The stories started circulating long before John Simon first set foot on Ohio State's campus and became such a program favorite that his head coach talked about naming his next child after him.
By the time he got to elementary school, Simon was already performing a daily regimen of pull-ups and sit-ups. He lifted 225 pounds 31 times as a 16-year-old. Before he graduated from high school, he had benched 450 pounds and squatted 700.
"People really didn't believe us," said P.J. Fecko, the head football coach at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Ohio. "It spread like wildfire. We'd go play in Cleveland and they'd ask, 'Did he really do that?' It was embarrassing because people would be like, 'Yeah, sure he did.'"
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Simon's weight-room feats and maniacal work ethic achieved near mythical status around Youngstown, where he grew up with a weight room in his house, and in Columbus where the defensive end/outside linebacker spent so many hours working out and watching film that the Buckeyes coaching staff had to turn out the lights at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and send him home.
A fourth-round pick by the Ravens last week, Simon reported to the Under Armour Performance Center for the first time for Thursday's unofficial start of rookie minicamp and between meetings and speeches, he carved out some time to get a workout in.
"I just try to go in and work," said Simon, last season's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year after recording 44 tackles and nine sacks. "It's something I enjoy so I don't want to call it work. It's a stress reliever for me. It's a way to get away, be with teammates, hoot and holler at one another, compete with one another. It's something I really enjoy."
Before even pulling on Ravens' jersey, Simon had already been compared to outside linebacker Jarret Johnson. Also a fourth-round pick who played for the Ravens for nine seasons before signing with the San Diego Chargers last year, Johnson was a fan favorite, due to his hard-nosed and no-nonsense style and his ability to get everything out of modest physical tools.
Simon, whose mentality was sharpened by a blue-collar upbringing in Youngstown and a father who still gets up at 5 a.m. every weekday to work out, possesses some of those same attributes.
Simon (6-foot-1, 257 pounds) had 20.5 career sacks at Ohio State while starting 37 of 50 games over four seasons. In his final college game, Simon had four sacks in an overtime victory over Wisconsin despite sustaining a knee injury that left him unable to play the following week against Michigan.
Simon also seemed doubtful for a Sept. 15 game against California but he played anyway and notched a sack in the Buckeyes 35-28 win. He then gave an emotional speech afterward that left Urban Meyer, Ohio State's first year head coach, professing his admiration and respect for a player he was just getting to know.
"Are we doing enough for our team?," Meyer asked in his postgame news conference. "[Simon] — what he just did in there — am I doing enough? Are we doing as much as he's doing? No. We've got to do more."
Meyer then talked about naming his next child, "Urban John Simon Meyer," a comment that made a similar splash to the time that he called Simon a "freak" and compared him to Tim Tebow, the head coach's former quarterback at the University of Florida.
Simon said that he was flattered, but if he had it his way, he'd be allowed to go quietly about his business and avoid "unneeded attention." That's especially true now as he gets to know new teammates and a new defense.
The Ravens are deep at outside linebacker with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw so they figure to move Simon around a little and capitalize on his versatility. Simon said Friday that "wherever they tell me to go, that's where I'm going to fit best," a comment that surely would resonate with his former defensive line coach at Ohio State, Mike Vrabel.
"I think a good spot for John is going to be anywhere where he can go out and help the team right now," said Vrabel who played 14 seasons in the NFL. "I think he's a guy that will play a bunch of different spots early on. But I promise you, he's going to find a way to help his team be better than what they were.
"Academically and athletically, he's found ways to get it done and do it at a high level. It's not going to change at the professional level. If anything, it's going to provide him another avenue and more time to do and work."
Vrabel told stories of Simon arriving at the weight room at 6 a.m. and then staying "until we turned the lights off." Fecko said such behavior was already in place by the time Simon arrived in high school.
"You hear all those stories but with this kid, it is unique," Fecko said. "Some folks just think, 'Oh yeah, we see that all the time.' But once you get a hold of him and you are around him, you start to figure it out. He's not the most imposing guy when it comes to the NFL but you figure it out very quickly. You knew there was something special about him."
He developed his passion for fitness from his father, John Simon III, and he admitted that he is very much a product of his surroundings.
"There's a different kind of pride in Youngstown that you don't find in other cities," Simon said. "Even though it's not the safest city, people are proud to call it home. I think that blue-collar mentality translates to the people that live there in any work that they do, whether it be football or any kind of job."
Simon III was a former body builder who started to take his son to the gym at a very early age. Ultimately, Simon III decided to turn one room in the main part of his family home into a gym.
"It's the nicest room in the house," said Simon who was once benched 225 pounds 48 times. "It's insulated, we keep it clean. Every year, we kind of put a new piece [of equipment] in there. It's got everything you need in there."
When asked if he approved of his newest weight room that he'll surely spend some time in, Simon smiled.
"The facility is awesome. It's second to none and to know you're playing for the defending Super Bowl champs is something that is very special," Simon said. "Not too many people get the opportunity to do that. I'm just here to contribute and hopefully we get another one."
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