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In Play with Craig Mattick: John Simko

South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame

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Craig Mattick: Welcome to another edition of In Play. I am Craig Mattick. Today's guest is on a short list of South Dakota High School multi-sport athletes. He was a four-sport athlete in high school and in college. He was the first to win four state tennis singles and four state doubles titles. He was a state champion hurdler. He was also drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL draft. And then after that, a 32-year career practicing law, and then 15 years as a US magistrate judge for South Dakota. It was tennis, track, football, basketball, he did it all and he did it well. The Sioux Falls' Washington Warrior and Augustana Viking, John Simko. Your Honor, welcome to In Play.

John Simko: Thank you, Craig. You're pretty generous.

Craig Mattick: What was it like back in the mid to late 50s, you're going to school in the famous Downtown Sioux Falls Washington High School?

John Simko: Well, those were the golden years. Maybe everybody who reaches my age thinks that when they're in high school, it was the golden years. Perhaps so. In fact, I hope everybody does feel that way. But we really had it good. We had some wonderful teachers and some wonderful coaches and some really good players to play with us and against us. So it was just a wonderful time to be down there. And it was the only school in town. We were the only game in town, so to speak. So people were at the games and all of our games. No matter what sport, we were well attended and well supported. So it was all good. Greg,

Craig Mattick: How big was your family?

John Simko: Well, my immediate family was my mom and my dad and my brother Wendell and me. My mom's family however, there were 2 moms, 1 dad and 19 kids. So we had big family gatherings. My dad was from Wisconsin, so we didn't have many family gatherings with him unless we went to Wisconsin to see my grandpa.

Craig Mattick: So how big of a sports family was it all those cousins around?

John Simko: Oh, my. We had 60 to 80 cousins that I've counted. One of my cousins has counted somewhere between 60 and 80 and there are two of us left. So we're pretty privileged to be around yet. We had great family reunions. I can remember the fried chicken, and all my aunts and all, how they used to laugh and they really loved each other. So we'd be at McKinnon Park during the South Dakota Open Tennis tournament as a matter of fact, that was kind of fun. I'd bring my good friend Don Grebin down there and we'd have a nice chicken dinner and then we'd go back and play some doubles.

Craig Mattick: When did tennis become important for you?

John Simko: Well, I guess when I got to the age where I started noticing girls. Some of the girls in our class, namely Barbara Borst, who's been deceased for a long time and Cynthia Borgen were classmates and they played tennis. And so about eighth grade, I started to hang around the tennis courts and pick up a tennis racket. Maybe seventh grade, I can't remember exactly when that was, then I started playing tennis. And then Don Grebin was around the courts, and Don Grebin took me under his wing and he became my mentor and my doubles partner and my dear friend for a long time.

Craig Mattick: So I suppose it was tennis in the summer, football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and then back to track and tennis in the spring. Is that how you handled your sports all the time there, John?

John Simko: Well, that's exactly what it was, Craig, when we were growing up, whatever sport was in season was your favorite sport, and that's the one you did. Nowadays, if you're a hockey player and you're seven years old, you got to decide whether you're going to be a skater or a goalie, and that's the decision you make and you do that year round. So it's a different world today from what it was when we were growing up.

Craig Mattick: Well, before the tennis season started, how much tennis did you actually play? Was there camps that you would go to? How did you get ready for the tennis season?

John Simko: Well, I got ready by playing football in the fall and basketball in the winter and track in the spring. There were no tennis camps to go to at that time. There were no indoor tennis courts until about 1960. The first one between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains was ready on Sioux Falls within about a hundred yards of where I live right now, but that wasn't built until 1960. So to get ready to play tennis, Don Grebin and I, a couple of times I'd go and try to play inside the gym at Augustana College. But we played on a wooden floor and the ball didn't bounce so fast, with no net. So that didn't work. So there just wasn't any opportunity until the weather turned and you could get on the court and pick up a racket and go out and hit balls.

So what I really did in the spring, we used to have backboards, and I would take my tennis racket and a ball and my goal was to hit 500 balls against that backboard without a miss as though it was in a match. And when I could hit 500 balls against that backboard, one bounce, no miss, then I was ready to play.

Craig Mattick: Wow.

