TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In time, Dylan Simmons might turn out to be the latest in a long line of great Florida State baseball players.
Coach Mike Martin Jr. believes he will – so much so that he offered Simmons a scholarship back when Simmons was a ninth-grader – and a look at Simmons’ baseball background and physical abilities more than backs up that belief.
Simmons’ right arm suggests he’ll one day be a frontline starter, capable of throwing a mid-90s fastball along with a full complement of off-speed pitches.
And his 6-foot-3, 228-pound frame looks like it belongs in the heart of the batting lineup, which is exactly where Simmons was at Jacksonville Trinity Christian while building a resume as one of the nation’s top recruits.
“A kid that can smash it, he can throw it, he plays hard,” Martin Jr. said. “All of the above.”
For now, though, Simmons is simply happy to be a freshman at Florida State, in classes and among friends and teammates.
When he and the Seminoles start their 2020 season on Friday at home against Niagara (6 p.m., ACC Network Extra), it will have been exactly 260 days since Simmons first received the news that changed his life and threatened everything that he planned, trained and worked to achieve.
On May 31, 2019, a week after leading his high school team to the state semifinals, and just a few months before he was due to arrive at Florida State, Simmons learned that he had Stage I lymphoma – diagnosed after he discovered a golf ball-sized lump in his groin.
Watching him on the mound during a recent practice, Simmons shows virtually no signs of wear from the journey he’s traveled over the last eight months.
There was surgery to remove the lump. There was the painful bone biopsy that helped determine his diagnosis. And there were full courses of both chemotherapy and radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells.
All the while, Simmons kept training as if he were the picture of health, undeterred in his efforts to be healthy in time to enroll at FSU for the spring semester.
“I was like ‘alright, let’s go, let’s get it over with,’” Simmons said. “I just wanted to get on with my life. I didn’t actually know what all it entailed. But I just wanted to get it over with.”
“This, to him, was like a bump in the road,” said Dylan’s mother Tracey Simmons, a radiation dosimetrist who works with cancer patients in Jacksonville. “It was amazing to watch him. His dad and I are crying at night in bed, and he’s just like, ‘No big deal.’”
As he looks back on his ordeal with cancer, Simmons recognizes that it very easily could have been a much bigger deal.
What if he hadn’t noticed the lump in his groin, or if it had been in a less conspicuous place?
What if, as another teenager might have been, Simmons had been shy about the personal nature of the lump, and been too shy to share it with his parents?
After they found it, doctors told Simmons that his cancer was “very slow and very mild.”
But, in their next breath, “they said instantly it could’ve sparked up one day and started spreading,” Simmons remembered.
“I could’ve waited two months,” he added. “I could’ve been here at FSU and just not have told (my parents). I could’ve just passed out on the field. You never know.”
Simmons was fortunate, but that hardly means that he had it easy.
Upon diagnosis, he was met with a long, difficult treatment plan that would cost Simmons his strength, his energy and his hair.
He also had to make peace with the fact that his college plans, which had been set for nearly four years, were going to hit a detour.
And, maybe toughest of all, Simmons knew that he had to call Martin Jr. and tell him the news.
With his heart in his throat and his father by his side, Simmons dialed Martin Jr.’s number and put the call on speakerphone.
“Many things were rushing through my head,” Simmons said. “‘What if he doesn’t want me anymore? What if I need to go find a new place to play? Everyone’s out of scholarships. What am I going to do now? I might just have to take a year off.’”
Simmons’ fears were unfounded. Martin Jr. told him not to worry about anything, to take care of himself, and that the Seminoles had a place reserved for him in the locker room whenever he was ready.
“They were very supportive,” Tracey Simmons said of Martin Jr. and the FSU coaching staff. “He checked on him throughout the summer, throughout his chemo.”
With that weight off his shoulders, Simmons then devoted himself to his recovery and working toward his goal of being at Florida State in the spring.
Simmons had already decided that, despite what chemotherapy or radiation threw at him, he would persist with his summer conditioning regimen.
On his first day of chemotherapy, nurses installed the implanted port that would deliver Simmons’ intravenous medications. Virtually all patients have the port attached to their right collarbone, but Simmons asked that it be placed on his left – so as not to interfere with his throwing arm.
“They hardly ever do that,” Tracey Simmons said. “I was surprised they did it for him.”
Simmons said that his treatments weren’t as bad as he expected, although chemotherapy presented a few hurdles.
He said he could tell the toxins were working their way through his system and described the feeling as “kind of gross.”
“You just don’t feel yourself,” Simmons said.
Still, despite one bout of chemo-related sickness and a general feeling of being tired all the time, Simmons stayed on track on the baseball field.
“I was still able to do everything,” he said. “Run, lift, throw.”
