Best of the Rest: Local football players learned just how tough the NFL can be

NFL EUROPE COURTESY PHOTO | Longwood graduate Sha-Ron Edwards played with the Atlanta Falcons as a tailback during the preseason, but saw the bulk of his professional action playing in Europe.

All across America this fall thousands of boys will strap on shoulder pads and helmets as they begin a new season on the football field. They’ll dream of one day making it into the National Football League.

It’s a dream very few ever see come to fruition. As a handful of locals have found out over the years, simply reaching the NFL isn’t always the hardest part. It’s staying in the league that presents the greatest challenge.

The road to the NFL can vary greatly. Matt Simonton, 1994 Longwood graduate, rode the strength of his right leg into the NFL, where he had brief stints as a kicker with several teams during the preseason. He never made it into a regular season game.

As a senior Simonton played on one of the best Longwood teams ever, alongside quarterback Eric Brown and running back Jason Schuster, who won the Hansen Award as Suffolk’s top player. All eyes may have been on Schuster that season, but it was the guy kicking the extra points after Schuster’s touchdowns who ended up going the furthest in football.

Simonton, who was an All-County wrestler at Longwood as well, went on to play at Southern Illinois University from 1996-98. His 23 career field goals ranks seventh all-time in school history. In his first season in ’96 he kicked 13 field goals and was 35 out of 37 on extra points.

His 50-yard field goal against Winston-Salem in ’96 ranks as the fifth longest field goal in school history. The following season against Youngstown State he kicked a 47-yarder.

In the early 2000’s Simonton got picked up by several NFL teams, including the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams in 2001. He was signed by the Giants in April 2001 then released in late July. He got picked up by the Rams shortly after and didn’t make the final roster, getting cut in late August.

Simonton spent time in training camp with the Rams in 2002 and got an unexpected phone call from the Washington Redskins in 2003. He was in Atlantic City for a national lifeguard competition when the Redskins’ kicker, John Hall, suffered a slight groin pull a few days before an exhibition game, according to a Washington Post article. Then 26, Simonton left the lifeguard competition and joined the Redskins two days before a game against the Carolina Panthers.

He got one chance on a field goal and missed a 35-yard attempt. Hall’s injury was minimal and he soon after returned to be the team’s kicker. Hall ended up kicking 25 field goals for the Redskins that season, after his previous six seasons with the New York Jets.

Two years later Simonton, who teaches in the Longwood district, helped lead the lifeguards at Smith Point to a national title in Virginia Beach, Va. He won the men’s national sprint competition during the competition and was named to the U.S. national lifeguard team that competed internationally, according to a Newsday article.

Riverhead has produced its fair share of NFL prospects, including one player who played for McGann-Mercy. Joe Pipczynski Jr. grew up in Riverhead and played college football at The Citadel from 1979-82. He was an offensive tackle who earned All-Southern Conference honors in 1982 and was an honorable mention All-American. He won the Joe Missar Outstanding Offensive Lineman Award, given annually to the team’s top lineman.

After his college career ended, Pipczynski signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. After a brief stint with the Seahawks he returned home to coach at Mercy. In 1984 he signed with the Jets, but a career-ending injury derailed his pursuit of the NFL.

Another Riverheader played briefly with Seattle. James Hill played 10 games in 2000 with the Seahawks. A tight end, he was primarily a backup behind Christian Fauria and Itula Mili. Hill played college football at Abilene Christian University. In 1997 he was one of four players selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player.

In 1991 John Kacherski of Riverhead was a captain at Ohio State. Wearing No. 95 he played outside linebacker from 1987-91 with the Buckeyes. He was a starter his senior year.

Listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Kacherski joined the practice squad of the Denver Broncos to start the 1992 season.

In November of that season Kacherski received a call from the Broncos’ director of football operations, Lide Huggins.

“Whenever Lide calls a rookie, it usually isn’t all that good news,” Kacherski told the Denver Post afterward.

Huggins’ call was to say Denver coach Dan Reeves wanted to talk to Kacherski and let him know the coaches had been impressed with his pass-rushing ability and he was going to be activated, taking the spot of another player who was demoted to the practice squad. He came up to the Broncos as a special teams player.

The following season during training camp Kacherski was moved to inside linebacker to fill the void left by an injured player. But in early August Kacherski pulled his hamstring. By the end of the month, the Broncos released him, ending his NFL career.

Most recently in 2007, Longwood graduate Sha-Ron Edwards played with the Atlanta Falcons as a tailback during the preseason. A 1999 graduate, Edwards was a key member of the Lions’ first Long Island championship team in 1998. He played two seasons at Central Connecticut State before transferring to Illinois State where as a senior he rushed for 1,429 yards.

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