John Simko: That's how I got ready.

Craig Mattick: Well, you were the first one to win four state singles titles and the first to win four state doubles titles. Tennis had been sanctioned in South Dakota since the late 1920s. Who was your coach when you were at Washington for tennis?

John Simko: Well, Don Grebin, as I said, he was my tennis coach, but he was not a teacher of mine at the high school. Wally Diehl, who was our athletic director would be our tennis coach. And what that meant was he would drive me to the meet. But you have to remember at that time, there was only one tournament, and that was in July in the summer. And each school that wanted to participate could bring two people to the tournament. Coach Diehl was the basketball coach at Washington High and the athletic director, and just because there was nobody else to do it-

Craig Mattick: He did it.

John Simko: Yeah, he became the tennis coach, which meant that he would drive us to the tournaments and make hotel reservations and meal reservations, and that was about it.

Craig Mattick: 1954, you're a freshman, you're in the state championship match against Harold McDougall of Brookings for the title. What do you remember about that match as a freshman going for the title?

John Simko: Well, let me tell you, let me give you a little background. When I was in eighth grade in 1953, I used to watch Brookings and Huron play in the state basketball tournament. And I used to watch Dave Christensen and one of the rich boys, Gene Luke, Nick Johnson. Those guys were really good. Adrian Parmeter from Huron was really good. And out in 8th grade, once you see those guys playing in the basketball tournament, when you're at that age, there's a big difference between 13 and 17.

Craig Mattick: Yes.

John Simko: So now I get to the tournament in Brookings as a freshman, and who do I play but Gene Luke and Adrian Parmeter on the way. Oh boy, talk about having an extra pair of underwear along. Damn.

So I was able to survive those guys, and I have those memories because I was scared to death. But I got to the finals and I played Harold McDougall. Harold was a really nice K and R. He was a really nice player. And those courts were named after his dad. His dad was a math teacher at South Florida State University, and they named those courts after McDougall. Harold had a brother named Herb and they were a really nice family and a good tennis family. What I remember is that final match, we had a strong side win, and I was able to figure it out.

And Harold was the guy who would serve in volley. He had a really nice serve in volley game. He would serve and follow his serve to the net waiting for my volley. And after a little bit, not right away, but after a little bit I finally figured out that I could hit it down the doubles alley and the wind would blow back inside the singles court. And Harold would let it go every time. And Harold got pretty frustrated before too long, and that kind of turned the tide a little bit.

Craig Mattick: 1955 and 1956, you faced Mike Ross of Sioux Falls for the singles title, and of course he was your doubles partner. You won two doubles titles together. What were those matches like with Mike in 55 and 56?

John Simko: Mike was a... Bob Burns, our coach used to say, "Your toughest competition is closest to home." And that was Mike. Mike was really good and a good friend. And I can't remember much about the match except that I knew that I had to win a point because he wasn't going to give me any points. So we had some tight matches. I can't remember anything more specific about it than that. I remember I had to play my own game. If I let myself get into his game, I was in deep trouble.

Craig Mattick: So you beat Mike twice in the singles titles, but you're paired together as doubles partners. Was that after you beat him in singles?

John Simko: I can't remember what the chronology was. I'm sure it probably was because the singles matches would typically be scheduled before the doubles matches. So yes, I'm sure that we played our doubles matches after the singles matches.

Craig Mattick: So you've won three singles titles, three doubles titles, and now your senior year, you're going for your fourth singles title and you face Tom Line your doubles partner that year. You guys win the doubles title a year earlier, you two, you win it again in 57. Again, a doubles partner is the guy that you got to beat for the singles title.

John Simko: Well, once again, Tom Line was not only my doubles partner, but he was a dear friend. His older brother Mark has been my friend since second grade, and both of those guys remain dear friends of mine today. And Tom was a really good player. Mark and I used to take him out on the basketball court on the driveway at their house and we'd push and shove him around because he was a couple of years younger. But then he'd take us into the ping pong table and he would beat us pretty soundly every time. He was a really good tennis player as well.

