FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Deon Simon is motivated by his painful past.
The darkest moments came while he dealt with a severe knee injury and academic issues as a high school senior, leaving his future on and off the field uncertain.
“It was a hard time,” the Jets defensive tackle said after a recent practice. “I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen at the next step, the next level. It’s been tough, but I stuck with it.
“I put it upon myself that I won’t be denied.”
Today, the 27-year-old Simon is a promising backup on Todd Bowles’ defense and a college graduate who has aspirations of becoming a U.S. Marshal when his playing days are over.
“I definitely think about all that,” Simon said. “Where I come from, how I stuck it out to get to this point, I think about it all the time.”
At 6-foot-4 and 332 pounds, Simon is a physically imposing presence. But his calm, soft-spoken demeanor reveals a humble soul, someone truly thankful to have overcome the obstacles that once threatened his dreams.
“When he walked through my door, I was like, ‘Holy smokes!'” said Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas, Simon’s college coach. “But he’s just a gentle giant.”
Simon was a star on the defensive line at Glen Oaks High School outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and caught the attention of several Division I football programs.
It took one play early in his senior season — the homecoming game — to change all that.
Simon crumpled to the turf after blowing out a knee, the pain searing through his body as coaches and trainers huddled around him. The damage, it turned out, was devastating.
“I basically had to have everything reattached: my hamstring, my cartilage, ACL, LCL and just different tissues in my knee,” Simon recalled. “That moment, I really didn’t think too much of it because it was my first serious injury, so I was just trying to get over that part.”
It all hit him during the rehabilitation process, when the interest from colleges suddenly disappeared. Because of the severity of the injury, it was uncertain whether Simon would ever be able to take the field again.
There were moments of depression, and academic issues soon followed. But Simon refused to give into the negative thoughts.
“Yeah, I had my moments,” he said. “But I made a commitment to keep working, get my knee healthy and keep going with it.”
Simon headed to Houston to attend Southwest Preparatory in order to get his ACT scores up to qualify for college. He needed to get his mind right while his body healed.
“It was just something I had to do,” Simon said. “I couldn’t complain about it. I just did it.”
A fully focused and nearly healthy Simon found his way back to Louisiana, and made it into Northwestern State in Natchitoches in the fall of 2010. But he would have to sit out a semester before playing football there.
He also started the semester late and there were no apartments available. So, he spent those first few months sleeping on an air mattress in the room of one of his former high school buddies.
“The guy had it really rough, man,” said Thomas, who was the Demons’ defensive line coach at the time. “He had major adversity there, but he found a way to work through it.”
Thomas immediately grew a liking to Simon, and asked the young player to stop by his office every day to chat. Simon credits those visits with helping him remain focused.
“He was like a mentor to me,” Simon said. “We kind of sat down and had different courses and paths that I could’ve taken. I just kept fighting.”
He got his academic issues in order and by the fall of 2011, Simon had a scholarship and got back on the football field.
Simon played as a freshman, saw more action as a sophomore and then earned a spot on the All-Southland Conference Honorable Mention Team as a junior. Another less-serious knee injury limited Simon in his final year, but he had established himself as one of the top playmakers in the country at his position.
He impressed teams with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, and then had a solid performance at the NFL combine. It all led to the Jets taking Simon in the seventh round of the 2015 draft.
“He had to work, had to earn it all,” said Thomas, who returned as Northwestern State’s head coach in 2013 after a year as Missouri Southern’s defensive coordinator. “That’s one thing you know about Deon: He’s not afraid of work, not afraid of hard work. He takes a lot of pride in what he does and how he goes about doing it.”
Simon became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in criminal justice. His father was a sheriff in Baton Rouge, and that played a major influence. So did watching crime-related TV shows.
“I have to say it’s like football, being aggressive,” a smiling Simon said. “You’re the big guy coming in and putting your hands on them and taking them up and taking bad people off the streets and going to get them. You can say football and that, it’s not similar, but it’s like, I can use that in that field, too.
“I just thought, that’s pretty cool: You can go out there, wear jeans and obtain bad guys and fugitives.”
Football, though, is first for Simon.
He’s among a handful of players who could have a breakout season for the Jets. He’s currently the backup to Steve McLendon at nose tackle, but handled himself well last year when he took over for the injured veteran late in the season.
“I think back to points in time where I could’ve just stopped and gave up,” Simon said. “I pulled myself to the side, and my inner-self was saying, ‘You can do this. Let’s go, let’s go.’ I kind of motivated myself. I don’t pay attention to the fame or who knows me or who doesn’t know me.
“I’m here now and I’ll just let my actions speak for me.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)