Antonio Simpson has grown into a leader on both sides of the line of scrimmage this season for Polk County

Antonio Simpson had a point to make.

In the waning minutes of Polk County’s early-season matchup with Tuscola, a fumble gave the Mountaineers possession of the ball deep in Wolverine territory with a lead and time ticking away. Polk’s valiant effort to upend the Mountaineers seemed over despite some time remaining.

Except, it wasn’t. Simpson stepped into the Polk County huddle and barked at his teammates, urging them to keep fighting, to keep playing hard, to give the offense one more chance at a game-winning drive.

A few plays later, Simpson blocked a Tuscola field goal attempt. Polk had that last opportunity.

The Wolverines didn’t win, but Simpson wasn’t done. After coaches finished with their postgame speech near midfield, Simpson delivered another one, stepping in front of the entire team with fiery words about the importance of continuing to practice and play hard.

One thing stood very clear as a weary Polk County squad trudged that night off W.J. Miller Field – perhaps the top wide receiver in Polk County football history had also become the 2023 team’s unquestioned leader.

Through this season’s five five games, Antonio Simpson has often been the best player on the field.

Offensively, he leads Polk County in receptions (22), receiving yards (421) and receiving touchdowns (five). Defensively, he leads the team in tackles (37) and tackles for loss (18). He has forced a fumble, returned an interception, blocked a field goal.

Teams point at Simpson as he enters and exits the field. “Hey, there goes 1 (Simpson). We can change,” a Patton defender shouted last week during the Wolverines’ 57-12 victory as Simpson headed for the bench.

“When he’s not on the field, you know it,” said Polk County head coach Dustin Fry. “He’s the heartbeat of the team.”

More importantly for Polk County, Simpson has often been one of the better people between the lines this season. He has displayed a maturity that is intentional, a goal for the senior as he entered his final season in blue and white.

“Last year I was really, I can’t say that bad of a person, but I let my emotions show more,” Simpson said. “This year I haven’t shown as much, which is a great thing.

“My attitude toward the game and determination toward the game has changed. I had to take up a new role of being the person for the team to look up to, instead of me looking up at Angus and Casey (Weaver and Beiler, seniors last season). Those are big shoes to fill, but I think I’m filling them pretty well right now.”

Fry, who spent his first season with Polk County’s program a year ago, has also noticed the change in his go-to for everything.

“He’s just done a great job, for one, maturing from when I got here last year, but also from what I’ve heard in the past, and he’s even said how he handles himself on the field this year,” Fry said. “He’s really done a great job of being the calm one out there and bringing other guys down a little bit if they’re getting a little too chippy or hotheaded. He’s done a great job.”

The sequence against Tuscola clearly showed Simpson’s growth into a team leader. So did his reaction after being flagged for a slight flex after bowling over a Patton defender in Friday’s game. Simpson was immediately apologetic, and his behavior the rest of the evening remained above reproach.

“Showing leadership to your team is a great thing,” Simpson said. “When their heads are down, build them up and tell them, we can do this, just try to keep them in the game and don’t let them feel discourarged about themselves.”

Opponents have quickly learned that number 1 can influence play as much defensively as offensively. Teams have often made a point to call running plays away from Simpson’s side of the field, and the awareness of where he’s lining up is just as prevalent for opposing offenses as defenses.

The value of a player who can sack a quarterback or drop a runner in the backfield in one series, then cover a receiver and return an interception 36 yards for a score, as Simpson did last week at Patton, is huge, especially for a depth-shy team such as Polk County. And while Simpson loves his work on the offensive side, he’s quickly learning to enjoy hitting rather than being hit.

“Defense, I’ve grown to love this year,” he said. “They’ve had me on a lot of stunts, which I love. But, really, I’ll just play anywhere to help impact the team.”

That impact may be most felt offensively, though. Simpson and fellow senior Keaundrae Green are without question one of the top wide receiver combinations in the area, with Simpson capable of catching deep passes, short routes over the middle or using his 6-4 height and jumping ability on fade routes in the end zone. His signature play this season may well be the 67-yard score he hauled in against Tuscola on a play that began with one second remaining – Simpson simply ran past the Mountaineer secondary, caught Lawson Carter’s pass in stride and never stopped running,

The play showcased all of Simpson’s strengths.

“His athleticism, his length, his hands. He can high point a ball really well,” Fry said. “He’s intelligent, too. I put quite a bit on him as far as routes, formations, moving him around. It takes a lot to know and put and compartmentalize all of that. And he’s done a great job. He hasn’t made many mistakes out there.

“He does a great job with his talent.”

Combining all of those skills along with the maturity Simpson has shown this season has convinced Fry, who coached and recruited at the highest level of college football, that his standout is more than capable of making that transition.

“He is a next-level player,” Fry said. “It’s just getting other coaches to believe it. Not only with his grades and his work ethic, I think he’s just now really starting to hit his stride, and he’s only going to get better once he gets to the next level.

“Definitely, without a doubt, he’s a college football player.”

College may be in Antonio Simpson’s future, but his focus is on the present.

Not, though, on the school record book, which already includes his name for most receiving yardage in a game and season. Having surpassed 2,000 career yards in last week’s win, Simpson is set to own that record as well, and he has a shot at both the career receptions record (143, and he’s at 109) and career receiving touchdowns (23, and he’s at 17).

Guess who isn’t even keeping track.

“The season matters more to me than the records,” Simpson said. “Those come with your performances. Right now, I’m really just playing the game, having fun with my guys and hopefully we make it to state.

“I think if we play like we did last week versus Patton and stay on the right track, we’ll have a great season in conference play.”

And that’s what a leader cares about most.

A leader like Antonio Simpson.