And so Tom was not easy. But Craig, let me tell you because you just opened up the door for me about one of my favorite memories as an individual, and that has to do with that weekend of that tennis tournament and track meet at Mitchell. That was the first year that instead of having the tennis tournament and the golf tournament in July during the middle of the summer, they decided to have them on the same weekend as the state track meet. And so there was an issue, first of all, about where they were going to be. And I'm told by my dear friend Don Grebin, that Don had a conversation with Wally Diehl and Wally Diehl had a conversation with the other athletic directors and they agreed that because I had won three singles and doubles tournaments earlier, that they would hold the tournament in the same place where they had the track meet so I could do both.

And of course, Elmer Hansen was a track coach and he was kind enough and gracious enough to let me play tennis as well as running the track meet. And the directors of the tennis tournament were kind enough and gracious enough to schedule me with my matches in the tennis tournament so I could do the preliminary events and the final events at the track meet. So that's one of my favorite memories. I apologize for bragging a bit about that, but that's one of the things that I remember very well about that weekend, the tennis and track meets of the senior high school.

Craig Mattick: So did you have to win the hurdle title and then go play tennis or did you have to do the singles and then Hurdle and then go back and do doubles? How busy was that day?

John Simko: Well, it was quite busy. I can't remember how many matches we had in tennis to get to the finals, but we had either three or four singles and doubles matches in over the course of two days, and the track meet was over the course of two days. And so the tennis would surround the track events. So the track events are scheduled as you know very well from being the announcer of Howard relays and otherwise, they hold to a pretty tight schedule at the track meet. So when your event is up, you got to be there and be ready to go. And so the rigid part was being on time for the track events, and before and after that then we'd have to play tennis.

Craig Mattick: By the way, only one other player in South Dakota High School tennis history have won four state singles titles. You've been the only one to do it until Tyler Steinle of Sturgis did it 1997 through 2000. So it is something that is pretty hard to do, John.

John Simko: Well, yeah, it's probably harder now than it was then even because there are more people playing these days than what used to be. Tyler was a really nice player and really nice guy, and I was really honored and privileged when they asked me to come after he won to present him with whatever the medal was that he received or trophy he received to win the tournament. So that was a memorable time for me to meet Tyler, and things turned out... There's some connection I can't remember now that his mom had with my wife Mary. And it had to do with, my wife Mary was into this creative memories, which is a scrapbooking kind of thing. So it was kind of fun because the two of them had known each other through some things. And so I got to meet Tyler and watch him play, and it was really a very nice time.

Craig Mattick: By the way, you were the first to win four doubles titles. It has been done a handful of other times. Dave Weber of Sioux Falls has done it. Jim Sorrell of O'Gorman, Kalen Dobbs of Lincoln, the only other four-time winners in doubles. But the record now, John, Billy Pollick, Rapid City Stevens, he's got the five doubles championships in high school. So got some great tennis players there that we've mentioned.

John Simko: Yeah, that's pretty good that those kids are able to play. There's some really good players who develop early in 8th grade and 9th grade and 10th grade. It's good that school boards and the school board association allows those persons to play. There was a time when there was an issue about that. So it's good that they have the opportunity to test their skills against the best in the state.

Craig Mattick: Before we talk about football and another sport you excelled at, I'm going to talk about, you played tennis at Augie, at Augustana. You won the North Central conference title as a sophomore. You didn't as a freshman because freshmen were ineligible at that time. Tournament gets rained out your junior year, and then as a senior you had signed that pro football contract. So you only had one opportunity in college to play for the North Central title.

John Simko: Well, yeah, that's the way it went. You've done your homework. That's the way it went.

Well, let me tell you, there's one thing I remember about that tournament as a sophomore. It was in Fargo and my good tennis friend, Larry Dodge, who is still a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco, became an architect, and he has played tennis and he's really gone on to become a worldwide name in elder tennis, so to speak. He didn't play the pro circuit the way it is now, but he's played internationally at some big name events.

Anyway, Larry is a great guy, and when I was in Fargo playing tennis as a high school kid, I'd stay at his house and he'd come to Sioux Falls to stay my house. Well, we were playing in the final of the North Central Conference tennis tournament at Island Park in Fargo. And Island Park has cement courts. And in those days, the people that built the courts didn't really design the courts the way the players would like it, but they thought it would be a really good idea to have the cracks in the cement. They would make the cement in slabs. And so where the two slabs would join, they thought it would be a really good idea if those cracks would be where the lines would be painted on the tennis court.

