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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2006
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Alabama linebacker and Austin High graduate Juwan Simpson will be playing his last football game for the Crimson Tide when his team takes on Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., today. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m.
AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis
Alabama linebacker and Austin High graduate Juwan Simpson will be playing his last football game for the Crimson Tide when his team takes on Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., today. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m.

Unfairly judged
Tide senior Simpson says
he found true friends this season

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com 340-2460

SHREVEPORT, La. — Last summer in the wake of his May 20 arrest and eventual guilty plea for marijuana possession and having a handgun without a permit, Juwan Simpson looked down at his bicep.

The Alabama linebacker and Austin High grad had just heard another radio caller and/or radio show host bash him for his poor decision and questionable character.

The soft-spoken, often-polite Simpson continued staring down at the powerful muscle and felt like he should do something to the clarity of the skin surrounding it.

He said he was tired of being judged by people who didn't know him. He was tired of hearing his name being dragged through the mud on the public airwaves. He realized that only one entity could understand him.

When Simpson came back for fall practice, he sported on that right bicep a tattoo that read, "Only God can judge me."

"A lot of people criticized me without knowing anything about me," the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Simpson said. "If you know me as a person, I feel like I'm a real good guy. It bothered me for a minute. I've never had any enemies. I tried to make as many friends as possible. When this happens, you realize who true friends are."

Those who know Simpson describe him as a solid individual.

When asked about Simpson, road roommate Terrence Jones immediately said, "That's my boy."

Several players on the team say that Simpson doesn't really have a best friend in the locker room, because he hangs around with everyone.

"He's just that kind of guy," said former Austin high school football coach Joe Gaddis, who coached Simpson with the Black Bears.

"It would be difficult to find someone who knew Juwan who didn't like him. He was a unique individual in that he was popular in every group he could be in."

And with the memories of what happened to Simpson last spring firmly behind him, the question remains, what kind of legacy will he leave on the field for The University of Alabama?

Today's Independence Bowl at 3:30 p.m. against Oklahoma State will mark the end of a tumultuous run for Simpson and the rest of the Tide's five-year seniors.

Four coaches in five years, a 4-9 season, a 6-6 year, a Cotton Bowl victory and a 10-2 season followed by a 6-6 campaign so far. No conference championships, no Bowl Championship Series games.

Is this the way he wanted it all to end up? Is his legacy secured with Alabama? Is the program in better shape than when he got there?

"I would much rather leave here with an SEC title or national championship," Simpson said. "The one thing that we leave behind is that we are hard workers. We lost tough games and people didn't give us a chance. I feel like the under classmen looked up to us."

According to Alabama's interim coach, Joe Kines, when Simpson first arrived at Alabama he was like a young deer. He could run fast forever.

A wide receiver in high school, Simpson would brag about how fast he was, but when the time came to become a linebacker he had to put on some pounds.

His ability to stop the run wasn't quite there at first but, according to Kines, it has improved. Simpson's ability to cover pass catchers — which is his calling card — enables the Tide to not have to use its nickel package often, leaving Simpson sometimes on wide receivers.

"He was always talking about how he was the fastest guy there," former Alabama linebacker and Houston Texans rookie DeMeco Ryans said. "But when it came time for him to step up and take the role of linebacker, he hit the weights a lot more."

Throughout Simpson's five years with the Tide, he never has gotten in trouble academically. He has never been late or missed anything team-related.

If Simpson's future works out as Kines sees it, former NBA player and Leeds native Charles Barkley may have an athletic counterpart running against him for the governorship in Alabama.

"I told him earlier in his career that he could be the governor of the state of Alabama if he wanted to," Kines said. "Except for that 15-minute block of time, he has handled everything extremely well."

Despite being slowed by a one-game suspension against Louisiana-Monroe, Simpson is second on the team with 73 tackles, one behind Jeffrey Dukes, who played the entire regular season 12-game slate for the team lead.

For his next step, he will head to Mobile for the Senior Bowl on Jan. 27. After that, he will participate in the NFL scouting combines, and then possibly a spot in pro football.

"To go through all the things he's gone through and to be second on the team in tackles says a lot," Jones said. "You kind of think about it now. From all the things he's done, people are going to have an opinion about him now. He's not worried about what other people think about him."

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