincoln High in East St. Louis, was an All-American in basketball and track and field and an all-state selection in volleyball. She was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009.
Wallace was recruited to San Diego State by the late Earnest Riggins, who had been the Flyerettes basketball coach before taking the job with the Aztecs after the 1982-83 season.
“My best sport was track and field, but I went there on a scholarship for basketball,” said the 6-4 Wallace, who played two seasons at San Diego State and recorded 76 blocked shots. “I could have played football. When you’re an athlete, you can do it all.”
Wallace was one of Simms’ coaches in the early years of learning on the gridiron.
“Tre’Vour and I were on our way to the grocery story and Emmett Crowell, who was a friend of mine when we were teenagers, saw me walking with Tre’Vour and he said, ‘I’m coming to your house. I’m coming to get him. Be on the football field. Be ready,” Wallace said. “That was the start of his football career.
“He was chubby, he didn’t know the game, he was slow, people laughed at him. Many days, he wanted to quit. One time he and I were out in the rain and I was trying to show him how to block because he had become frustrated. With each level, he learned more and more and more. Now he’s at the Missouri level. His determination took him through each level to where he is now.”
Wallace left San Diego State after her sophomore year and drifted from school to school, never completing her bachelor’s degree.
“I did not make smart choices,” she said. “I do wish I had finished.”
There was a cannabis possession conviction and other drug-related charges that were dismissed. Otherwise, Wallace didn’t go into detail about about choices that may have set her back. She eventually returned to East St. Louis, and on Sept. 25, 1997, she gave birth to a 10-pound, 23 3/4-inch son.
Wallace understood what the boy would be up against as soon as he was born to her and Simms’ biological father, Elton Simms. But Wallace was convinced that being aware of the existing dangers would help her effectively steer Simms away from trouble.
“The numbers are against Tre’Vour, coming out of East St. Louis,” Wallace acknowledged. “But what people don’t understand is there’s crime and despair everywhere. The reason why it seems like it’s just our area is because this is the area we know. But it’s everywhere. You try to guide your children through the dangers and navigate them through. They don’t always listen, but you hope they absorb what you’re saying and use it moving forward in life.”
Simms learned soon enough about the risks.
My mom is my backbone. She motivates me every day.
“You look at East St. Louis and there’s a lot of murders, drug-dealing, theft and scamming going on,” he said. “You see people getting shot, you see dope fiends shooting up or smoking crack. People riding around in stolen cars, pulling up to the school and bringing gangs to the school. There could be someone coming up to shoot you after school. The craziest things happen. It’s just nonsense. It’s a bunch of nonsense.
“I could have been dead or in jail — anything. I’ve pretty much dodged that (stuff) all my life. I knew there were more things out there in life than risking going to jail. I most definitely thank God every day. I could have easily been a statistic in East St. Louis. God had a different plan for me. I’m very thankful.”
Simms said he never recalled being scared or discouraged in East St. Louis.
“Not really because you adapt to your environment,” Simms said. “I thought that was normal. That didn’t really scare me. I believe the way I grew up made me who I am today. I don’t regret how I grew up. Not one bit. I don’t regret coming from East St. Louis. I love my city. I just made it out.”
Wallace’s strategy always was to ensure Simms knew she had high expectations for him, especially as they related to performance in the classroom. Early in the game, she made it clear to her athletically gifted son that getting good grades wasn’t an option, but a mandate.
It was his avenue to greater success in life.
“He is a true student-athlete, and academics come first,” said Wallace, the activities director at Bria of Cahokia, a nursing and rehabilitation center. “Without the academics, you can’t get on that football field. Even before he got to Mizzou, with East Side, if he wasn’t making those grades, he wasn’t going on that football team. It’s as simple as that. I laid the law down early on. I told him, ‘You have to know this: If you don’t bring me decent grades, you will not be on the football field.’”
Simms, who initially was majoring in sports management at Missouri, but now is undecided, said maintaining solid academic standing at East Side was “never really an issue for me.” Indeed, he was an honor student.
“I always have been pretty good at school, so I wouldn’t say it was rough staying eligible,” said Simms, whose grades were strong enough for him to get on the field as a true freshman at Missouri last season. “I’m a pretty good student. I’m a self-motivated guy, also. I was born with a drive and I feel like no one can stop me. If I make up my mind and set my mind to a goal, I can achieve anything.
“Education is the main thing. Football is football, but (Wallace) is more excited for me pursuing my degree than playing football. That puts the cherry on top of the ice cream. I’m pursuing my degree and doing good in school. So she pretty much can’t ask for more.”