Craig Mattick: Some crazy bounces.

John Simko: Well, exactly. That's one of Larry's worst memories, one of my most humorous memories. If you know you get a crazy bounce because the ball hit the line, you know it was in. Larry and I are playing and I'm serving. I got a set point, if I win this point, then I win the first set. Well, wouldn't you know, the serve hit the crack and bounced high over his head. He couldn't hit it. It was so high he couldn't reach it.

So poor Larry lost the first set because my serve hit the line bounced over his head out of reach. So I win the first set, lined him up on set. So now we get to the second set and we're in a similar situation. I'm serving for the set. I got a match point, and wouldn't you know, I hit the crack again. But this time the ball didn't bounce up high over his head. It didn't bounce at all. It rolled and he couldn't hit it.

Craig Mattick: You had perfected that shot, John?

John Simko: Oh, just lucky. Better to be lucky than good. But you couldn't argue because if you hit the crack, the ball is in. And Larry had two terrible bounces on the two biggest points of the match. And so that's kind of what I remember about that North Central Conference Finals match when I was a sophomore.

Craig Mattick: Hey, let's go back to Washington High School. You were a part of the state championship basketball team at Washington. It was your junior year. You guys beat Rapid City by 2. How involved were you in basketball at Washington that year?

John Simko: Well, it was a big deal for us. Fred Hecker had played as a sophomore. So this was his third year as a starter and he had won state championships as a sophomore and a junior, and now we were seniors. Jim Luce, another classmate of mine and teammate, and we played a fair amount off the bench when we were juniors. And we had some success, we won the championship. What I remember about that championship game was that Rapid City had a really good game. The score was, as I remember, the score was tied or within one or two points. And Chuck Anderson, who was our teammate, got fouled. So he now was going to shoot one or two free throws. I don't remember which it was, but the referee handed the ball to him and he fiddled with the ball and hesitated and gave the ball back to the referee, and he called timeout time out.

And we came over to the sideline... And Chuck wore contact lenses, hard contacts.

Craig Mattick: Oh yeah.

John Simko: And our coach is Wally Diehl, our assistant coaches is Arnie Bauer. Lloyd Dobratz is also there. We had really good coaches, those are three of them. Chuck said, "Coach, I got a bubble in my contact and I can see two hoops. I don't know which one to shoot at." So this is late in the game, the game's on the line and he doesn't know what to do. Well, he ended up making his free throws and it turned out okay for us. But that's my memory about that game.

Craig Mattick: Well, let's go to football now. Football at Washington High School. Bob Burns was your football coach, right? At Washington?

John Simko: Yes, he was.

Craig Mattick: Of course, Bob would go on to coach at Sioux Falls, O'Gorman. He would also go to Augustana. But I knew Bob well in the radio business. He would be on our radio show after he had kind of retired from football. But what was Bob Burns like as a football coach?

John Simko: Well, Coach Burns, I always called him Coach Burns and I'll tell you why before I answer the rest of your question. When we were freshmen, in fact all the way through high school, we played at the old, the original Howard Wood Field, which is on East End Street in Sioux Falls, just on the east side of the viaduct. And it's now gone. But when we were freshmen, he lined us up on the first base side. They played baseball there as well as football and had track meet. He lined the freshmen up on the first base side of the field and the bleachers and gave us a little talking to. And what I remember about that talk is that he said, "You can call me Mr. Burns or you can call me Coach or you can call me Coach Burns, but don't slap me on the butt and say, 'Hey Bobby, how about a towel?'" Ever since then, he's always been Coach Burns to me.

Craig Mattick: Washington football though was unstoppable for several years.

John Simko: I'll tell you what I think separates him as a coach from everybody else. He knew kids better than he knew football, and he knew football pretty darn well. But he knew which kids responded to a kick in the butt and which kids responded to praise. And those that responded to praise, he praised. Those who responded to kicks in the butt, he gave kicks in the butt. He knew how to make ordinary athletes believe they were extraordinary. As a consequence, we believed we were better players than everybody else, when in reality we weren't. And as a result, we believed we were going to win, and we did.

