In a moment of destiny, Hollywood Hills coach Brandon Graham briefly drew his attention away from football practice one fall day in 2011.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched as two girls — still in their volleyball practice gear — tossed a football back and forth in the back of the end zone to stave off boredom.
A few months later, one of those girls, Jacqueline Simu, would go on to become the team’s starting quarterback as a junior, finishing 301-of-445 with 3,327 yards, 35 passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns.
“I looked down there and she had no idea what she was doing, but I said, ‘That’s a quarterback,’ ” Graham said. “I guess we got lucky that day.”
Graham walked over to ask Simu, who stands 5-10, whether she would be interested in joining the flag football team. A friend and volleyball teammate had already started to convince her throughout the school year.
When Graham told Simu to stop by practice on a Saturday, she did. She was thrown straight into conditioning and told to play quarterback. From that point until the Spartans’ first game, Simu spent four days a week on the field throwing.
“The first time I was more nervous,” said Simu, who had transferred from Sheridan Hills Christian. “I’m very competitive because I know in volleyball at least the setter has control over the whole court and if the setter isn’t physically and mentally there everything falls apart. I knew I would have to step up a lot and have to be a perfectionist, which I kind of already was.”
After all, football was a new sport for her. In middle school, she played soccer, basketball and volleyball. Her younger sister plays softball. Her older brother played football at Webber International University.
She and her family adopted one NFL player in particular as their favorite: Peyton Manning — a player her coaching staff believes she emulates.
What impresses coaches most about the First Team All-County quarterback is her calm demeanor. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Simu is tough on herself after both wins and losses.
Whenever she gets stressed or frustrated, Simu picks up tufts of grass and inhales a large breath before letting them go, ready for the next play.
Though her teammates first looked at her strangely when she did it for the first time, they have since picked up the habit and dubbed it, “Picking Grass Therapy.”
“I’ve learned that sometime I have to relax because the team feeds off my energy,” Simu said. “If I’m freaking out and not a controlled frustration, it’s going to affect my team negatively.”
According to Graham, Simu’s thirst for knowledge sets her apart, making her one of the best quarterbacks he and his other coaches have seen. She is one of Broward County’s top returning players.
Simu often quizzes Graham on why the team throws on certain downs or why defenses line up the way they do. She became an avid viewer of game film, much like Manning.
“I think the biggest thing with her is mentally she’s fit to play the quarterback position,” Graham said. “She’s really cerebral when she plays. The mental side is when we really knew we had something. She really is a student of the game. She wants to get better in all phases of the game and wants to make the team better.”
This past weekend, the Dolphins hosted their annual Girls’ High School Flag Football Jamboree at the Doctor’s Hospital Training Facility in Davie.
For the first time since the event’s inception in 1997, four Miami-Dade schools participated of the 28 teams.
Monsignor Pace, which advanced to last year’s first round play-in before losing to eventual state quarterfinalist Archbishop McCarthy, beat Mater Lakes 45-0 on Saturday.
Coach John M. Rodriguez had reached out to the Dolphins about Miami schools finally taking part in the BCAA-heavy event. The fifth-year coach hopes more programs sprout up in Miami. There are just eight flag football teams, all from private schools.
“I don’t know why more teams in Dade don’t play flag football,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve asked myself that same question. With as many good athletes as Dade County has, I’m sure it would be really popular and participation if the opportunity developed at these schools.”
The sport is relatively cheap with limited equipment: flags, a few footballs and T-shirts for jerseys. Referees must be hired and a bus is needed for minimal travel.
Other cities such as Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa have numerous teams. In Palm Beach County, there is a league where 600 to 700 girls play the sport year-round.
“If you follow the evolution, you can see that every year more and more teams are playing as the state bracket expands,” Rodriguez said. “It’s growing all across the state. The schools here hold their own. The level of play down here is very, very good.”