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The student teacher

Chris Simms had waited all his life to play in his first NFL game. Two days later, the strong-armed lefty was back on the practice field throwing darts at young receivers.

Really young.

The Knights of Robinson High.

"I just thought I'd come out here and give a little back to the community and see what's going on with high school football," said Simms, who visited the South Tampa school Tuesday as part of the Play It Smart program. "It's fun."

Simms, 24, was just another backup quarterback when he agreed several days earlier to talk to the Robinson junior varsity about the importance of balancing athletics and academics. By the time he stood up at the team's one-hour study hall, he had made his NFL debut.

He'd thrown deep.

He'd been sacked.

He'd thrilled fans.

He'd fumbled a snap.

When the horn sounded, he'd lost.

It could be argued that Simms had better things to do Tuesday afternoon than field questions from 13- and 14-year-olds. He could have studied film. Could have broken down every play from the 10-6 loss to Seattle. Could have prepared for tonight's game at Oakland, where he again will be the backup to starter Brad Johnson.

Simms could have focused on himself. He chose to make a difference in someone else's life.

"I know what you're thinking," Simms told about 25 blank-face teenagers. "It's the same bullc_-: "Do your homework.' You may not want to hear it, but it's the truth. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for these hour study halls. To be good at anything, you have to put your time in."

Silence.

"So, are you guys any good, or what?" he asked.

The answer came back: 0-2.

"Just like the Bucs," he said.

Eventually, he broke the ice. And broke through to a roomful of teenagers, many of whom, according to Play It Smart academic coach Kent Wilson, come from single-parent families and are on a free or reduced-price lunch program. The questions for Simms came slowly at first, then more and more hands were raised.

Simms, not that far removed from his own high school days in New Jersey, treated his audience as equals. This was no lecture, it was an exchange. Simms handled every query with a mixture of adult responsibility and NFL-player street cred.

After 20 minutes, the session ended with Simms autographing articles of clothing, book bags and pieces of lined white paper torn from spiral binders. At 6 feet 4, he stood nearly a foot taller than everyone crowded around the table.

But Simms, too, is still a student.

His latest lessons were learned in front of more than 60,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium, not to mention a regional television audience. Forget red pen, his performance was graded on ESPN.

"That's one of the hardest things to learn in sports, right there, dealing with failure. You don't envision it happening to you," said Simms, the son of former NFL quarterback Phil Simms. "When I thought about playing in this last game, all my thoughts were good thoughts: "I'm going to throw a touchdown. We're going to win the game.'

"You just have to be able to go with the flow, stay even keel and expect a lot of good things to happen to you. And when the bad things happen, keep your head up and go from there."

Simms could have hopped in his black Mercedes and left Robinson High. Instead, he went out for the start of varsity practice, which he joined to throw a few deep passes to eager but overmatched receivers. If only all academic messages came with 60-yard spirals.

"No sprints," he said, smiling. "It's my day off."

ON THE RECEIVING END FOR A CHANGE

Here is a sampling of questions JV football players at Robinson High asked Bucs quarterback Chris Simms:

When did you make varsity in high school?

I started as a freshman. The coach felt I was ready to go. I lost some games for my high school my freshman year because I was a freshman and I messed it up. But, what, Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team. You just have to keep working hard.

How far can you throw it?

The last time I threw it as far as I can, I threw it 74 yards.

Is it hard playing for Jon Gruden?

It's hard. You have to study. I had 139 pass plays I had to know last week, plus runs. I'm in the NFL and I'm doing homework. You have to be smart to play anything in life.

Do you feel pressure?

There's always pressure. Last year, when I was a rookie, I couldn't even get in the huddle and spit out some of those long plays. Keyshawn Johnson is in there saying, "Come on, man, spit it out."

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