Craig Mattick: So how did he treat you? Did he have to give you a kick in the butt once in a while or a lot of praise?

John Simko: If it weren't for Don Grebin in tennis and Jim Luce in football, I'd be nothing. Nobody would remember me for anything. Without the two of those guys, I'm nobody. Jim Luce and I responded to praise. So the two of us never got chewed out. So we were okay.

Craig Mattick: What positions did you play in football?

John Simko: Well, let me tell you about that too, if I can, Craig. When we were freshmen, I thought I was going to go on and be quarterback. Well, that's when I met Jim Luce. Well, when I saw Jim, I knew, "Well, I'm not going to be the quarterback." So I thought, "Well, now what am I going to do?" Well, maybe I'd like to be a running back or in the backfield. Well, Fred Hecker was fullback. He was a grade school classmate of mine. And I knew I wasn't going to be a fullback better than him. I wouldn't play if I was going to be a fullback. Mark Lyne was the halfback, I knew I wasn't going to play-

Craig Mattick: This team is loaded.

John Simko: ... if I was going to have to beat him out. And Ralph Shytles, we called him Pinky, from Lincoln Grade School was a halfback faster than greased lightning. And I knew I wasn't going to play if I played that. So now I can't play quarterback, I can't play anyone with the running position. And I knew for sure you weren't going to get me anywhere between the tackles. So there's only one place left for me to go, and that was V and M. So that's where I ended up.

Craig Mattick: You're about 6'1, 188, if I remember reading about where you were. Because not only you played at Washington, but you went to Augustana. You were a four sport athlete there, and you played football at Augie. And of course, who was the football coach at Augie at the time? Bob Burns.

John Simko: Yeah, of course. Always said I'm happy he never went to East Chicago, Indiana, because that's where I would've ended up. Wherever Bob Burns went, that's where Jim Luce and I would go.

Craig Mattick: But you played two different positions in college, right? Both sides of the ball?

John Simko: Well, yeah, that's another good memory for me, Craig. We were in the North Central Conference, and North Central Conference was University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University, North Dakota University, and what is now University of Northern Iowa, and then the little sisters: Morningside and Augustana. So at Augustana we had two coaches, Bob Burns, Marv Riss, and 31 players. So we didn't have a choice. We had to play two ways.

Craig Mattick: Well, you were an all NCC with the end of position for a couple of years, and then you were the North Central Conference's most valuable lineman your senior year. Tell me about that senior year and being the offensive lineman of the year.

John Simko: Well, that was kind of a misnomer because the lineman makes you think that you're kind of tough. If there's anything I was good at, it was avoiding contact.

So I was a receiver and at that time. We were fortunate, we won the conference in our junior year with those 29 guys and two coaches. That's one of my favorite memories. But as a senior, you maybe remember there was a guy from Army, whose name I can't remember now, but he was the guy who was the author of the Lonesome End, as they called it at that time. And instead of playing right tight with the rest of the line, would split out more than just a little bit, wherever he wanted to go. So that's what Burns allowed me to do. I could split out wherever I wanted to go. And then if the halfback, who was the guy who was covering me was too far away, Jim would slap his hand on his helmet, which would tell me he's going to throw me the ball.

Craig Mattick: I think you might be talking about Bill Carpenter, the Lonesome Man.

John Simko: Yes, that's his name. Yeah.

Craig Mattick: Yes.

John Simko: Anyway, so Burns allowed to... He was pretty innovative. One of the innovations that he had was to allow us the freedom, be a lonesome man any place in the field, anytime on the field.

Craig Mattick: One more thing about your time at Augie playing football, you had two ties. Your sophomore year, you tied North Dakota, and then your senior year, you tied Montana State six to six. Why are the ties back then?

John Simko: Well, I don't think I remember playing Montana State. That must've been the year after my graduation, and North Dakota U, I can remember. Was it North Dakota U we tied? I think it was, wasn't it?

Craig Mattick: Yeah, yeah. At 22, 22 a piece.

John Simko: Yeah. That was up in Grand Forks. Well, that's another good story. Ron Wyatt, he went on to be an orthopedic physician, is now deceased, and he was really a good runner and he had swivel hips. When we were freshmen, we played four games and he ran a punt back in every one of those games. He was... Spencer, Iowa. He could really run. He was fast, but he also was our defensive quarterback and he never did, despite his being smart enough to get through medical school, become an orthopedic physician. He never did understand Burns' key.

