Work hard. Stay away from parties. Do what's right. Don't do what I did. Something good will turn out. You are going to have a great football season, son. I'm so proud of you.
Every few weeks, Antonio Simmons calls his son, Antjuan, who is the new starting linebacker at Michigan State. Antonio gets 300 minutes to use every month to call family and friends.
I'm going to see every game, son. I'll be watching on TV.
They are typical father-son conversations in every way, full of encouragement and advice, except for one thing — Antonio is calling from prison.
“He is so much better than me, as a person, as a man, as an athlete,” Antonio tells the Free Press in a telephone call from Ashland Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security prison in Kentucky. "I’m just very, very proud of him.”
Antonio has spent the past seven years in the federal prison system after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute drugs. He was caught in a far-reaching DEA investigation that stretched from Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel to the infamous courier, then 90-year-old Leo Sharp, who inspired the movie "The Mule," starring Clint Eastwood. The organization pumped millions of dollars' worth of drugs into Detroit from 2008 to 2011.
Antonio, dubbed by prosecutors as one of the biggest drug dealers in Detroit, was guilty not only of a crime but of altering the lives around him. His incarceration was the defining moment of Antjuan's childhood, drastically shifting the way he has been raised. And it might just explain why he has a fearsome attitude on the football field — as if he can't waste a single second. Because time means everything. Doing time. Wasting time.
“Don’t follow in my footsteps because this is where you will end up," Antonio says. "I try to make sure I talk to him about the hangin’ out on the weekends. The parties. What he needs to stay away from. The pitfalls I see other kids get into. … He has too much to lose to mess it up on something like that.”
By all accounts, Antjuan has learned from his father’s mistakes, proving the sins of a father do not automatically transfer to a child like a scarlet letter passed down from generation to generation. As if to underscore that point, Antjuan, a junior, is majoring in human development and family studies and dreams of making a difference in society, hoping to work with the most vulnerable. “I want to work with kids,” he says. “I want to teach them to be strong and to be resilient.”