Antonio Simmons looking to make CFL comeback after overcoming depression

Photo: AP/Larry MacDougal

Antonio Simmons is eyeing a return to the CFL after sitting out the 2023 season to take care of his mental health.

The 28-year-old defensive end had a promising rookie year with the Montreal Alouettes in 2019, recording 45 defensive tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble. Instead of focusing solely on re-establishing his place in the starting lineup when he reported for training camp in 2021, he found himself fighting an intense battle off the field.

“That’s when everything just went downhill for me. I got halfway through the season and I’m having mental breakdowns, I’m spazzing, I’m going through it. At the time, I didn’t know how to handle it or control my anxiety,” Simmons told 3DownNation on Tuesday.

“It lasted a whole year. I couldn’t get out of it, I couldn’t shake it, I couldn’t do nothing. I didn’t have no motivation. I was just angry, I was just moody, it was just killing me. It made me be somebody I’m not. I’m not an angry person. I’m a great teammate, a great person to be around. I’m funny. I like to have fun all the time, I’m goofy, but during that time I just wasn’t myself.”

Simmons experienced a brief depressive episode during college but this was a far greater challenge. The only person in Montreal who knew about Simmons’ depression was head coach Khari Jones, who helped get him into therapy. Things changed, however, when he was traded to the Edmonton Elks in exchange for Trevor Harris, a move that came just over a week before the trade deadline.

Though he enjoyed working with position coach Demetrious Maxie, Simmons didn’t last long in Edmonton as he was released during training camp. He subsequently had brief stints in Montreal and Ottawa, though both clubs cut him after appearing in only five regular season games. Winnipeg and Toronto expressed interest in signing him following his release from the Redblacks, though he’d already decided to return home to focus on his mental health.

The native of Jacksonville, Fla. continued seeing a therapist over the past year, which he felt was key to his recovery. He plans to keep doing therapy if he returns to the CFL in 2024 and hopes his new team will help him find a local therapist. Facetime is convenient but Simmons believes it’s not as effective as speaking with someone face-to-face.

“Not holding stuff in, letting it out, talking about things, talking about how I feel, facing stuff that was causing my depression and facing it head on. Just doing stuff the right way to get my mental stage back and I feel like it made me a better man, it made me a better football player because football is more mental than physical,” said Simmons.

“I’m 100 percent back to my old self. I’m the best football player I’ll ever be right now and in years to come, I want to keep getting better and better. … Taking a year off was the best thing I did to focus on my mental health because I feel like if I kept pushing it off and not handling it, it would have just got worse and worse.”

The six-foot-three, 246-pound defender indicated that the Blue Bombers have recently shown interest in signing him this as they look to replace Jackson Jeffcoat, who recently announced his retirement following six seasons in the CFL. Regardless of where he ends up, Simmons remains confident in his ability to rush the passer at a high level.

“The teams that don’t sign me are gonna regret it,” he said. “The team I go to is going to be grateful that they signed me. The other eight teams are going to regret it, I promise you. I have a motor like no other. I always played hard, I always had a motor but I’m on a whole other level than I was before.”

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.