By Trey Williams
Speedy Sammy “Mammy” Simpson might have arrived before his time.
Strong-armed and mobile, the 5-foot-10 Simpson very well could’ve been a defensive coordinator’s nightmare in the modern-day run-pass option schemes that have offered smallish quarterbacks larger roles.
As it was, he became the first African-American to start at quarterback for Science Hill (class of ’74) and East Tennessee State.
Simpson led Snake Evans-coached Science Hill to a 21-15 win in the Stone Castle that stopped Tennessee High’s 28-game wins streak. He quarterbacked Roy Frazier’s final ETSU team to wins against Appalachian State and at Morehead State, the latter of which was quarterbacked by future Super Bowl champion Phil Simms.
Simpson also guarded Wake Forest 2,000-point scorer Skip Brown for two years while he was at Dobyns-Bennett – admittedly with mixed results – and helped Elvin Little’s Hilltoppers advance to the state basketball tournament semifinals in ’73.
“Mammy was probably the best natural athlete I’ve ever seen at Science Hill,” former ‘Toppers fullback Woody Underwood said four decades after their careers were completed. “Mammy carried us. … It was unreal.”
Many mention Gary Carter in the same breath as Steve Spurrier and Reed Hayes when talking about Science Hill’s all-time, all-around greats. Carter scored 1,199 points in three-plus seasons at Tennessee and was drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Clippers in 1981.
Carter also played baseball and football at Science Hill and fondly recalls watching Simpson quarterback the Hilltoppers in an exciting era when the elusive Condredge Holloway was breaking barriers while dodging others at Tennessee.
Carter would become Simpson’s successor at Science Hill and he wore the No. 14 jersey because Simpson had. He recalls Simpson, then at ETSU, working with him on throwing a football through a tire while Hilltoppers teammate and future NFL player Van Williams was there working out as well. (Simpson and Carter each won the longest throw competition at conference jamborees.)
“Mammy helped me a lot with playing quarterback at Science Hill,” Carter said. “I liked to watch him. Mammy had a strong, strong arm and he was really quick.”
Simpson ran for a touchdown in the 38-20 win against Appalachian State and was 6 of 9 for 117 yards and two TDs while helping defeat Simms’Eagles, 37-34.
Appalachian State had beaten ETSU three straight, including a 44-3 win the previous season when the Bucs were without Simpson.
However, Simpson’s career passed away prematurely. He initially left ETSU after his freshman season because, although he was returning kicks and punts, he didn’t feel he was being fully utilized.
He said his dad talked him into returning two years later, and he was playing quarterback. But that was the final year for Roy Frazier, and his successor, Jack Carlisle, didn’t want Simpson at quarterback.
Granted, Mark Hutsell was a good quarterback, but Simpson felt like he’d been demoted sight unseen.
“He didn’t even give me a shot at it,” said Simpson, who readily noted Hutsell being a good player. “Carlisle wanted me to play receiver.”
Simpson treasures the memories he did make at quarterback. The win at Tennessee High was as exciting as the win against Appalachian State. Along with having won 28 straight games, the Vikings were coming off a mythical national championship.
Greg Jones was their horse in ’73. After being a co-captain with Simpson for the East at the TSSAA All-Star game in Murfreesboro, Jones went on to play at Tennessee.
But Simpson threw touchdown passes to John Drakeford (135 yards rushing), Rick Bowers and Bryan Truitt while helping Science Hill build a 21-8 lead against Jones’ Vikings, and it withstood a late 1-yard TD run by Jones, his second score of the game.
“I passed for three touchdowns and I should’ve thrown another touchdown pass that game,” Simpson said. “I had Bryan Truitt wide open in the end zone on another one, and the ball slipped out of my hand. …
“Me and Jones were voted the captains for the All-Star game in Murfreesboro. He was good. He intercepted me (in the Tennessee High game). I was trying to throw one out of bounds.”
Simpson certainly impressed Bristol Herald-Courier sports editor Dave Sparks.
“Simpson, the slick quarterback who can run or throw with authority,” Sparks wrote, “did a little fancy running and a lot of fancy throwing.”
Simpson flashed his athleticism while making the TD pass that proved to seal it.
“Simpson,” Sparks wrote, “throwing under pressure (a Viking had him by the jersey when he scrambled free), fired a 5-yard scoring pass to Truitt on 4th-and-1 and the ’Toppers were on top by 21-8.”
Sports’ toughest moment for Simpson came in a last-minute semifinal loss to Gallatin in the state basketball tournament. With the score tied coming out of a timeout, his late inbounds pass was intercepted and led to the game-winning basket.
“I threw the ball away at the end of the game,” he said. “It was (Simpson’s most heartbreaking loss). We would’ve been playing D-B in the state championship. … It liked to have killed me.”
Science Hill had won two games that season against Dobyns-Bennett, which had an elite senior in Skip Brown. He was named the MVP despite D-B losing to Gallatin in the final.
The late Little often blamed himself for that game, during which Science Hill blew a late double-digit lead.
“That was my fault against Gallatin,” Little said. “I should’ve had a taller kid inbound the ball. Mammy did a lot of good things to help us win a lot of ballgames. He always competed so hard. …
“Mammy was one of the quickest guards we ever had. He handled the ball well, was a good teammate and very unselfish. Mammy was a really good defensive player, probably as quick as any player I ever coached.”
Simpson’s brother Gordon had made a game-winning shot against Dobyns-Bennett in one of the Hilltoppers’ wins against D-B that season.
Gordon is a year older than Sammy, who says Gordon was probably a superior athlete. He notes Gordon’s touchdown runs for Science Hill (he started at running back) and how he led the conference in hitting for Science Hill’s baseball team. Sammy too played baseball at Science Hill, albeit briefly.
Sammy and Gordon also had twin brothers, Sherman and Vernon, who were a year older than Gordon. All four were on Science Hill’s varsity football team in ’71.
Much like everyone from Jovann Johnson and Steve Spurrier to Nick Crowe and Jaylan Adams, Sammy Simpson said being the little brother toughened him up.
The family genetics are still shining brightly. Simpson’s sister Mary Greenlee’s grandson, B.J. Edwards, signed to play basketball at Tennessee last week. Edwards’ Knox Catholic will play at Providence Academy on Friday and in the Arby’s Classic next month. Simpson will watch every game.
“B.J.’s a ballplayer,” Simpson said. “Man, I used to shoot H-O-R-S-E with him when I was out at Mary’s (Simpson’s sister) in the driveway. He was hard to beat when he wasn’t but about seven years old.”
And Simpson was hard to stop at Science Hill. He said offensive coordinator Keith Lyle was the one that decided to convert him from receiver to quarterback in high school. Out of the blue, Lyle began practicing the veer offense with Simpson one winter day.
“In that option, you get hit every play,” Simpson said. “But I loved it. They couldn’t stop me. I had a lot of fun at Science Hill.”