The surest hands in the CFL

B.C. Lions' wide receiver Geroy Simon celebrates after catching a pass to become the CFL's all-time leader for receiving yards on June 29. Simon broke former Winnipeg Blue Bombers' wide receiver Milt Stegall's record.
June 2, 2014, 11:19 AM

(Editor’s note: With CFL great Geroy Simon retiring to little fanfare, we thought that it was worth revisiting one of the best stories ever written on the man with the surest hands in CFL history. In the summer of 2012, Simon set the league record for most career receiving yards and Arden Zwelling captured the moment, as well as what made the man such a perfect example of what we want athletes to be. It’s rare that they live up to it, but Simon did. This story originally appeared in the September 3, 2012 edition of Sportsnet magazine.)

Geroy Simon is impossibly open, so incredibly unguarded it hurts. There he is, lurking behind the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence, legs driving downfield, a hand in the air, bloodshot eyes darting around frantically looking for defenders who simply aren’t there. It’s only the greatest receiver in the history of the league that the defence has seemingly forgotten about. And now he has the ball, delivered at full stride from his quarterback, Travis Lulay; and he has a new CFL record for the most career receiving yards; and he has 30,000 people on their feet going nuts over what they just witnessed; and he has a mob of teammates sprinting to him now, rushing to get there as fast as they can to smack him on the helmet and tell him how cool it is that this is happening. History is happening. And Geroy Simon has very little to do with it. He knows that.

Simon just ran a route—an easy one, at that. Shoot five yards up from the line of scrimmage, outside release past the cornerback, slant to the sideline and look back for the ball. It’s not complicated stuff. But behind him, on and around the line of scrimmage, a dozen small, moving parts were at work. All these tiny cogs in the B.C. Lions offensive machine were performing individual, specific jobs that let Simon be so wide open, that let him taste history. The whole thing doesn’t work if Lulay and running back Tim Brown don’t execute play action immediately after the snap to draw the defence in. It all falls apart if Lulay doesn’t get on his horse and scramble 20 yards to his right. Simon doesn’t get the ball if offensive guard Patrick Kabongo, all six-foot-six, 360 lb. of him, doesn’t spin off from the line of scrimmage and hustle in front of Lulay to throw a block. Simon just ran a route.

It is what’s so simultaneously grand and heartbreaking about football. It takes all those men, all those moving chess pieces intricately designed and tested and taught by a coaching staff, to pull off a play. And then one guy gets all the credit. One guy gets the record and will someday get to the Hall of Fame—the countless men who have drawn up plays for him and blocked for him and thrown to him probably won’t. That’s football for you. But without all those other elements, Simon would not have been so jaw-droppingly open. And he knows it.

He knows it as he’s standing in the middle of the Lions locker room after the game—a 33–16 Lions victory—as the CFL’s all-time leading receiver, with 15,192 yards and counting. He knows he wouldn’t be here, taking in all the praise, if not for the men who now surround him, waiting silently and intently for him to speak.

“Fellas…” Simon starts, pausing for a moment to sort through what he’ll say. “Cry! Cry! Say it with your chest!” come the shouts from somewhere in the peanut gallery as a wry grin creeps across Simon’s face. He shakes his head while the room breaks into laughter. Even in a career-defining moment like this one the emotions never overcome Simon. Maybe in private the icy guard comes down. Maybe the cold, expressionless gaze he wears like a badge of honour melts away and the real, vulnerable Simon vents some steam. But when he’s wearing pads and an orange jersey, looking in the eyes of teammates who steadfastly follow his leadership, there isn’t a cooler guy on the planet. He lets the crowd die down before starting again. “Y’all know how I feel about y’all, man. I share this with you guys. This has never been about me,” Simon says. “This has been about the guys in this locker room, the guys who played in this locker room before. The coaches.” For maybe the only time all season, that locker room is dead silent. It’s never like this. Simon can’t stand it. “I’m just a part of this team. I might be a big part…”

And right on cue, the dressing room erupts with laughter and mocking boos as Simon’s grin returns. And there it is, the cruel dichotomy of football put not-so-subtly into words. Simon knew.

Standing off to the side, Marco Iannuzzi, a Calgary-born receiver in his second year in the league, is recording everything on his phone. He hopes one day to show it to his kids. “That speech is something I’ll always remember,” Iannuzzi says. “I think it’ll mean so much more too—like 10 years from now.” Iannuzzi is one of four receivers on B.C.’s roster who are 25 or younger and all trying to soak up as much as they can from the legend among them: the 14-season vet with two Grey Cups and an MVP award, who is closing in on the all-time marks for receptions and touchdowns. The receptions title will almost certainly be his; the touchdown mark will take some work. But as long as his legs let him play, Simon will keep running out there and keep sharing what he’s learned. He’s done a lot in this league and he’s eager to spread his insight. Simon didn’t have a role model when he came into the league in 1999. No one took him aside and explained the value of work ethic, the intricacies in CFL contracts, how to avoid going broke. He’s done it all himself and now he wants to be the mentor to others that no one was to him. “It’s the right thing to do—to pass my experiences on and help someone else be better,” Simon says. “That’s where I leave my legacy.”

