The waitress at the Locke Street restaurant overhears a snippet of conversation and turns to Brian Simmons, his 6-foot-5, 310 pound framed squeezed into the brown faux-leather booth.
“You play for the Ticats?” she asks brightly, the team’s flag hanging from the bar behind her.
“I used to,” he says. “Man, it’s so weird saying that.”
For four-plus seasons, Simmons was a staple on the offensive line in Hamilton, first at left tackle, then as an all-star guard in 2014. But this season, after being asked to switch positions yet again – this time to right tackle – Simmons suffered a concussion in training camp and, by his own admission, played poorly in a Week 1 loss to Calgary.
He was quickly demoted to the scout team and ultimately traded to the Edmonton Eskimos in September for a conditional seventh round draft pick. He had less than 24 hours to organize his life and report to the Alberta capital. Leaving his friends and teammates was difficult but so was departing the only CFL team and city he’d ever known, a place he’d lived year-round since 2013.
“Hamilton feels like home now,” Simmons says. “I didn’t realize that until I got traded.”
The Eskimos would go on to win the Grey Cup but Simmons never saw the field, a healthy scratch for the last 10 games of the season, including playoffs. He received his full salary and will get a championship ring but acknowledges that not playing was difficult.
“This season was hard. I still made a living but my old college coach used to say ‘don’t be an eater and [pooper], someone who just takes up space.’ And that’s what I felt like,” he says.
The Eskimos offered him a contract extension but that was before head coach Chris Jones and most of his staff decamped for Saskatchewan. He fully expects to be available when free agency begins next Tuesday at noon.
But instead of going back to his native North Carolina this winter, Simmons has once again returned to Hamilton, living in his old place and training with some of his old teammates, guys like Mike Filer, Courtney Stephen and Andy Fantuz. Part of it is economics – the exchange rate is hurting American players – but it’s mostly because Hamilton has become his home.
“I feel safer here. When I go back to the U.S. I always have to give a glance over my shoulder,” Simmons says. “I’m not saying that you don’t have racism in this country but I don’t feel like a black man here. I just feel like a man.”
The waitress seems mildly disappointed that Simmons isn’t a member of the Ticats anymore but is instantly sympathetic when she hears he finished up the season as an Eskimo.
“I’m originally from Edmonton. It’s OK,” she says. “I like it here better.”
Simmons just laughs.