Meet The Penn State Class of ’16 (Lions’) Den Mother

Four-star defensive end Shane Simmons' mom, Jen, has become a central figure in Penn State's recruiting class through her always upbeat approach to the recruiting process and the university in general.

Shane Simmons will be among those entering a brave, new world Wednesday. But his mom, Jen, continues to occupy familiar territory.

Simmons, a defensive end from DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) widely regarded as the top player from his state, will fax in his letter of intent to Penn State on National Signing Day, the culmination of a process that saw him make a verbal commitment to the Nittany Lions some 18 months ago.

“I think it’s going to be a whirlwind of everything for us, emotionally, on Wednesday,” Jen said Monday afternoon, referring to herself and her husband, Walter.

She herself has been something of a whirlwind throughout her son’s recruitment, to the point that she has become the de facto den mother of the entire class. Brian Menet, whose son Michal, an offensive tackle from Exeter (Pa.) High School, is part of this haul, believes Jen has earned her status by “the way she interacts with the kids, with the parents, coordinating things and talking.”

In short, Menet said, “She definitely has that motherly love part about it.”

https://twitter.com/JenGroveSimmons/status/688452295701479430

Her online presence is no less pervasive. On Monday she retweeted news of the commitments of Dae’lun Darien and Hunter Kelly (the latter as a preferred walk-on), as well as that of Nigel Knott to Alabama, since Knott had been one of many to join her son at The Opening, a talent showcase in Oregon last summer.

In recent days she has also made note of the success of Penn State products Allen Robinson, Sean Lee, NaVorro Bowman and Tamba Hali at the Pro Bowl; mentioned a DeMatha basketball victory; responded to a tweet by PSU defensive line coach Sean Spencer (“There is no other coach we would want Shane to play for but you!!!”) and even given best wishes to defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour, who decommitted from the Lions in favor of Michigan.

“You couldn’t have a better representative, as far as rapport and handling themselves,” Brian Menet said. “It’s not like she’s out tweeting, ‘I hate Pitt.’ … She always takes the high road in all that stuff.”

Such involvement is, again, nothing new for her. She was “the team mom for every football team” Shane ever played on growing up, as she put it. And when he reached DeMatha she served as the president of the football parents’ organization.

No reason to change now.

“I think,” she said, “it’s just kind of my MO.”

Her reasoning is simple.

“Shane’s my everything,” she said.

She has similarly high regard for his classmates, calling them “great young men” and saying that it is “just wonderful to have the opportunity to support them and be excited for them.”

Shane is the only child born to Jen, who works in business transformation for Verizon, and Walter, director of training and development for corporate security at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. The younger Simmons was something of a prodigy, having been schooled in the finer points of his position beginning in 2011 by former Penn State and NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington — face to face when Arrington lived in Annapolis, then long distance after he moved to Los Angeles in 2014, upon taking a job with the NFL Network.

“LaVar is really a mentor to Shane in so many ways,” Jen said, “and a great friend to Walt and I.”

Before Shane even began high school he was attracting scholarship offers, and when he was considering which colleges to visit after his sophomore year at DeMatha he asked Jen and Walter for their input. They encouraged him to give Penn State a look, since they had been impressed by coach James Franklin when they met him on a trip to Vanderbilt a year earlier.

The Simmonses didn’t believe Vandy was a good fit for their son, but felt differently about Franklin’s new outpost.

“Shane was leaning toward Florida State,” Jen said. “… At that point in time, to be quite honest, there was still a bit of the stigma with everything that had happened at Penn State, and Shane was kind of reluctant.”

They finally convinced him to visit State College, in June 2014, and he was immediately smitten. Jen recalls Franklin and his staff meeting them at the door of the Lasch Building, and the warm reception the veteran players and players then being recruited (like Ayron Monroe and Jonathan Holland) gave her son — the older guys while working a camp.

It was while the family was in the Beaver Stadium souvenir shop that Shane sidled up to his mom. And, Jen said, he “leans over and put his arms around me and put his head on my shoulder and he was like, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you before. I love it here, and this is where I want to come to school.’ ”

At that point she and her husband flipped the script and assumed the role of devil’s advocates.

“To be quite frank, I didn’t want him to (commit so early),” Jen said. “I wanted him to commit at the Under Armour game his senior year, if he got picked to do that, and commit on national television. It was Shane that had to talk Walt and I into it. His reasons were he knew Penn State was it, and he knew that day, so we made him go about six weeks with every day, talking to us about why.”

On July 30, 2014, Shane announced for Penn State, having told his parents that he wanted to help in the recruitment of his classmates (as did another early commit, running back Miles Sanders). There were times, Jen said, when players who were undecided would call Shane and he would retire to his room. It was there that he would make his pitch.

“He wanted to set the class that he wanted,” Jen said. “He wanted to find guys that he wanted to play with.”

She was well aware of the bona fides of all the guys on the other end of the line. As Menet said, she is “way into the recruiting. … Early on, she knew who Penn State was after, where they were from, what position they played, were they a four-star or five-star, who else in the class is getting recruited at that position. … She’s got it all together. She sees the picture clearly on all this stuff.”

Just as she sees the benefit of social media, which she called “awesome.”

“A lot of times people use it to be negative, so I just want to use social media to be positive,” she said. “These kids are under a lot of stress. It’s hard to be recruited. It’s not the glitz and glamour everybody thinks it is. … I just try to be a positive voice, to reinforce them and just help keep them positive, too.”

https://twitter.com/JenGroveSimmons/status/672262548486561794

The reception Franklin and assistant coaches Charles Huff and Sean Spencer received on a visit to the Simmons’ Russett, Md., home early in December 2015 would certainly be regarded as such. As they entered the place they were greeted by a gauntlet of friends and family members waving blue-and-white pompoms — Shane’s idea, in response to the warm welcome the PSU coaches had given him (though Jen bought the accoutrements).

A month later, on Jan. 2, he did in fact play in the Under Armour Game in Orlando, where one of his coaches was Arrington. The two of them had stayed in touch since Arrington moved to the West Coast, but it was the first time Simmons had worked out in pads with the older man. And during the game — a game in which Simmons had three tackles, one for a loss — Arrington was constantly giving him pointers, Jen said.

While Shane repeatedly visited Penn State after verbally committing, his official visit didn’t come until the weekend of Jan. 22-24, when several other commits were also on hand. Also several parents, giving Walter and Jen an opportunity to touch base (an opportunity extended by a day when a snowstorm prevented some of them from getting on the road Sunday).

Shane’s official college acceptance came Jan. 29 — “a big cry day for me,” Jen said.

Wednesday figures to be another one.

“It’s like your wedding day,” Jen said. “I think it’s been an engagement up to this point, but this is finally (the day) you put your name on the dotted line.”

Adding a den mother is just part of the deal.


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