Burns would say, "All right, you watch the halfback on the opposing team and if he comes, you go. Or if he goes, you go." I mean, he sometimes would change those keys. But Ron with the key on that halfback. Well, invariably at the end of the half in almost every game we played, and even at the end of the game, they'd throw a pass over around. Well, that's what happened up at North Dakota U. They threw a pass and tied us at 22 to 22.

So now let's fast-forward to our senior year. We're playing Morningside, and it's halftime. Wyatt, "Coach," he said, "Those keys really work."

Craig Mattick: He finally got it.

John Simko: Anyway, he always got them mixed up, but he finally figured out at halftime of our very last game of our senior year that the keys coach gave him really worked, if he'd only follow them. And that's how we got those tie games. They always threw a pass over Ron Wyatt at the end of the half.

Craig Mattick: The NFL came calling. 1961, you're chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the 18th round. Did you have any idea that you might get drafted that year?

John Simko: No, I didn't.

Craig Mattick: How did they get a hold of you that you were drafted?

John Simko: Well, every now and then you get a letter in the mail, and I'd gotten some of those, but nothing from the Steelers. And that's one of my bad memories. Not the Steelers, but the way this all came out. A regret of mine because I lost my second semester of my senior year for basketball and for tennis. But there was a representative from Pittsburgh Steelers who came to town on New Year's weekend, and he came to basketball practice and watched basketball practice and then talked to me after practice. And I said, "Well, I really don't want to lose this year in semester, so I don't want to sign anything." So then he left. But we practiced in the morning. Holy Oddney was a basketball coach, and he believed in having basketball practice on New Year's Day at eight o'clock in the morning because he knew what might happen to the rest of us on New Year's Eve if we didn't have to get up on New Year's Day at eight o'clock.

So we were done with practice before noon. Well, later in the afternoon, I got a call from this representative from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He said, "Well, I'm still in town." He said, "My plane got fogged in, I got canceled." He said, "Why don't you and your dad come down and have dinner with me?" I'm a little lamb, a 22 old kid who doesn't know much, and I said, "Yeah, okay, let's do that. That's fine." So my dad and I went down there and we had dinner with him and he said, "Well, come on out to the room and we'll talk some more." So we came up to his room and he talked and said, "Well, if you sign this contract, we'll just put it in the safe. We won't open it until June. You can play basketball and you can play tennis and we'll just have the paperwork out of the way and it'll just be fine."

So what did I know? I said, "Okay, that sounds good to me. I don't want to lose that second semester." He said, "Well, you won't. Don't worry about it." So he put a check blank down on the table, he said, "Fill in the amount." Well, another thing I was not very smart about, but in those days, a thousand bucks was a lot of money. And especially to me, my family didn't have money. We lived in a rented house. My mom was a licensed practical nurse, my dad worked at the VA for 32 years. And they'd sacrifice a lot to finance me to tennis tournaments here and there and everywhere. So anyway, I wrote in thousand bucks, and he put that thousand bucks into the folder and my dad and I went home, and I'd signed this contract for something like $10,000 to play football.

And next thing I knew, coach says, "Well, this next basketball game, you better just sit on the bench and not play." I said, "Well, what's the deal?" He said, "Well, there's a press release in Pittsburgh that you signed this contract." So that was the end of my career. That's how it ended.

Craig Mattick: Well, you went to training camp, right? With the Steelers?

John Simko: Yes, I did.

Craig Mattick: So what was training camp like? Buddy Parker, by the way, is the coach. Buddy Parker. I don't know anything about Buddy Parker as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 61.

John Simko: Well, Buddy Parker came from the Detroit Lions when they... Now they're talking about the last time they won a championship. I'm not sure if it goes all the way back to the 1950s and Buddy Parker. But Buddy Parker was the coach of Detroit Lions when they won a championship.

Craig Mattick: Okay, all right.

John Simko: And he had Bobby Lane with him.

Craig Mattick: That's right. And Buddy Dial was the big receiver for him.

