If you're looking for the definition of a student-athlete, you won't need a dictionary. You just need to take a look at Perry Simmons.
As both a Civil Engineering major and starting offensive tackle for Duke, Simmons has spent his time as a Blue Devil earning a degree in the lab while simultaneously making history on the field.
But playing football at Duke wasn't always Simmons's first choice.
“I had grown up in the area so I had known about Duke football and how terrible it had been for so long,” Simmons said. “So when I first started really thinking about it, I wasn't thinking about Duke until thinking about the recruiting process.”
Simmons was a four-year letterman as an offensive tackle at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, and was well aware of the Blue Devils' failures on the gridiron in the past.
Then Duke hired Duke Cutcliffe.
During the 2008 season—Cutcliffe’s first season as head coach—the Blue Devils started to change their reputation as a losing program. Duke finished the year with a 4-8 record, an improvement in comparison to previous years.
Simmons took notice of Cutcliffe's program and the talk coming out of Durham around the same time Cutcliffe and his staff took notice of him.
“I saw they had hired Coach Cutcliffe, and I liked the things I had been hearing coming out in the papers,” he said. “So when they started recruiting me and I started to get to know their coaching staff, I really clicked with them”
But the path to Durham wasn’t always as clear for Simmons as it seems. As a child, the Raleigh native’s heart belonged elsewhere.
Growing up, Simmons’ love was for a different Triangle school: N.C. State. His father, Brette Simmons, was an assistant coach for the Wolfpack from 1987-99. But Simmons’ young fandom came to screeching halt when he learned first hand how winning is all-important in football.
“During my childhood I was an N.C. State fan, but when they fired his staff, I kind of [stopped being a fan],” Simmons said. “Especially being so young, I didn’t realize how get of a business this whole thing was. It was very personal for me.”
Following his separation from N.C. State football, Simmons drifted between teams. But he says this actually worked to his advantage in terms of the recruiting process, as it allowed him to remain unbiased.
Most football players who have a shot of playing at the next level will choose their college based on exposure and opportunity. Simmons did just that. The exposure and opportunity weren’t based solely on football, though. Simmons also had engineering aspirations.
“I strictly wanted to go to school with a [civil engineering program]," Simmons said. "And honestly, had Duke not made the commitment to football that it did around the time of my recruitment, I would not be at Duke today. I wanted to go play meaningful football and compete.”
When it came to playing meaningful football, Simmons admitted that the first couple years were difficult to weather as he thought Duke’s program was destined for success even sooner than it came.
“Those first years were tough,” he said. “I don’t like losing and never have. I thought the program was going to turn around faster than it did, but it’s one of those things that once you get there, you realize how much there is to do, and looking back, how much work we had to put in to get to this point.”
But as hard as those first years were for Simmons, losing football games was only half of his worries. As a Civil Engineering major, he was forced to spend any free time he had away from football with his nose in the books.
Simmons cited self-motivation and perseverance as his two biggest assets when it came to pushing through the all-night study sessions and early practices. Even after all this time, he said balancing the two still has its challenges.
“[Balancing class and football] has been tough, it still is tough, it always will be tough" Simmons said. "It’s definitely been a challenge, more than I expected coming in. What’s helped me is that I’m a very self-motivated person.”
After working towards his degree and pushing himself in the weight room for five years—Simmons said he was 250-pounds soaking wet when he came in as a freshman—it has all seemed to pay off for the redshirt senior. He entered the season with a 3.83 grade point average and the active record for career snaps played among Duke players with 3,741.
Simmons will also leave Duke on the heels of the Blue Devils' most successful season in program history. Although the early losing seasons weren't fun, it's helped him appreciate what this team has accomplished.
“You go to school and you picture yourself winning ACC Championships," Simmons said. "But you don’t really know what that means and just how hard that is to do, how it is to win one football game, let alone 10. It’s just a huge appreciation for what’s going on now.”
Unfortunately for Simmons, he won't get to join his teammates for the Chick-fil-A Bowl after both his ACL and MCL in the ACC Championship Game. Simmons had started all 50 games of his collegiate career at right tackle, a streak that will draw to a close when he watches his teammates from the sidelines of the Georgia Dome Tuesday night.
Just because Simmons won't be on the field Tuesday night doesn't mean he's sat back and called it quits. He still wants to end his Duke career with a bowl victory, something no senior has been able to do since 1961. While his playing career may be finished at Duke, Simmons has used the last couple weeks to pass on what he's learned in the past five years to younger players.
"We have a lot of young guys coming up through the system and they have bright futures ahead of them and Perry realizes that and he has a chance to leave his legacy in a different way," redshirt senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. "He's been a huge help to me as well watching film. He'll come over and say, 'Hey, why don't you try doing this?' He's a really smart guy and has been able to contribute, even in his absence from the field."