WSU jarred by death of Simmons

As a Washington State football player in the 1970s, Randal Simmons was ahead of his time - a well-sculpted defensive back who trained with weights as diligently as did his teammates on the interior line.

Decades later, visiting the Cougars whenever they played in Los Angeles, he still cut an impressive figure.

His former teammates and coaches were stunned Thursday to learn that Simmons, a veteran SWAT officer, had been slain, at age 51, during a long police standoff with a gunman in Los Angeles. (See story on Page 5A).

"I am just heartbroken," former WSU coach Jim Walden said. "I feel like crying."

Cougars assistant coach Mike Levenseller, a teammate of Simmons at WSU, said, "Pound for pound, he was the strongest guy I ever played with. When he showed up, he looked like Atlas.

"He was just a helluva guy, a really nice human being. He was one of those guys that, if you didn't like him, there was something wrong with you."

Simmons was never a star for the Cougars, but he started at cornerback as a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior in 1978, finishing the season with 39 tackles and an interception, and was one of the last players released during Dallas Cowboys training camp the following year.

He was killed early Thursday in a confrontation at a San Fernando Valley home, about three hours after an unidentified gunman had killed three apparent relatives and called 911 on Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Times reported.

After the initial killings, the gunman barricaded himself in the house and made further 911 calls. Fearing that others were in danger inside, police decided to break into the home at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday. Among the SWAT members who did so was Simmons, who was shot in the neck as he entered, the newspaper's sources said.

He was taken to a hospital, where he died shortly after 1 a.m.

Simmons was married, with a teenage son and daughter, and had reportedly spent his off hours mentoring youth in South Los Angeles, where he had formerly worked in police gang units.

He had been on the police force for 27 years, including 20 on the SWAT unit. In 1992, according to the L.A. Times, his negotiation with a religious zealot played a key role in rescuing a hotel maid being held hostage.

He also maintained ties with the WSU football program, visiting the team during its trips to play Southern California, UCLA or bowl opponents.

"Whenever we went to L.A., he was there," Levenseller said. "Sometimes he showed up in uniform."

Originally from New York, Simmons attended Fairfax High in Los Angeles and studied criminology at WSU. He joined Cougar football as a nonscholarship player, and contributed to special teams before cracking the starting defensive lineup as a senior.

"He was a pretty good football player - played a lot," former WSU sports information director Rod Commons said. "The Randal I remember was very well-spoken, always very confident but not arrogant."

It was a tumultuous time in WSU football, and Simmons played for four head coaches in four years: Jim Sweeney, Jackie Sherrill, Warren Powers and Walden.

Walden was grateful for Simmons' helpful attitude during his first year at the Cougar helm.

"He helped my transition," he said. "There were some seniors on that team that needed some tender loving care, because of the four head coaches in four years. ... Randy Simmons was always a great team player."

He was especially impressive in the weight room.

"This was a guy who was sculpted," Walden said. "Before, I had always thought of DBs as little skinny wide receivers. But Randy Simmons was like a 350-pound bencher, a 500-pound squatter. He was just an amazing lifter and athlete, and a tremendous guy."

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton spoke to the L.A. Times in similar terms, calling Simmons "the rock upon which all others sought to anchor themselves."

Walden, now a commentator on WSU radio broadcasts, said Simmons visited him for about three hours during a Cougar road trip a couple of years ago. He was still a specimen, the coach said.

"It was so good to see him, and he was doing well," he said. "He was so proud of what he was doing. He was proud of being a Cougar. He was just exemplary, and everything you hope young people would become."

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Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.