Wallace said one of her proudest moments as a mother will be when she sees Simms receive his degree at Missouri. He is on target to graduate early, having already accumulated 52 of his necessary 120 credit hours entering the spring semester.
Simms couldn’t participate in commencement exercises at East St. Louis in 2016. The teachers’ strike to open 2015-16 resulted in students remaining in school into June. Simms was required to be at Missouri before the graduation ceremonies.
“I’ve always said this: I want him to get his degree,” Wallace said. “I would be the proudest mother in the world. I told him, ‘You owe me a graduation. I want to see you in a gap and gown.’”
Despite the 130 miles between East St. Louis and Columbia, Mo., Wallace never is distant from her son’s thoughts. Simms calls his mother and 14-year-old brother, Robert Tony, at every opportunity. He makes sure they’re safe. He encourages his brother. He is encouraged by his mother.
“We talk every day,” Simms said. “She tells me what I can do better and what she feels like I need to work on — just things like that. When I have those (bad) days, I call her and talk to her for 30 minutes to tell her about my day and how things are going.”
It works both ways.
A word from Simms also lends needed support to Wallace’s daily routine. He brought tears to his mother’s eyes when she received a letter Tre’Vour wrote before a September practice. The letter, on Missouri stationery, read:
“Hi Mom. I just wanted to let you know you are dearly appreciated. You were always there for me, even when my father wasn’t. All the sacrifices you made just so I wouldn’t go without were really appreciated. I may not say it a lot, but you are my hero. I learned so many things from you. I know they say a woman can’t raise a man, but I think I beat the odds. Love you, Mom. T. Simms.”
Wallace keeps the letter with her.
“That was a tear-jerker right there,” she said. “For him to say, ‘Mom, you were on my mind and I wrote this letter before practice. ... He said (later), ‘Mom, did you get your letter?’ I said, ‘Yeah, and it kind of brought tears to my eyes.’”
Simms said: “I try to do what I can. You’ll be surprised how much a phone call or a hand-written letter can mean to a person.”
Wallace, who also adopted two sons, now ages 17 and 21, said Simms’ biological father has been “in and out,” but mostly out.
I told him, ‘You have to know this: If you don’t bring me decent grades, you will not be on the football field.’
“I want to say the last time (Tre’Vour) saw him was maybe in middle school,” Wallace said. “We don’t keep in contact.”
Wallace has no contempt for Elton Simms.
“I don’t say anything bad about his father,” Wallace said. “I never married his father. But it was a relationship that created (Tre’Vour). Out of all the things he has not done, I still say, ‘Thank you for my child. Thank you for Tre’Vour.’ The bottom line is, no matter what he has or has not done, it’s still (Tre’Vour’s) father and I want to treat that with respect.
“We don’t know where he is and we really haven’t tried to look for him. We move forward. ... My main concern is I wanted to raise a child who was a contribution to society, who had something to offer society (instead) of a child that was just draining society. That was my primary focus.”
Simms wasn’t without a male figure in his life. From the time he was 4 until recently, his stepfather was Robert Hill, nicknamed “Pops.” Wallace and Hill recently split.
Like his mother, Tre’Vour Simms doesn’t consider it a negative that he didn’t grow up around his dad.
“Maybe if I would have had a father, I wouldn’t be at this point of my life,” Simms said. “So I don’t really live off, ‘What ifs.’ I don’t let that bother me.”
Concern for mom, brother
While Simms insists he never worried about his own well-being, he is concerned daily about the safety of his mother and brother, still living on 29th Street.
“I worry about them every day because I know the city is only getting worse,” Simms said. “I worry about the gunshots. Every day, there’s gunshots.”
Wallace said she has become accustomed to hearing gunshots. It has been worse than that. Several years ago, Robert Tony was outside playing basketball with friends.
“I heard a gunshot. I didn’t think anything of it. You hear those periodically,” Wallace said. “Then I heard a barrage of gunshots. I got (the boys) in the house and on the floor.
“Our next-door neighbor was killed — shot in the head right in front of Tony. This guy would give candy to the kids. At most, he would sit on the porch and drink a beer. And here he is lying dead, shot in front of us. Tony didn’t want to go outside anymore. He didn’t want to do kid stuff. That took a lot out of him.”
I could have easily been a statistic in East St. Louis. God had a different plan for me. I’m very thankful.
“Then a couple of months ago, we were sleeping in bed about 1, 1:30, and we hear a barrage of gunshots,” Wallace said. “Our house was shot out. Where (Robert) Tony sleeps, the bullet may have been maybe a foot away from him.
