Former USC standout Ko Simpson is no stranger when it comes to playing catch-up.
He is at it again after sustaining a season-ending injury in the Buffalo Bills’ 2007 season-opener against Denver. He broke his fibula and tore ligaments in his ankle on what would be his first and only tackle of the season.
Simpson was taken to the locker room, examined by the Bills' doctor and sent to a hospital for surgery the next day.
"It was very tough," Simpson said. "I don't wish that on anybody. I went in thinking I'd do big things, and it was taken away.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"After my surgery, I started rehab two weeks later. I sat in the booth at a couple of games but spent most of my time getting my ankle back to 100 percent. I'm still not quite there."
All Simpson ever has asked for is a chance, but he has had to prove himself at every level.
"I wish somebody would give me an answer why,” he said. “I'm not trying to be arrogant, but I know I'm good, and everywhere I go, I have to prove it.”
It started at Rock Hill High. As a senior, he helped lead the Bearcats to the 2002 Class 4A Division I championship, a dominating 19-0 victory against Irmo. The star of the team was Jonathan Hefney, one of Simpson's best friends.
Hefney signed with Tennessee and became a starter in the secondary. Simpson signed with South Carolina but was told he couldn't come to school until the second semester because coach Lou Holtz had over-recruited and there wasn't a scholarship available.
And that offer came only because of former Bearcats coach Jim Ringer, who convinced the Gamecocks' coaching staff to give Simpson a chance.
"Nobody was really interested in him," said Ringer, who retired in the summer of 2005 and lives in Seabrook Island. "Ko was an afterthought because everyone was interested in Jonathan. After (Tennessee coach) Phil Fulmer came to visit with Jonathan, his mom called and said South Carolina was not recruiting him.”
Ringer called USC assistant coach Skip Holtz to ask if the team still was recruiting Simpson. He was told if one of the players the Gamecocks had signed was not eligible, they would sign Simpson. If not, they would sign him in January and bring him in, which they did.
Simpson was despondent about sitting out but made the most of the situation. He also proved that Holtz and his staff should have thought a little harder about their decision.
During spring practice, Simpson was an instant hit and was named a starter at safety after the coaches saw his athletic ability and knack for being around the football.
Simpson started every game at USC (23) in his two seasons and produced 164 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 15 pass deflections, five fumble recoveries — two returned for touchdowns — and 110 yards on seven interception returns. He earned several All-America and All-SEC honors.
After two seasons, Simpson decided to enter the NFL draft and again had to play catch-up. He assumed, after talking to several NFL teams, that he would be taken in the first two rounds. The first day ended after three rounds and Simpson's name had not been called.
Finally, the Bills selected Simpson in the fourth round with the 105th overall pick. The first words out of his mouth were, "Isn't it cold up there?"
When Simpson arrived in Buffalo for summer workouts, he faced the same situation he did in his first spring practice at USC. As the Gamecocks' coaches did, the Bills' defensive staff saw they had pulled off a steal in the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Simpson, and he quickly won a starting job at safety.
"Ko is a very good football player," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "It was sad to see him get injured in our first game, but he has worked hard and has come along better than we expected. This spring, he came back a better player and is still a starter.
"He's proved to us he wants to win and that he belongs. We watched films of Ko in college and saw him as a ferocious tackler; (he) would run through offensive players. We need to get him back to that style."
Simpson finished his rookie season with 92 tackles (fifth on the team), two interceptions, five passes defended, one sack and one forced fumble.
He will return to Buffalo at the end of July for training camp.
"I know what I have to do going in and step up and take the challenge,” he said “I'm going in as the starter, but there are no guarantees in this league. You have to earn it, and I've been doing that since I started playing football."
This is an important season for Simpson. It's his third year and he will be re-negotiating his contract, looking for more money and job security.
Simpson has spent the money he has earned wisely. He splurged a little, buying his mom, Eva, a new house and each of them a new car.
And he has incentive to play hard. He and his longtime girlfriend, Natasha Brice, have a 10-month old son, Yukota Simpson Jr. Simpson has been spending as much time as possible with his family in the offseason and still calls Rock Hill home.
Simpson works out daily. He knows once training camp begins, he will be challenged again.
"This past offseason, the coaches told me they were surprised how far I came from my injury," he said. "I worked hard and did my rehab. My coaches want me to step in and help the team right away. That's what I plan to do."