How do you measure strength?
For 2020 Irvington High School graduate Raymond Simmons, it was about persevering despite injury and crushing disappointment.
Named by his teammates as their captain in advance of the Blue Knights’ 2019 varsity football season, Simmons’ story was sufficiently inspiring to earn him this year’s annual Kearny Bank Strength Award, a $2,500 academic scholarship that recognizes one New Jersey scholastic athlete who courageously overcame a significant physical injury.
First awarded in 2019 and developed in conjunction with the NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association), the Kearny Bank Strength Award is open to any student-athlete – male or female – attending any of NJSIAA’s 436 member schools.
“Given Kearny Bank’s ongoing support of education, honoring student-athletes who’ve fought back against significant physical hardship is an ideal fit for us,” said Kearny Bank 1st Vice President / Director of Marketing Eric Kesselman.
“Raymond’s courage and positive attitude as he struggled to return to his sport make us proud to honor him.”
A varsity starter and letter winner during his first three years on the Irvington team, Simmons was looking forward to his senior, 2019 season as an opportunity to add further college scholarship offers to those he’d already received following his junior year.
In fact, Simmons was so dominant in his outside linebacker position that his coaches were revising their defensive scheme to provide him more opportunities to make plays.
But then, terrible luck intervened. During the very first summer scrimmage, he tore his Achilles tendon doing, of all things, pre-game jumping jacks. And just like that, Simmons’ high school football career seemed to be over. Doctors confirmed this was the case following surgery to repair the damage.
Yet, despite limping around on crutches, Simmons never missed a game – and only a handful of practices.
All season long, he was there to cheer on his teammates … and to tell anyone who’d listen, “I’ll be back before the end of the season.”
Of course, given the severity of his injury and the typical recuperation period – which often exceeds a full year – this seemed like an extremely wishful thing.
Then, right before Irvington’s first playoff game against Cranford High School, Simmons informed his coaches he was ready to resume his job as the team’s punter, a position he’d played during his sophomore and junior seasons.
And he produced a formal note from his physician to prove it. His coaches were dumbfounded, but an immediate call to the doctor, followed by a consultation with the team doctor, confirmed that only 11 weeks after rupturing his Achilles, Simmons could suit up again as Irvington’s punter.
With only 2:09 remaining in that November 9 playoff game, Irvington held a 22-21 lead … and was forced to punt the ball away to Cranford from midfield.
It was a moment when field position was crucial, and Simmons responded with an exceptional, 44-yard punt that pinned Cranford inside its own five-yard line. A few plays later, an interception sealed the Blue Knights’ one-point victory.
“Raymond’s work ethic, self-confidence, and determination enabled him to overcome his injury and rejoin his team on the field in time for the playoffs,” said Irvington High School Athletic Director Dr. John Taylor.
“These are qualities that don’t show on a stat line, but they’re just as important as any touchdown pass or sack.”
Though his injury dampened college recruiting interest, Simmons ultimately received a partial scholarship to play for the East Stroudsburg University Warriors beginning with the 2020 season.
For the upcoming, 2020-21 school year, Kearny Bank plans to work with NJSIAA beginning in spring 2021 to gather submissions for the third annual Strength Award.