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After Tragedy and Injury, Hall Continues NFL Draft Pursuit

Emanuel Hall‘s father was gone.

He died, unexpectedly. Mental illness. An overdose.

A heartache no son should ever experience.

But there was no time to process.

As a star wide receiver at Missouri, Hall had to get back on the field.

Scouts were watching. The NFL Draft was coming. His future was being redetermined with every game he missed.

So, shattered as he was, he submerged his grief. He went home to Tennessee. He carried Daton Hall’s casket. He cried. And then he came back, he pushed forward. Through debilitating injury. Through sadness.

“I think it taught Emanuel really how strong he is,” his mother, Shannon Simmons, says.

This week, Hall hopes to realize that fortitude.

The NFL Draft is taking place in his hometown, almost as if it was meant for him.

The Tennessee native, a Centennial High School grad, will host a small party at his family’s house in Franklin and wait for his name to be called.

All the people closest to him in his life will be there. His mom. His older brother. His aunts. His best friends. There will be one more person there, too, in spirit.

“His dad would have loved to be here to see this part,” Simmons says.

Star QB and WR: ‘Like peanut butter and jelly’

Freshman year at Missouri. Eight catches, 64 yards, zero touchdowns. Sophomore year. Nineteen catches, 307 yards, just two trips to the end zone.

College ball wasn’t going as Hall had hoped.

At Centennial, he was used more like a running back than a receiver. He was a first-team All-Midstate selection, hauling in 55 passes for 991 yards and 12 touchdowns his senior year.

His junior year at Missouri didn’t start with any more promise.

Then, halfway through his junior year, one of Missouri’s wideouts was dismissed from the team. That was Hall’s chance.

Together, Hall and quarterback Drew Lock just clicked. Lock could throw 70 yards off his back foot, and Hall could fly down the field fast enough to pull it in.

Hall emerged as a premier deep threat, catching 28 passes for 713 yards and eight touchdowns in the Tigers’ final eight games that season.

Suddenly, he was on the map.

“We made each other,” Hall says of his relationship with Lock, a fellow NFL Draft prospect who’s projected as a first-round pick.

“It was like peanut butter and jelly. The connection couldn’t be broken.”

Until, with a tiny tear to the groin, it was.

The injury strikes, a twinge his mother could feel

New offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s offense used Hall all over the field — and his senior year he went into the season as a star.

By Missouri’s Week 3 game at Purdue, Hall was already second in the nation in receiving yards, having snagged three touchdowns. But he was also hurting.

He had caught a slant pass and a guy hit him in the groin. But, he thought, “If I just trust this, maybe it will keep working out well.” So, he took some pain medication and pushed on.

The next week, it was worse. He was noticeably bothered against Georgia, playing all four quarters but going without a catch. He could hardly run, he could barely even walk.

His mother didn’t have to wait for the phone call. Sitting in the parent section along the 50-yard line, she could see it.

“I know Emanuel’s body language,” she says. “If there’s a little twinge, I can feel it.”

Now, he had to prove again that he could persevere.

But first, tragedy happened.

Not just a regular day

Late on a Thursday afternoon in early October, Hall and best friend Nate Brown walked into their small, off-campus apartment talking about what to do that night.

Play some Madden football, probably. Maybe order a pepperoni pizza from Pickleman’s, “We were just getting in from practice,” says Brown, who also played wideout at Missouri. “Like it was a regular day.”

But it wasn’t.

Both guys were in the living room when Hall’s phone rang. Hall put it on speaker, thinking nothing of it, but news from his uncle on the other end of the line darkened Hall’s eyes.

“I saw it on his face immediately,” Brown says.

Hall’s dad was dead.

Unable to play through his emotions, Hall turns to his faith

As he grieved, time moved on. Hall missed games against South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky. All losses for the team.

But it was his own loss that Hall had to reconcile. Every Wednesday, in a cafeteria on campus, Hall went to a bible study. The Athletes in Action group was there to help answer questions of faith. Hall had questions.

His dad’s death had been unexpected. It was weeks before Hall knew what caused it. And when the autopsy report came back confirming it had been an overdose, Hall couldn’t comprehend it.

“You grow up thinking your parents are perfect,” Hall says, “and at the end of the day your parents are just like any other human being on this earth.”

Hall’s dad had a mental illness. A struggle that, as a boy, Hall never knew his father faced. Now, as a young man, he had to process.

“A lot of people don’t talk about mental health,” Hall says. “A lot of people are too prideful to go get help.”

Football had always brought Hall peace. It was a place to redirect his NFL Draft prospect Emanuel Hall, a hometown player from Centennial High School, poses for a photo Thursday in Nashville.

