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Cardinals rookie Isaiah Simmons could have had 'Olympic rings in his future'

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Isaiah Simmons' NFL draft profile (1:03)

Clemson's Isaiah Simmons has the modern-day build to play linebacker in the NFL and has the speed and length to contribute all over the field. (1:03)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The path taken by Arizona Cardinals rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons is well known: Football star. Clemson legend. All-American. First-round pick.

But another route could have manifested itself in the coming weeks during what would have been the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo with Simmons as a United States long jumper. The games were originally scheduled to begin July 24.

Before deciding to play college football at Clemson -- following a late recruiting push by the Tigers -- Simmons was a star long jumper at Olathe North High School in Kansas. He won back-to-back state championships and set the school record with a leap of 24-feet, 5-inches -- less than 2 feet from this year's Olympic standard for the United States' national team. Track and field was Simmons' first sport -- and his first love.

"I will tell you this: If he were a full-time track athlete -- I think he made the right decision, that kid has some ability like I've nothing I've seen -- I think there definitely could have been some Olympic rings in his future," said Chris Bostwick, Clemson's jumps coach.

Simmons, who started by running for his parents' track club as a kid, showed talent from an early age, but didn't seem to know his ceiling. So his high school sprint coach, Eniak Mpwo, pulled Simmons aside during his freshman year to set him straight: "By time you leave the school, you're gonna be one of the legends to go around here. You just don't know. The ceiling is just so high. You have so much potential."

Mpwo recalled the baby-faced Simmons just looking at him with a blank stare.

Simmons went on to win the long jump state titles as a sophomore and junior, and missed a three-peat as a senior by six inches. As a a senior, he finished second in the state in the 200-meters by .07 seconds and was part of the winning 4x100-meter relay.

"I could have sworn as a kid I was going to the Olympics," Simmons said. "But then my body started changing and football came along and things switched up a little bit."

Throughout high school, he'd draw a crowd anytime he lined up on the runway. Opposing coaches and jumpers -- even athletes in other events -- would gather to get a glimpse of Simmons. And, physically, at least, he didn't disappoint.

"He was just so much bigger than most of the guys anyway and he's got the uniform, he's got a tank top and shorts, and he's just chiseled," said Chris McCartney, Simmons' high school football coach. "He's a huge guy."

But now, instead of a track career, Simmons is days away from starting his first NFL training camp.

Simmons' track skills 'like artwork'

The first time Bostwick met Simmons at Clemson, he vaguely knew who he was.

It was early in 2017, the second semester of Simmons' freshman year was just beginning. Simmons was coming off a redshirt football season, his freakish athleticism and dynamic football IQ still under wraps. Bostwick knew Simmons played football but knew his name because of Simmons' illustrious prep track and field career.

During that first meeting, Simmons expressed interest in doing the long jump for Clemson. At first Bostwick wasn't sure. Sports don't usually share athletes at Clemson -- especially football players. But standing in front of him was a 6-foot-4 ½ and 218-pound specimen of an athlete.

"I was definitely interested," Bostwick said. "So, we started talking from there."

With football coach Dabo Swinney's blessing and the compliance paperwork in order, Simmons joined Clemson's track team in early February, Bostwick said.

It didn't take long for Bostwick to see that Simmons hadn't lost a step. For Simmons, though, he was still on the same athletic schedule he had been all of high school: football in the fall and track in the spring.

"We got him going right away and it was pretty impressive," Bostwick said. "Our student-athletes usually have all of fall training -- September, October, November, December -- to get ready. Then this kid just pops in and we start doing drills and it just kind of blew me away.

"I've been around Olympic champions, had the chance to coach a couple of national record holders and there's only a few people that I've ever coached that, you know, technique's good, this is good, this is decent, but when they come down the runway, it's just like artwork. Nothing that I can teach. I can teach you to improve your technique, I can get you more explosive, but he's one of those guys that when he just left the ground -- it's kind of like his football career -- it's just a storybook, never ending."

In Simmons, Bostwick saw All-American potential, possibly the Olympics.

But Simmons jumped in just one meet for Clemson. He finished 13th in the ACC indoor track and field championships in late February, just a few weeks after he joined the team, with a distance of 22.5 feet.

Bostwick put a disclaimer on that mark. Simmons, he said, was still learning how to jump in college, which has different rules than high school. In college, jumpers take off from a specific location on the board, unlike in high school, where jumps are measured from wherever the feet leave the ground. And that day, Simmons couldn't figure it out, Bostwick said.

Mpwo believes Simmons could've easily increased his jumping distance to at least 26 or 27 feet had he continued jumping in college -- 27 feet, 6-inches was the shortest of the U.S. Olympic qualifying jumps in 2016. The bronze medal at the Rio games in 2016 was won with a jump of 27 feet, 1.9 inches. The winning jump at last year's NCAA Division 1 outdoor track and field championships was 26-feet, 11-inches.

But that was the last time Simmons jumped. He returned to football for spring practice shortly after and, as is often said, the rest was history.

Looking at Simmons now -- almost 240 pounds and carrying the type of weight necessary for an NFL career -- it's hard to think he could fly through the air so effortlessly ("We'd have to reinforce the boards," Bostwick said). Then again, if he was just jumping, his frame would look vastly different.

"I say the sky's the limit," Bostwick said, "because I had the kid for a few weeks."

Track still playing a role for Simmons

Mpwo remembers Simmons running the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine during a watch party with about 15 other people. He remembers seeing Simmons get down into his stance and then roll his shoulders and hips forward. That was a track technique, Epwo said.

Simmons ran a 4.39-second 40, the fasest of any linebacker and the sixth fastest of any player in Indianapolis this year.

A career in track and long jump has helped Simmons' fast-twitch muscles, Bostwick said, which has led to an increase in explosiveness.

"What translates the most would definitely be trust, that would be one, and then explosiveness," Simmons said.

"And when I say trust, I mean that be saying, so, in long jump, you have your steps that you and your coach commit to. So, when it comes to meet day, just trusting your steps and not looking down at the board, because you count, ‘one, two, three,' and whenever you get to whatever number you are -- me, I was seven -- whenever I got to that, whenever I counted to seven to just jump. So that's where the trust factor comes in."

Track is something Simmons is still benefitting from, granting him the kind of agility that could have him playing all over the field for the Cardinals.

"When you watch him on tape and you see him play the deep middle, the deep half, you see him play in the box, you see him blitz, rush the passer. He's sort of a Swiss Army Knife and does it all," said Cardinals general manager Steve Keim after taking Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick. "We call that kind of player an 'eraser' in this league, a guy that can cover tight ends."