Phil Simms on a Dream Started on a Kentucky Farm

Well, I never knew. I always liked and respected Mr Simms, and now I think perhaps I know some of the reasons.
WSJ Feb 3, 2017
The former Giants quarterback recalls his demanding father, playing sports with his seven siblings and starting to earn money at an early age.

Phil Simms, 61, is the former quarterback for the New York Giants, where he won two Super Bowl titles and set an NFL record for highest pass-completion percentage in a championship game. He is the lead analyst for “The NFL on CBS” and CBS’s “Thursday Night Football,” as well as an analyst on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.” He spoke with Marc Myers.

I was born on my grandfather’s farm in Springfield, Ky. One day when I was 4, I was playing football out back and ripped one of my socks, so I ran into the house to get a new pair. As I pulled open my dresser drawer, I said to myself, “I’m going to play pro sports when I grow up.” I never forgot that moment.

My grandfather owned 399 acres and grew mostly tobacco, though he also raised milk cows, cattle, pigs and sheep. My four brothers, three sisters and I were expected to work the farm, just like my dad.

Our family lived on the first floor of a two-story redbrick farmhouse. That’s all the space we could afford. The second floor was sectioned off because my parents couldn’t afford to heat it. The boys slept on a mattress in the hallway.

By the time I was 6, I milked cows and followed my father’s tractor as he weeded the tobacco fields. My job was to make sure the tobacco plants weren’t covered by soil after the hoe pulled out the weeds.

My dad, Willie, farmed, and my mom, Barbara, took care of the family and the house. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She upholstered the furniture, made the curtains, cooked and made all of us clothes if she had to.

Of the eight kids, I was the fifth to arrive. My mom had seven kids in a 10-year period, so we weren’t far apart in age. Everyone inherited everyone else’s clothes and shoes, whether they fit perfectly or not.

To say that my father loved baseball is an understatement. That’s all he talked about. He had been a minor-league pitcher. Every Sunday, all of us would play baseball on the farm. Even my sisters could throw. When we were older, they played in neighborhood games, and they weren’t picked last.

When I was 5, my family moved an hour north to Louisville. My father had a falling out with his father over his share of the farm’s profits and how much work he was doing. Louisville offered better-paying factory jobs.

The first house we moved into was a rental—a white ranch house. A year later, my father bought a three-bedroom house that was actually smaller than the rental. There was one bedroom for the boys, one for the girls.

In the boys’ room, there was a queen-size bed and a single. My oldest and youngest brothers shared the small bed while the rest of us shared the queen. During the winter, we’d fight over who got the middle to stay warm.

My father first worked for a cabinet factory, while my mom worked for General Electric. After she was laid off, they both went to work at Brown & Williamson, the cigarette company.

My dad was tough. He told us, “If you want something, you better find a way to earn enough money to get it.” So we cut grass, cleaned houses and did odd jobs. From the time I was 8, my parents never had to buy me articles of clothing, schoolbooks or anything else.

Starting at age 9, I also delivered newspapers—the Courier-Journal in the morning and the Louisville Times after school. My brothers and I would get up every day at around 5 a.m., and no matter what the weather, we’d run ¾ of a mile to pick up our papers. We did this again in the afternoon.

I was consumed with sports and my first passion was baseball. Then one day the coach of the fifth-grade football team asked me to play. He wanted me to be the quarterback. I found I could really throw the ball, especially long bombs down the field.

I liked being the quarterback. I was in charge. I also liked wearing a helmet. I felt I was in disguise and could be the person I wanted to be. When I enrolled at Morehead State in 1974, I was still a better pitcher than quarterback. In my sophomore year, I switched from pitcher to playing first and third base to focus on hitting.

But I began to lose my passion. After my junior year, I decided to play football instead. What drove me to football was how darn hard it was and being at the center of so many players.

I also really enjoyed the feeling of the ball leaving my hand in a perfect spiral and watching it go to my receivers. The goal wasn’t balls and strikes but putting the football in their hands.

When I was drafted by the New York Giants in May 1979, my mother never worried about me going to New York and falling in with the wrong crowd. The days of her worrying were long gone. Working the way I did as a kid, I was always self-reliant and responsible.

Today, my wife, Diana, and I live in Franklin Lakes, N.J., on 19 acres. We have a two-story house with six bedrooms. I love the kitchen. When my three grown kids come over with the grandkids, it’s a great place to hang out.

After a few years in the NFL, I bought my parents a house in Louisville. It was on a beautiful piece of property next to one of my sisters. Later, after my dad died, my mom didn’t like being alone so I bought her a house in a subdivision.

Dad was a hard guy, but he taught us so many things. Sometimes I wish I had been more like him—the structure and the toughness. But while his approach may have worked back then, it’s a different world now.

I do a lot of reading and still have five newspapers delivered to my home each morning. This goes back to my childhood. I know that on the other end of those papers is someone up early working hard.


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