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All grown up Justin Simmons recalls 9-11 tragedy from his youth

Broncos safety explains why he will take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem prior to season opener Monday.
Denver Broncos strong safety Justin Simmons celebrates as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For many Broncos players, the coronavirus pandemic is the only cataclysmic event they have truly understood in their lifetime.

The unspeakable tragedy that became known simply as 9-11 occurred 19 years ago Friday. Broncos rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler were two years old then. Even a veteran safety like Justin Simmons was but a seven year-old, a month shy of eight. Which is about the age the memories of many adults goes back to.

“I just remember being in school and at that time I actually lived in Virginia,’’ Simmons said in a sit-down interview Friday with 9NEWS. “I was in school and my parents were obviously scared to death and we were watching what was happening on the TV and it was almost like it wasn’t real. I couldn’t totally grasp or understand what was going on.’’

He was in elementary school when America learned of one, and then saw the other terrorist plane take down the two World Trade Center Towers in New York.

“I just remember being really confused and I remember our teachers were really confused,’’ Simmons said. “Rightfully so. I just remember it being a really confusing and tough time. And even when I got back home, everyone was glued to the TV, everyone was in tears. Everyone was distraught. Everyone was in pain. I know 9-11 is such a tough day for so many people, especially for people directly impacted by the events that occurred but … those are the things I remember.”

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Justin Simmons has grown up considerably since then and in so many ways. He’s grown into an elite athlete who is about to start his fifth NFL season with the Broncos, fourth as a starting safety. And this year, he has summoned the courage to become an outspoken social activist in the fight against racial inequality.

And based on the hate he occasionally receives from comments to his social media posts, it does require courage.

“You definitely do,’’ Simmons said. “It’s a testament to the people I’m surrounded by and have been surrounded by. Guys like Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas. Guys on the team now, Jurrell Casey, De’Vante Bausby, Alexander Johnson, and A.J. Bouye, Kareem (Jackson), Dalton (Risner), Von (Miller).

“There’s so many guys on our team who are so outspoken, you can tell they care about these things so it makes it easier to speak your truth and to stand on solid ground in terms of what you believe in. Ever since the George Floyd incident it’s been kind of like the push-over-the-edge personally for myself. But there are so many guys who are outspoken it makes it easier to stand your ground. You have community there.”

Everyone who has become aware of Simmons in recent months expected him to kneel during the National Anthem when it’s played Monday for the Broncos’ season opener against Tennessee before a virtually empty Empower Field at Mile High (500 family and friends will not dent the 76,125-seat venue). His conviction was solidified after what he heard from his television screen Thursday night as part of the Kansas City Chiefs-Houston Texans game.

“I plan on taking a knee,’’ Simmons said. “For the same reasons a lot of guys will be taking a knee. Especially after watching the game and what occurred Thursday night. Both the Chiefs and the Texans -- with no Anthem that was being played -- they both locked arms in unity and met in the middle of the field and people were still booing.

“And so the message – I think for a lot it’s hit home – but I think for some you can tell the message still hasn’t registered for whatever the reasons. That’s why I feel it’s still necessary to take a knee. Also the fact that we have made some steps and some positive change but not nearly the progress some of us were hoping for. So bringing more awareness to that in a peaceful way is always a good thing.”