Emanuel Hall, center, poses for a photograph with parents Daton Hall, right, and Shannon Simmons during his National Signing Day at Centennial High School in Franklin on Feb. 4, 2015.

Jessica Bliss

Columnist Nashville Tennessean USA TODAY NETWORK – TENN.

energy. But in the weeks after his father died, Hall couldn’t get back on the field. His groin injury just wasn’t healing.

“He wasn’t able to play through those emotions,” Hall’s brother says. “He had to sit with them.”

“It was a time to get really really close to God and trust in the process, to trust that it was going to work like it is supposed to,” Hall says.

A touchdown to lift the heaviness off his heart

On Nov. 3, a beleaguered Hall returned to the field with his NFL future still in the balance.

After a four-game absence, he pulled in four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, leading the team to an upset win over the No. 11-ranked Florida Gators.

When Hall cradled the ball in the end zone, a short two-way go that ended with a grab off the slant, it was pure symmetry for Hall and Lock. A return to what Hall knew best.

As the clock clicked down, Hall scanned the stands looking for his mother. When they locked eyes, he ran to her and they hugged. They’d been doing that a lot more lately.

A mother’s constancy

Four months later, from Section 437, at the very top of Lucas Oil Stadium, Simmons looked toward a group profootball hopefuls, bright orange numbers on their chest, and tried to calm her nerves.

On the field below, her son just set the NFL Scouting Combine record for a wide receiver in the broad jump, launching himself 11 feet, 9 inches.

It was the second-best jump ever, by any player at any position, in combine history.

It was a moment not to be missed. And Simmons hadn’t missed any of them.

Every football game, home and way, for her son’s entire career, she had been in the stands. Spring ball. She was there. Scrimmages. There, too.

She was the constant in Hall’s life.

They had both won. And they had both lost. More than football games.

She was the one who signed Hall up for flag football at age 6 and convinced him to keep going when he hated it. “He wanted to quit,” his mom remembers with a laugh.

She was the one who sought out practice space when the small patch of grass in front of their apartment complex wasn’t enough. She and her husband led the Williamson Youth Track Club for 10 years.

Mom coached sprints, dad the high jump.

“Instead of having conversations around the dinner table, we had conversations around the around track,” remembers Hall’s older brother Chaz Hawkins, a decathlete for Duke. “We worked together and gelled and meshed together.”

Simmons had been a track athlete at Tennessee. As Gatorade all-American, she once had a shot at the Olympics. Instead, she became a mother and carried her son’s dreams forward.

Every morning, she got up and cooked her boys breakfast. Oatmeal. Bacon. Pancakes. Whatever fuel he needed.

She wrote emails to college football coaches. Made phone calls. Sent touchdown clips. She took Hall to camp after camp after camp.

“It’s something that was born into him,” Simmons said. “You work hard. No one is going to give you anything. If you want it, you have to go after it.”

Shining in the 40-yard dash

For months and months, Hall had one focus: He had to find a way to train and to heal.

He chose to sit out the Senior Bowl. And NFL Combine officials almost didn’t let him jump, warning that he may have a sports hernia that could need surgery.

But Hall needed to show NFL scouts and coaches that he was healing. He had convinced them he would do great things.

He knew his speed was a gamechanger — “that’s my elite characteristic, that’s what I do,” Hall said.

And so, after setting the broad jump record at the NFL Combine, Hall pushed on.

In shiny gold shoes, he ran a 4.39second 40-yard dash. Something, he said, that was “more important than anything I have ever done in my entire life.”

“When I came back, I had a goal,” Hall says. “Life doesn’t stop. I had things I wanted to accomplish, and there was only one opportunity to do so. I couldn’t let it pass up.

“... Everyone has a different route to the NFL, and this is mine.”

Hometown boy, hometown draft: ‘Like it’s meant for me’

Hall has his father’s brow. Wide and thick with an furrowed expanse of stubbornness. But his eyes, clear and focused, resemble his mother’s.

There have been days in the last year when an unforeseen darkness has shadowed that face. Injury that sidelined him.

His father’s death.

But he has persevered.

Hall says he is shy, quiet around groups, but his teammates see him as goofy and reliant.

“He’s always smiling when he can,” Missouri lineman and Christ Presbyterian Academy grad Paul Adams said. “He came through a lot of adversity this year. It was pretty tough for him. It shows how much he loves football.”

Now, he will see where it might take him. With his 6-foot-2, 201-pound build and his lengthy stride, some project Hall as a Day 2 pick, perhaps a third-rounder. He’s got a turbo boost that can separate him from defenders down field.

“Not many people can say they are going to be drafted in their hometown city,” he says. “It’s almost like it’s meant for me.”

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