CLEMSON — Their relationship is built on laughter.
Even before they met in an African American theater class at Clemson in January of 2017, John Simpson and Aliyah Simmons walked through life sporting steady smiles. When asked questions, they laugh first — then answer. They're a happy, giggly match.
But there was no space for jokes as the evening of April 24 turned into the morning of April 25. The second day of the 2020 NFL Draft had come and gone with Simpson's name yet to be called.
The former Clemson offensive lineman let the rare negative comment slip from his lips as he and Simmons drove to their AirBnB rental in downtown Charleston:
"Am I actually going to get drafted?" he wondered aloud.
Simmons didn't know it yet, but her boyfriend's unexpected drop in the draft meant the delay of a surprise question. They had scheduled a photo shoot with both their families for the day after Simpson's selection — Saturday if he got drafted Friday; Sunday if he got drafted Saturday — and the normally cool-headed Simpson simply couldn't wait for the moment.
His whole life was coming together. He planned to propose to Simmons.
Simmons knew only half the story, of course. But she offered encouragement.
"All the teams that didn't pick you today, there's a reason you're not going to those teams," she told him. "Whatever team you go to, that's where God has a plan for you."
Early the next day, moments after his father put the finishing touches on his fade haircut, Simpson got a call from Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. The Raiders planned to select him with the third pick in the fourth round (No. 109 overall).
Simpson was speechless. He would be the fifth former Clemson player selected by the Raiders over the last two drafts.
The pick occurred around noon, meaning the Simpson and Simmons families had the whole day to celebrate. The next day's photo shoot would be the final touch — with a surprise at the end for Simmons.
"Aliyah was a model for awhile," said her mother, Amelia Simmons, an Air Force reservist stationed at Joint Base Charleston. "Whenever you mention pictures, she's already happy. That was one way to get her to not suspect what was happening."
That first day of theater class, Simmons sat next to Simpson. On the second day, Simmons settled into the same seat, but Simpson strolled in after her and found a spot up front.
She devised a plan. She figured the 6-foot-4, 321-pound Simpson didn't want to make her uncomfortable by squeezing past her. So on the third day she got to class early, put her book bag down and went to the bathroom.
"When I got back, he was sitting down (next to her seat). I was like 'OK. Looks like I have to do this from now on.' So, I was like, 'My plan worked,'" she said.
Later, she learned Simpson's seat boomerang was the product of his failed attempt to save a seat for a friend in the class. But at first she was just happy to get some face time with him — even if it took him awhile to open up. "What's your name?" she asked on the fourth day of class.
"It was like pulling teeth," Simmons said.
Eventually she learned he was a football player. And she realized they were both from the Charleston area — he from North Charleston, she from Mount Pleasant. They started studying together. And laughing together. Soon they were dating, with a big dog named 'Scooby' who shuttled between their apartments.
Simmons graduated in May 2019, and they committed to a long-distance relationship for Simpson's final year at Clemson. He still stayed close to Simmons' family, though. Her younger sister, Chasity, and younger brother, C.J. — who in high school changed his football number to No. 74, the same as Simpson — both Clemson students, were frequent guests in his room.
One mid-December evening, Simmons' father, Cephus, got a "signal from God" while in bed.
"He showed me Aliyah and John. And he said, 'The big question is coming. Are you ready?'" Cephus, a radiologist and researcher at MUSC, said.
He kept the signal to himself. Simmons was living at home, often falling asleep on the phone with Simpson, and working as a pharmacy technician.
In the fall she'll start at MUSC's College of Medicine, and she hopes to work in women's health. She's passionate about closing the racial healthcare gap, which she noted has been illuminated amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Even though my parents have great health insurance, sometimes a trip to the OB/GYN is like $300," Simmons said. "A lot of people don't have accessibility to the correct type of healthcare, and also, it's just expensive. I would love to open a women's health clinic."
Simpson has dedicated his life to helping his family. He was raised in the Dorchester-Waylyn neighborhood, and in high school he got a job at Halls Chophouse in downtown Charleston to help his mother, Keyonna Snipe, pay the bills.
When NFL Senior Vice President of Football Operations Dave Gardi called Simpson's name, his loved ones jumped from their seats, cheering, wrapping their arms around him.
He sat in stunned silence, eyes tearing, his gaze fixed on the television. He later signed his rookie contract for $3.4 million, with a $796,781 signing bonus.
"He was just in awe," Simmons said.
The rest of the day was a party. In between calls with the Raiders and media interviews, Simpson played basketball and hung out with his loved ones, capping the night with drinks in the AirBnB alongside Simmons and some of their friends and cousins.
He awoke the next morning anxious, insisting Simmons paint her nails for the photoshoot. They had already planned to dress a bit different from the rest — everyone else agreed to wear blue jeans and white shirts, with Simpson donning a special blue blazer and Simmons a white dress. But Simmons didn't understand her boyfriend's preoccupation with her nails.
"I was ready to get it over with, because I can't really keep a secret," Simpson said.
Alas, she quickly applied some pink press-on nails and off they went. The shoot was scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Battery in Charleston — a favorite ending spot for the couple's seven-mile bike rides. The sun was shining, with hardly a cloud in the sky.
Snipe was tasked with bringing the ring, but deep into her drive to the park she realized she had forgotten it. She turned the car around. She'd be late. Simpson was annoyed — his mom is always late.
"I was like, 'It's OK. Your mom's coming. This is nothing new,'" Simmons said.
Eventually Snipe arrived and the photo shoot began. At one point the group encouraged the couple to pose for some photos together by the water. As one photographer urged Simmons to turn to her side, the ring was slipped to Simpson.
Simpson was on one knee when she turned back around. He couldn't get the whole question out. "Will you ..." he started, before laughter again got the best of him.
This time Simmons didn't laugh back. She cried, shook her head 'yes' and let Simpson slip the engagement ring on her finger.
There was another round of photos to be taken. Good thing she did her nails.