John Simko: That's right. And he had John Henry Johnson with him.

Craig Mattick: That's right. Big running back.

John Simko: All these guys came with him to Pittsburgh. Yeah, I love remembering the names of those guys. You mentioned a couple Buddy Dial, Bobby Lane, Preston Carpenter, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Tom, the Mom, Tracy, John Henry Johnson, Dean Derby.

Craig Mattick: What did the Steelers want you to do though?

John Simko: Well, I was going to be a receiver when we were at training camp, it was run, run, run, run, run. I was really in good shape when I left training camp. But I went there in July, early July, like before the fourth or the eighth or something, and they started the season Labor Day weekend or thereabouts, and I was there for that entire preseason and then I got cut. But let me tell you about the first day of practice if I can. In later years, I figured out this is probably a set-up deal, but I didn't know it at the time. And maybe it wasn't a set-up, I don't know.

The first day of practice, we were at Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania at Slippery Rock College, and the practice field is up on top of a hill. And so you had to climb up a hill, relatively steep hill to get to the level top where you have practice. So now all these rookies, the rookies were there a week before the veterans showed up. So all of us rookies were up there before we even do calisthenics to get the practice session started. We're up there hanging out, throwing the ball back and forth, looking at each other and trying to size everybody up and figure things out. We're all pretty nervous.

And one of the coaches hollered at a great big guy named Olson. He said, "Olson, run over here as fast as you can go." And this Olson, great big guy, he kind of waddled over toward the coach and hollered at him. He said, "Olson, now turn around and run back where you came from as fast as you can go." And so Olson turned around and ran back where he came from as fast as you can go. And the coach wanted his runner back, said, "Olson, keep on running. You're cut." Before calisthenics of the first day, they got all the attention of the rookies with that story about Olson. And later years, of course, it seems to me they wouldn't have done that. I can't believe they'd do that. So it must've been a set-up deal.

Craig Mattick: Well, your high school and college athletic careers are over. And you go to law school and you are a lawyer in Sioux Falls for more than 30 years. You become a US Magistrate judge for almost 15 years. And I'm kind of curious, it's about 1979, 1981, South Dakota is trying to get the high school football playoff started. And there were court challenges and there were lawsuits, there was a lot going on. What was it like for you watching all of this as a lawyer in Sioux Falls?

John Simko: Well, kind of interesting because they knew all the players. Bob Burns was the coach of our government, and he and Max Hawk from Yankton were the big pushers. And Tony Weisensee had a couple of kids who was playing football at O'Gorman, and Bob Heggie was the judge. I didn't know how they would find a theory, a legal theory that they would watch, but they did and it made sense. Because as I understand it, all the Catholic schools in the state had been able to participate in a lot of other events like debate and other contests with the public schools, but they haven't been able to participate in the public school sports events.

So they had this lawsuit, and it was kind of fun to know the players. When I'm saying know the players, I mean the guys I just mentioned, and to see how it was going to come out. And when it came out, it was a good result. The more people get to play, in my opinion, the better. So it was a good result. And O'Gorman has had some real good success since that time around college and has some good success in the football field since that time, playing in the football tournament or championships, and they got to play in the basketball tournaments. Both O'Gormer and a lot of colleagues have done well. So yeah, it was a game changer. And at the time, of course, you don't think it's a statewide blockbuster as it is, but I guess that's what it really was.

Craig Mattick: John, you have said that Bob Burns, your high school and your college football coach, he taught you how to laugh at yourself. Well, were you tough on yourself? What did you mean by that, about Bob Burns?

John Simko: I was a serious kid. I wanted to do the right thing. I didn't want to cross the line and do something wrong. And so I was always fearful of stuff. And now they say, on the tennis court particularly, "You shouldn't play because you're afraid to lose a point. You want to play the point to win the point. Think positively instead of negatively." I was kind of, when I was growing up, afraid to lose. I didn't want to lose because I thought that would reflect on me poorly. My image, my self-image had a lot to do with whether I would win or lose on the athletic field. Well, Burns, as you know very well, was a standup comic, and he was that way on the practice field as well. So among all the other valuable lessons I learned from him, I learned how to laugh at myself.

Craig Mattick: John, you also have said about Don Grebin, your good friend, you played a lot of tennis with Don. He taught you how to be gracious. What did he mean by that?