Geroy Simon was once a kid from Johnstown, Penn., a small rust-belt town known mostly for being severely flooded eight times. It was not known much for football until Simon came along. As a senior at Greater Johnstown High, Simon caught over 2,000 yards—despite weighing just over 150 lb. “He was different,” says Brian Mangiafico, Greater Johnstown’s all-state quarterback. “He worked real hard, but he was about as big as my little pinky.” Simon made so much noise that year that the University of Maryland made an exception for him, offering him their final scholarship in 1992. Simon returned the favour, setting ACC records with 77 catches, 891 yards and five touchdowns in his sophomore season. Suddenly, big colleges started paying attention to little Johnstown. “It’s like he turned the light on,” says Mario Hardison, who played receiver and running back with Simon at Greater Johnstown. “Now there are kids going to Division One schools left and right.”

Hardison and Mangiafico are running through these memories on the sidelines at the Rogers Centre as they watch their high school buddy warm up ahead of a game against the Argonauts. They’re in Toronto—along with Chuck Palasick, Greater Johnstown’s hard-headed fullback in those days—for a reunion of sorts. These four haven’t hung out together in more than a decade, haven’t stood on a football field together in longer. But they’ve picked up right where they left off, throwing a football around and taking the piss out of each other. All these years later, after his football career took off and his Johnstown teammates settled into real-life jobs as contractors and teachers, Simon can’t stop heaping praise on the people who helped get him here. “Man, these guys were good. Brian was Pennsylvania player of the year. Mario was an all-league receiver and running back,” Simon says, distributing B.C. Lions golf shirts to the crew. “It was really cool back then—they made my life easy.”

If you believe Simon, his entire journey—from Johnstown, to Maryland, to being cut by five NFL teams, to Winnipeg for his first two years in the CFL, to finally settling in Vancouver—has been easy. Piece of cake, he says. It doesn’t sound like it when you consider Simon’s first son, Gervon, was born when Simon was a 19-year-old freshman at Maryland. Not when you note that Simon had to spend most of Gervon’s formative years off bouncing around NFL practice rosters before landing in Canada. And certainly not when you flash back to 2000, when the Blue Bombers decided Simon wasn’t good enough for this league and cast him adrift. But these were mere obstacles. Since he was six, the only thing that’s truly made sense to Simon was getting up every day and lacing up his cleats. It’s all he knows. “This is my normal,” Simon says. “To put a suit on and go to an office every day, that would feel really weird.”

Simon has come out the other side of it all with the spoils of his hard work. Today, he lives comfortably in B.C.’s Lower Mainland with his wife, Tracy, his 10-year-old son, Jaden, and eight-year-old daughter, Jordan. Gervon is 18 and graduated from Greater Johnstown, where he starred as a quarterback this spring. He turned down a walk-on offer from Maryland to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on a full-ride scholarship. He’ll play football there and graduate as an officer. Simon accompanied Gervon on his recruiting trip to West Point, helping him through the process and making up for lost time. “Just to think that I have an 18-year-old son going to university,” Simon says. “It’s pretty crazy.”

It’s what motivates Simon to keep the motor running as a 36-year-old—the third-oldest receiver in pro football after Donald Driver and Terrell Owens—in a young man’s game. It’s why he wakes up at 7 a.m. during the off-season to run laps in the cold British Columbia rain. It’s why he’s in the gym five times a week, lifting weights or doing yoga and Pilates (un-jock-like exercises Simon swears have added years to his career). It’s why he drops his kids off at school before practice and picks them up after to take Jordan to his own football practice and Jaden to gymnastics. It’s why he plans to stay in Vancouver when his playing days are over, transitioning to coaching or a front-office position—anything involved with football. And it’s why Simon is at peace with where he’s come from and where he is now. “I’ve pretty much done it all on both ends,” Simon says. “If I die tonight, I’ve lived a pretty full life and I’m okay with that.”

Climbing over a mess of shoulder pads and large, black equipment bags taking up a good 85 percent of the floor space in the cramped visitors locker room at the Rogers Centre, Simon stops at each of his teammates’ lockers. He’s still fully suited up and won’t even think of taking off his jersey or pads until he’s slapped the hand of every last guy around the room, telling them “Good job” or “Good win.” The Lions just beat the Argos, but a lot of receivers who had the game Simon just had—only two receptions, neither of any consequence, and a dropped touchdown pass on the goal line—would be sulking. Not Simon; he won’t sit down until he’s done showing love. “It’s those little things, man. That’s what makes him great,” Iannuzzi says, shouting over the blaring post-win music. “He’s three-dimensional and on every dimension he’s a great guy.”

Iannuzzi hasn’t seen as much of the ball as he would like either, having dressed three times this season without making a single reception. But when a legend like Simon isn’t brooding after an off game, a young guy just beginning his career won’t either. “We’re so fortunate to have him,” Iannuzzi, a young father himself, says. “As long as he’s here, I’m going to try to pick up as much wisdom from him as I can.” There won’t be a shortage of material.

Look Simon in the eyes—those cold, thousand-yard-staring saucers—and you see it all. You see Johnstown. You see Mangiafico and Hardison. You see Gervon and Jordan and Jaden and Tracy. You see Lulay and Iannuzzi, and Kabongo moving his 360 lb. off the line of scrimmage. You see every teammate he’s ever had, every coach, everyone.

Because Geroy Simon is just a man. And no man does this alone.

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