And he was able to deliver regular updates to the baseball coach a few hours down the road in Tallahassee.
“He’s got no hair and he’s working out like a madman,” Martin Jr. said. “That chemo and radiation will beat you up. It shows you what he’s made of.”
Finally, on July 24, Simmons hit his first major milestone. He finished his final chemotherapy treatment and, as has been tradition at cancer centers and hospitals around the country, he rang a bell to celebrate the occasion.
— Scott Simmons (@scottsimmons19) July 24, 2019
One treatment down, one to go.
Simmons’ month-and-a-half of radiation were challenging, albeit in a different way.
Although the treatments were painless, Simmons still had to wake up and be at a hospital in downtown Jacksonville by 6 a.m. – every single morning.
He laid on a table – “super still,” he recalled – and waited as the machine traveled across the targeted areas.
Each time, as he made his way out and moved toward the rest of his day, Simmons heard the same thing from the hospital staffers:
“You’re on your way. See you tomorrow.”
Along the way, something happened that caught Simmons by surprise: The baseball community, whether at Florida State, in his hometown of Jacksonville or beyond, rallied around him.
The current Seminoles, already aware of Simmons’ journey, shared messages of support on Simmons’ social media pages.
Veteran Tyler Ahearn reached out, as did fellow incoming freshmen Brandon Walker, Caleb Cali and Tyrell Brewer, among others.
Before long, Simmons’ story had spread around the country, and he received even more encouragement from players and former teammates at Jacksonville University, Charleston Southern and even national champion Vanderbilt.
A little more than a month after hitting two home runs in the College World Series, Vanderbilt star Austin Martin, a former teammate of Simmons’ at Trinity Christian, responded to a tweet about Simmons by saying:
“If anyone knows this kid then they know that cancer doesn’t stand a chance.”
“They all said, ‘we have your back, can’t wait for you to get here in the spring,’” Simmons said. “The amount of community and people coming together, that really hope that I get through this and get here, that was one thing that actually really surprised me.”
“The whole baseball community just poured out to him,” Tracey Simmons added.
After soldiering through the entire summer and fall, Simmons still had one more hurdle to clear, and it was a big one – a positron emission tomography (PET) scan that would show if Simmons’ body had responded to the treatments and if there were any other remaining signs of cancer.
A clear scan would put Simmons back on track for a spring enrollment at Florida State and put all of the challenges of the last few months in the rear-view mirror.
Anything else would require a new course of action.
But on December 12, only 25 days before the start of Florida State’s spring semester, Simmons went in for the test and then got the best news of his life:
His cancer was gone.
“Everything was fine,” Simmons said.
His mom wasn’t quite so matter-of-fact in her reaction.
“You just cry,” she said, this time out of happiness.
Simmons will still have regular checkups for a while, with the next one coming in March.
But his latest scan results allowed Simmons to resume his goals both in the classroom and on the baseball field.
Which meant that that he had to call Martin Jr. again. This time under much better circumstances.
“He was super excited,” Simmons said. “I told him that I’m ready to go in the spring.
“He said, ‘All right, let’s get going. Let’s get you hitting and pitching when you’re able to, and let’s get you over to FSU.’”
Simmons finally made his way over to FSU in early January, fulfilling a dream he’s had for years.
There might never have been parents so happy to send their kid away to college.
“It’s deserved,” Tracey Simmons said. “He’s been working toward that. We’re super stoked that he’s there.”
Simmons estimates that his strength is “pretty much” back to normal and said that his velocity has been both good and consistent over the his first few weeks of practices at Florida State.
And if Simmons had any lingering nerves or rust upon his return to the diamond, he certainly didn’t show them.
“The first pitch out of his hand when he got here was 94 miles an hour,” Martin Jr. said. “I said, ‘Wow.’”
Simmons made a similar first impression at the plate.
“I told him the other day, you only hit the ball 104 miles an hour,” Ahearn joked. “‘I’m going to need to you to hit it 105 next time.’”
(The Major League record for exit velocity is 123.9 miles per hour.)
Simmons’ role for the 2020 Seminoles isn’t yet clear. But Martin Jr. is sure that he’ll have one.
He could serve as a midweek starter or bolster the Seminoles’ bullpen, and, no matter what he does on the mound, Martin Jr. said that Simmons will get plenty of at-bats, too.
Simmons could play in the field as well, although Martin Jr.’s plans for him on the pitcher’s mound could limit those opportunities.
Either way, Martin Jr. believes that Simmons’ role will only expand as he goes through his time at FSU.
“I really feel like he’ll be a captain of this program,” Martin Jr. “He’s a fine young man, he’s a great student. Nothing’s going to scare him.
“He’ll lead this program in the near future.”