“I work every day, I’m not on the streets, and why does somebody do something like that? It’s just senseless to me. It doesn’t make any sense for a person who goes to work every day and has no ties with the streets. Maybe it’s just a random shooting. Why would people do stuff like that? (Robert) Tony was, ‘Mom, I’m just getting over my neighbor getting killed and now I have to revisit this.’”
Simms remembers classmates at East St. Louis coming to school with every type of new item. If his brother is anything like Simms was at that age, he wants those things, too.
“When you see kids come to school with a new pair of shoes, new phones, that puts temptations in your mind, saying, ‘I want that,’” Simms said. “(But) they weren’t getting it the right way. It’s crazy. Everything is so trendy. Now I’m at the point in my life where I could care less about all that stuff. I have no problem going without.”
Simms does his level best to make sure Robert Tony doesn’t go without. Every time Wallace brings Robert Tony to campus, Simms plays Santa Claus.
“He always gets me for a pair of shoes,” Simms said with a smile. “I have no problem doing that because I don’t want him out there doing bad things for them. I feel like he can ask me for anything and I’ll get it and give it to him.”
Robert Tony is walking in big brother’s shoes. The eighth-grader, who already is 6-4 and 260 pounds, is a developing offensive and defensive lineman who is ticketed for stardom.
“I can’t wait to watch him develop as a player and watch him grow,” Simms said of his brother. “Wherever he plays, I’m going to support him.”
Wallace said: “(Robert Tony) is so inspired by Tre’Vour. He really has the potential to be better than his big brother. That will be awesome to watch.”
Missouri endured a dreadful start to the season, losing five of its first six games under second-year coach Barry Odom.
The Tigers won their opener 72-43 over Missouri State, then lost to South Carolina (31-13), Purdue (35-3), Auburn (51-14), Kentucky (40-34) and Georgia (50-28).
Seemingly out of nowhere, however, Missouri came together. The hunted became the hunter. The Tigers closed the regular season with victories over Idaho (68-21), Connecticut (52-12), Florida (45-16), Tennessee (50-17), Vanderbilt (45-17) and Arkansas (48-45).
The surge powered Missouri (7-5) into a berth in the Texas Bowl, where it will face the Texas Longhorns (6-6) at 8 p.m. Dec. 27 in Houston.
Simms played a major role in the Tigers’ turnaround, going most of the season without allowing a sack from his right-guard spot.
That’s my goal. Every game, I’m telling myself, ‘I’ve got to make it. This has to work. I’ve got to get them out of that environment.’
“You’ve got to enjoy doing the dirty work, and that’s pretty much what I do,” Simms said. “I would say I’m having a pretty good season. I’m still not content with where I’m at because I feel like I can do more. I’m pretty much working on becoming the ultimate teammate and doing whatever I can do to help my team win.
“I would say I’m a very humble guy. All you can do is just do your job. We’ve got some pretty good teammates, and if everybody’s on the same page, the sky’s the limit for us.”
Among Simms’ teammates are East St. Louis graduate and junior defensive tackle Terry Beckner and O’Fallon High graduate and sophomore kicker Tucker McCann.
Simms possesses the size, strength and speed to be considered a bona fide NFL prospect. If he forgoes his senior season, Simms could be eligible for the April 2019 draft. Otherwise, Simms will target 2020.
“I can become leaner,” Simms said. “That’s my goal. I’ve got another year to transform my body and get my body where I want it to be at so I can really give myself a shot to make it to the league.
“I’m still on a mission. I have much more to prove. I live in the now and what I can do now. That’s how I set myself up. I take it one day at a time. When you start looking too far ahead, you get caught up (in things) and you end up getting a big head. Things end up going sideways.”
A contract worth millions would provide Simms the ability to help his mom, brother and even stepbrothers to begin a new chapter.
His determination took him through each level to where he is now.
“If I were to sign a nice contract, I wouldn’t feel comfortable having (them) staying back in East St. Louis,” Simms said. “I strive every day to get out of that environment. That’s my goal. Every game, I’m telling myself, ‘I’ve got to make it. This has to work. I’ve got to get them out of that environment.’”
“It’s a great story for (Simms),” Beckner said. “He’s able to do some things a lot of kids have dreamed of. He’s in a position where he can change his mom’s life forever.”
Wallace isn’t counting on cashing in on Tre’Vour’s possible riches.
“A lot of people say that, but that’s Tre’Vour’s legacy,” she said. “I’m that mother who will always work, who will always be able to take care of myself. That’s his fortune. If he so chooses to do that with his mother, that’s fine. If he doesn’t, that’s fine, too. I’m still going to be there supporting him.”
Just as she has all along.