John Simko: Well, when I was a kid, I had a little bit of a temper on the tennis court and I would misbehave. I might hit the racket on the ground or on the net or slam a ball or do something that's not appropriate.

Craig Mattick: Sure. Well, you're not the only one that's done that. I remember John McEnroe.

John Simko: Some still do, yeah. But Don didn't take me aside and say, "John, stop doing this." But Don showed me by example. He was my tennis mentor. We used to play together, singles against each other. And he was my doubles partner, we played doubles together all the time. And Don was, if not one of the most gracious guys, the most gracious guy I've ever known. If he would lose a match, he would congratulate the other guy and just be very gracious about it. He was not a sore loser at all. When he would win, he was the same way. He wasn't a bragger. He was a very humble guy. He was a firm believer in the old idea that you treat adversity and success both the same. He taught me how to do that. And it was by example, not by words.

Craig Mattick: Well, after being a lawyer and a judge in your career, photography has become pretty important for you now. That's a big time hobby for you with photography. When did you get started in photography?

John Simko: Well, I know I started taking pictures back in, I guess, maybe the 1980s, in film. And I'm still taking them, I guess. I got burned out with film because pictures would never come back the way I thought I saw the picture. And then digital came out and I could do my own processing. So I got this, still have this old obsolete Adobe software that I use, and I just love to take pictures. Right now, I'm sitting in my bedroom window. There's a pond where I live right outside my window about 30 yards away. And right now I'm looking at a pair of wood ducks, and this is wood duck season. So they're on the pond every morning and every evening. So I'm out here trying to take some pictures of the wood ducks, and every now and then I get a keeper.

And finally, what I've done in the last couple or three years is... Well, I kind of like it if my grandkids, and not only my grandkids, my grandkids' kids, might know a little bit of something about their old Grandpa John. So I found this company that would publish books. And through them, I've self-published some books for the family, some coffee table photography books that I've handed out to the kids, and hope maybe someday some of my descendants might see those and say, "Hey, that guy must have been okay."

Craig Mattick: I got two more questions for you, John. Tennis and track and basketball, football, multiple titles in all of those sports, high school and college. Which one meant the most to you when you look at all those titles?

John Simko: Well, there's the two that really stand out. One is team and one is individual. 1959 Conference Football Championship at Augustana was a big deal. As I said, we had two coaches and 31 players and some great memories and some really good players. And of course, Jim Luce, our quarterback was the key to the whole deal. And winning that conference championship has got to be one of the top two memories. And the other memory, the individual one is that weekend. Well, winning the four singles and doubles tennis tournaments, and especially on the fourth year when we had both the track make and the task the same weekend. That's a wonderful memory.

Craig Mattick: John, I know you love photography now, but if you were to take a photo of yourself, where would you want that photo to be taken?

John Simko: Where would I want it taken? I took one of myself about five or six years ago right after I retired. I said I was going to do two things when I retired. I always thought it would be kind of fun to be a farmer, but I was never smart enough and hard worker enough to become a farmer. But I thought I could get a western hat, said, "Okay, I'm going to get a western hat when I retire and I'm going to buy one cow. And it's going to be a virtual cow." So I took a picture of myself wearing my western hat with my cowboy boots and jeans.

So I don't know, I suppose maybe that's what I would do. I would be an alfalfa rancher. I used to say I'd like to be an alfalfa rancher, because you plant the alfalfa and it smells great, and then when you cut, it smells better. And you get three or four cuttings a year, you can go south in the wintertime and stay warm, and next year it comes up by itself. And my farmer friends, like Bob Twanoors would look at me with this quizzical look on the face and say, "John, you were raising in the city, weren't you?" They have different memories than Charlie about alfalfa and baling hay and throwing bales on the hay wagon and getting dusty and dirty and sweaty than what I do. But anyway, my idea about being an alfalfa rancher with a western hat and a pair of cowboy boots is pretty attractive to me.

Craig Mattick: In play with Craig Mattick is made possible by Horton in Britton where smiling at work happens all the time. Apply now at If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five-star review wherever you get your podcast. It helps us gain new listeners. This has been In Play with me, Craig. This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.