UT-Martin deals with tragedy ahead of Georgia matchup

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS – UT-Martin plans to be focused and well-prepared when it arrives at Sanford Stadium in 47 days to take on back-to-back national champion Georgia in the season opener. At the moment, though, the Skyhawks’ minds are far away from football.

Two key members of their team have suffered devastating tragedies in the last couple of months. The 2-year-old daughter of senior wide receiver Almount “Ajay” Smith was murdered two weeks ago in Detroit. In May, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Branson Conner was shot nine times in a drive-by shooting that was a case of mistaken identity. Miraculously, Conner survived, but it’s unlikely he will play football again.

“It’s been a tough summer, to say the least,” UT-Martin coach Jason Simpson said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this past weekend. “But I’ll tell you what: I’m sitting here with my wife and seeing the outpouring of support from former players and people in the community and that’s pretty neat. It does my heart good.”

In both cases, GoFundMe pages have been set up and the help is sorely needed, according to Simpson. First and foremost, Smith is just trying to find the means to bury his daughter, Wynter Cole-Smith. Her funeral is tentatively scheduled for July 28.

Conner, who was hospitalized for three weeks, has mounting medical bills and is still looking at months of physical therapy. UT-Martin is helping in every way it can, but it remains a struggle.

As for the death of Smith’s daughter, it simply doesn’t get more tragic. Her mother, Symari Cole, and Smith are no longer together. Cole’s current live-in boyfriend, Rashad Trice, is accused of murder and kidnapping in the case of the child and aggravated and sexual assault in the of Cole, who was stabbed multiple times before the child was abducted in Lansing, Mich.

Wynter Smith was found three days later in Detroit after a frantic search by multiple agencies. She was discovered in an alley and had been strangled by a pink charging cord.

Simpson was on vacation attending a Quarterback Country camp with his son, Ty, in Mobile when Ajay Smith called him with the news. The team was scheduled to reconvene in Martin, Tenn., the next week.

“That was our first time together,” Simpson said of the first team meeting. “I said, ‘guys, I’m going to get to meet Wynter in heaven one day and Ajay is going to see her there, too. I know that.’ If I didn’t know that I’d just lay down on the ground in a ball because there’s nothing left to do.’”

Last week, a collection of UT-Martin attended a local church service where Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis spoke. Simpson said six players were baptized or re-dedicated themselves to Christianity.

“It was really kind of a neat thing,” Simpson said. “So, a lot of positive things are coming from that little girl’s short life.”

Two months earlier, those same players were keeping vigil for their fallen teammate. Conner, a 6-foot-7, 350-pound offensive lineman from Memphis, was driving home in the middle of the night after his shift as a part-time worker at FedEx when he was attacked by unknown assailants.

“He got off work a little early and was coming home and somebody shot his car up,” Simpson said. “There were 22 bullets in the car and nine of them hit him. His mom heard the shots and came outside and big Branson was running down the street and fell down in her front yard.”

Simpson said it was “touch-and-go” for Conner for a while. He came down with an infection in the hospital.

“By the time he got out of there he’d lost more than 50 pounds,” Simpson said. “It’s not life-or-death anymore. He’s starting to feel close to normal. He’s got another appointment Aug. 15. I think they said he still has some shrapnel in his shoulder and he’s got some neck issues they’re hoping will heal over a period of time. But he’s planning to come back to school in the fall. We’ll cross the football bridge when we get there.”

The same goes for playing Georgia. UT-Martin and Georgia were not originally scheduled to open the 2023 season. The Bulldogs were supposed to play Oklahoma this year, but they were asked by the SEC to drop the home-and-home series after the Sooners and Texas joined the league. That becomes official next season.

“Every time I go over budget, I end up playing at Georgia or Tennessee,” Simpson joked. “But if you saw this place 18 years ago, you’d understand why we play these games. We’d lost 44 straight conference games or something like that. Our athletic budget has to have these guarantee games and I really appreciate it.”

The Skyhawks are receiving $500,000 from UGA to play at Sanford Stadium. UT-Martin won the Ohio Valley Conference title Simpson’s first season and have claimed the last two coming into this season.

Simpson took his team into Knoxville last year to play Tennessee, losing 65-24. In Simpson’s 18 seasons, he said UT-Martin has played 26 Power 5 opponents, including a No. 1-ranked Mississippi State team led by Dak Prescott in 2014.

The Skyhawks are best known for beating Memphis in 2012.

“That’s the feather in our hat,” Simpson said. “We’re pretty competitive on our level, but we’ve never played back-to-back national champions and certainly no team with that kind of depth and talent. Georgia’s pretty unique.”

Simpson has a few Georgia connections. He was on the same Jacksonville State staff as Bulldogs defensive coordinator Will Muschamp in 1997. He also gave Bulldogs defensive line coach Tray Scott his first full-time job, hiring him to coach UT-Martin’s defensive line in 2013.

Simpson has other SEC ties otherwise. His son, Ty Simpson, is a redshirt freshman quarterback at Alabama and is competing for the Crimson Tide’s starting job this fall. In fact, Simpson said the Bulldogs gave his son a long look in recruiting. Ty attended coach Kirby Smart’s camp several years ago and former offensive coordinator Todd Monken made an in-home visit. In the end, Ty chose Bama over Clemson and Tennessee.

“But really liked Kirby and Monken during the recruiting process,” Simpson said.

Like all coaches, Simpson is looking forward to being fully focused on football in the next few weeks. At the moment, though, he’s just trying to help 63 scholarship players and a couple of dozen walkons make sense of the unthinkable.

“Been a head coach for 18 years and you deal with death when you’ve got 85 kids in your program,” Simpson said. “But I’ve never been through something like this.”