TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Ernie Sims arrived at Florida State as a freshman in the fall of 2003, he planned on racking up tackles and winning titles – and not much else.
By that measure, Sims’ career was a success. The linebacker and Tallahassee native made 200 stops during his three-year tenure, was part of two ACC championship teams and earned first-team All-America honors before taking off for the NFL after his junior year.
That decision, by any standard, proved to be a good one: The Detroit Lions made Sims the ninth overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, and he went on to make millions in a professional career that spanned five teams and 12 seasons.
But when Sims left Florida State, he left without his degree.
It didn’t bother him much at first. But as he approached his 30s – a transition that coincided with his retirement from the NFL in 2014 – Sims took a look around.
He saw that everyone in his family – father Ernie II, mother Alice and brother Marcus – all had their Florida State degrees.
He saw that the Tallahassee youth he sought to mentor through his Big HITS Foundation were looking to him to set an example not only as an athlete but as a member of society.
And, finally, he looked at his three children – Ernie IV (6), Major (4) and Savannah (1) – and knew that if they were ever going to take him seriously when he talked about the importance of getting an education, he had to first take his own advice.
So, on August 22, 2016 – yes, he remembers the exact date – Sims reenrolled at Florida State.
Come Saturday, after two years of homework, tests and quizzes, he’ll walk across the stage at the Donald L. Tucker Center, shake hands with FSU President John Thrasher and officially accept his bachelor’s degree in social sciences.
“I wanted to make sure that I finished what I started,” Sims said. “And it wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you that. But I was determined.”
Armed with the same tenacity that made him a feared member of Mickey Andrews’ defense, Sims got a boost from FSU’s academic support staff, which in recent years has established a degree completion program aimed at helping former Seminoles complete their studies at a pace that suits their lifestyles.
Former football players Bobby Butler and Josue Matias have already taken advantage of the program, while several more are currently enrolled.
Sims met once a semester with Kacy King, FSU’s associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services, to chart his course and make any needed updates to his plan.
Otherwise, Sims completed his coursework almost exclusively online and found that the discipline that served him so well as a football player made it easy to conjure the self-control to succeed in an online classroom.
“He was just so on top of everything,” King said. “He was really focused and very excited about it and he followed that plan. He always did what he was supposed to do to follow through, and he got really good grades.”
Which is something that the Sims of 15 years ago might never have believed.
“It was funny,” King said with a smile, “because he was like, ‘You would not recognize me. I was not this person.’”
Sims’ commitment was more than just a flash in the pan. It took two years to complete his coursework, with many nights spent staying up late to complete an assignment after his wife and children had gone to sleep.
And Sims said he’d have never finished without the support of his wife, Brooke, who gave birth to their daughter, Savannah, while Sims was in the midst of his program.
“She allowed me to pursue this dream,” he said. “And she took care of the kids and held down the house and allowed me to take my time and get it done.
“I can’t thank her enough.”
The end of Sims’ career as a player came hard. So hard, he said, that for a time he didn’t want to see, hear or think about anything related to football.
But with his degree in hand, Sims has ventured back toward the gridiron as well.
He started by putting on a 7-on-7 program for local youth, which included tournaments, skills camps and college visits.
And he took a big next step earlier this year, when he joined coach Lane Kiffin’s staff at Florida Atlantic as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
Sims found that coaching allows him to combine his two passions – football and mentorship.
“It has been one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made,” he said. “It’s kind of like the best of both worlds. I get the opportunity to be back in the environment of what I’m used to, but it’s less strain on my body. It’s more mental.
“And on top of that, I get the opportunity to make a difference in the kids’ lives on a more direct basis. The kids, they have welcomed me with open arms.”
And between reps in the weight room, when Sims preaches the importance of earning a college degree to the members of the Owls’ football team, he can do it while knowing he first traveled that road for himself.
“Back then, I came to Florida State for what I believed was one reason,” Sims said, referring to his status on the Seminoles’ football team.
“But, at the end of the day, I came to get my education. I really took hold of it and committed myself to it and I got it done.”