Omasha Brantley remembers the 400-meter dash and how Willie Simmons III really did not, under any circumstances, want to run it.
In the end, Simmons would run two.
This was in 2017, when Brantley told Simmons he needed to get stronger. He needed endurance, too. Brantley was an assistant track and field coach at Elgin High School as well as an assistant football coach. Simmons, then a freshman, played both.
“This is one of the hardest races,” Brantley told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. “One time around the track, give it all you can. He fought us every day: ‘Man, I’m not running the 400. I don’t want to run it.’ But the day of our district track meet, I told him we needed him. It was the 400 open and the 4×400 relay. Our boys team wound up winning district that day and when I tell you that this guy ran the races of his life, I mean it.”
Brantley also remembers how Simmons tracked him down after the meet, found him, and — draped in sweat — hugged him. Simmons thanked him.
“Running that 400 is not easy, man, but to see him so happy after we won that race and to see him so appreciative after something he fought us on, it just gave me joy just like no other,” Brantley said. “I just can’t believe it. It’s unreal to think that he’s gone and that they take some of the best from us.”
Simmons was one of two students identified as victims in an Austin, Texas shooting Sunday that left three people dead. The other student was Alyssa Broderick, a former Elgin High School student who left the district, but played girls basketball while she was at the school.
Brantley, who is now a coach at LBJ Early College High School in Austin, also coached Broderick as part of his duties as assistant girls basketball coach while he was at Elgin.
“She was what I would call a program changer,” Brantley said. “We weren’t very good my first year. But our head coach told me after the season that we would be getting a really special eighth grader coming up to play for us. She got on campus for our summer workout and started shooting around the gym. She was lighting it up and I was thinking ‘We might be all right.’
“She just had a great spirit. The girls rallied behind her. She had that infectious joy. She’d be dancing in the locker room, laughing, smiling.”
In a statement, Elgin ISD superintendent Dr. Jodi Duron said Broderick was a student in the Elgin ISD system from 2009 until October 2020 and that “she was an excellent student and athlete, enrolled in our Early College High School program.”
In connection with the shooting, Stephen Nicholas Broderick, 41, was arrested in nearby Manor after authorities received two 911 calls around 7:30 a.m. about a man walking along the road. Manor Police Chief Ryan Phipps, who released a video of the arrest, said Broderick had a pistol in his waistband when apprehended but offered no resistance.
Interim Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon described Sunday’s shooting as “domestic violence.” Chacon said the shootings were not random, that Stephen Broderick knew the victims.
Brantley spoke to USA TODAY Sports as he was at Elgin High School.
He drove over to show his support and help a community that he knew would be grieving. Brantley described the scene as “a really dark time right now.” At the flag in front of the school, 30 or so gathered to share stories of Simmons and Alyssa Broderick. Brantley signed a football and placed it at the base of the pole. Others brought flowers, helmets, posters, pictures.
“This community really needs some healing and support and love. The days are darker with COVID and virtual school — there’s enough stress — but added on that, to have this is just really hard. These kids, the community and the staff, they all just need love right now and praying for healing.”
Simmons was always by his friends’ side, Brantley said. It was common to drive around Elgin, a small town about 45 minutes east of Austin, and see Simmons at the Sonic fast food restaurant or at Southside Market & Barbeque with those friends.
Simmons played receiver during his first years at Elgin and eventually moved to outside linebacker. He was a senior set to play next fall as a linebacker for the University of North Texas after he signed with the Mean Green during the early signing period in December.
“Willie Simmons was exactly the kind of young man that every college coach wants to recruit,” Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell said Monday in a tweet. “His athletic talent was obvious, but his personal character, his selfless attitude and his passion for life made him a natural leader and the perfect teammate.
“We are deeply saddened by his loss and we pray for peace and comfort for his family, friends and the Elgin community. He will forever be a member of our Mean Green football family.”
Of Simmons, Duron said in her statement that he “was an exceptional young man and leader among his peers … a friend to everyone he met” and that he “represented the very best of Elgin ISD.”
Duron declined an interview for this story, saying in an email that the ISD wanted “to direct our attention to assisting and supporting students, staff, and the EISD community in this moment of grief.”
The school district will make counselors and advisors available to students, staff and families as the community mourns the loss.
“I’m not even exaggerating,” Brantley said, “these were two of the most perfect, beautiful souls you could encounter.”
Contributing: Ryan Autullo, Tony Plohetski and John Bacon