‘Hoos Making a Difference’ honors Mikell Simpson, Thomas Jones and Zac Yarbrough today

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Mikell Simpson

It started out as one of the greatest days of Mikell Simpson’s life, and quickly turned into a nightmarish hell that could have cost him his life.

Simpson, who provided some glorious moments for Virginia football fans in 2007 and 2008 as a multi-purpose back in Al Groh’s offense, went on to sign a contract with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. It was a moment he had always dreamed of growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., and later as a Virginia Cavalier.

Later the very same day, Cincinnati team doctors discovered that Simpson had spinal stenosis and bone spurs. He was forced to retire his football dreams that night.

He was understandably crushed.

“So I went on to a very depressed suicidal state,” Simpson said in an interview on Friday.

Simpson was lost. Sports, particularly football, had been his life. The NFL, he thought, would fulfill his life.

“It’s tough, especially when it’s unexpected like that,” Simpson said of that life-changing moment. “You don’t really have a second option as a backup plan in mind. I didn’t imagine the NFL door was going to close that unexpectedly, and then just trying to figure out a way to find something that I was passionate about.”

Simpson, who will be honored during today’s Virginia-Miami game by the UVA Football Alumni Club and the school’s athletic department in the “Hoos Making a Difference” program, saw his life turn around with the birth of his daughter. He called it his own rebirth.

He went on to become the founder of Capital Rebirth, a 501c(3) organization in Harrisburg, a group that is committed to uplifting and unifying Central Pennsylvania by providing community-oriented events and programs with a particular focus on youth. It is big on stopping bullying and giving kids hope.

“We host a variety of community events in programming with a long-term goal to open a facility to house programming,” Simpson said. “We do a flag football league that’s coed. We had 183 kids participate. We’re focused on our anti-bullying superhero day, when we have as many as 16 superheroes show up for the kids.

“We usually have as many as 25 vendors show up, vendors that deal with mental health and different programs so that parents can connect. So it’s not just having fun, but also an event that you can attend and kind of figure out those answers to the issues their kids are having.”

Wahoo fans will easily remember two specific moments in Simpson’s UVA career. The first came in 2007 when Groh moved Simpson from wide receiver back to his original running-back spot for the Maryland game at College Park.

Simpson put up 271 all-purpose yards that evening, 119 rushing and 152 receiving. He scored two rushing touchdowns, including the winning score after he had 14 touches on Virginia’s 15-play, 90-yard drive. It is still the sixth-most all-purpose yards in a single game in Cavalier history.

In the 2008 Gator Bowl, Simpson burst loose on a 96-yard run against Texas Tech, which was the longest run from scrimmage by a running back in NCAA bowl history, a record believed to still stand. Simpson had 170 yards rushing in that heartbreaking loss. He was named Co-MVP of the game along with Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell.

“I remember that Maryland game as the first time I actually got significant playing time,” Simpson said. “The atmosphere was bananas that night. I just went out there and played carefree. I remember the great offensive line. I think several of those guys went on to play in the NFL.”

Simpson said today’s honor means the world to him.

“To be recognized by the university, especially for something that’s not related to football, is awesome,” Simpson said. “It’s not like I’m in UVA’s back yard, yet the university is still paying attention to what I’m doing. To go to the lengths of recognizing me is tremendous.”

The Virginia Football Alumni Club honors former players or others that have made contributions to the program, not necessarily for their deeds on the gridiron, but off the field with their careers, their contributions to society. Thus, “Hoos Making a Difference.”

Thomas Jones wasn’t only a standout running back for UVA and in the NFL, but has made an impact in the entertainment industry as an actor, writer and producer. He recently produced an 8-part documentary on NFL players after their careers end, and how they’ve coped with the change.

Zac Yarbrough has been fighting breast cancer, and it is quite fitting that he will be honored today (notice the pink breast cancer symbol painted on the Scott Stadium field today).

As for Simpson, he noted that not only does UVA’s Football Alumni keep up with his deeds, but so does Groh, who makes it a point to stay in touch with his former players.

“He’s very unique in that way,” Simpson said of Groh. “I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He follows my organization, my daughter. It means a lot that he stays connected. He was a very pivotal person in my life.”