Leon Simmons was one of the best high school football players in the area this season. He was a lights-out tackler as a linebacker/defensive back for Aiken High and tied for the area lead with five interceptions, enough to have him named to the 2012 All-Aiken Standard football team as a first-team defensive back.

While Simmons said he appreciated that recognition, he said he received the highest honor Thursday, when he signed a letter of intent to play football at Mars Hill College.

“My biggest goal is right now, making it to play college football,” Simmons said at a signing ceremony at the James A. Taylor Student Activities Center, where he was surrounded by members of his family on hand to celebrate. “This is a big family thing, it’s like hitting the lottery. Me going is a huge thing for my family. I’m doing it for them and for me.”

He said Mars Hill’s location, approximately three hours from Aiken, was a big factor in his decision to choose the South Atlantic Conference college over some other schools he had dialogue with – including South Carolina State, Brevard and Armstrong among others. But the main reason he chose Mars Hill was because of the attention the Lions’ coaching staff paid to Simmons. He said defensive coordinator Kevin Barnette was especially keen on recruiting Simmons after he saw the Hornet star’s highlight tape.

“He told me he had a roster spot for me and would do whatever he could to get me to come,” recalled Simmons, currently a member of the Future Business Leaders of America who plans on pursuing a degree in business at Mars Hill. “He contacted me and showed me he cared. … He made me comfortable with my decision.”

Simmons said he isn’t sure what his role will be as a freshmen, but is looking forward to being a part of the team. He knows its up to him to determine if he’ll get a shot to play – and start – faster than the typical freshman.

“It’s up to the work I put in,” Simmons said. “I’ll make the best of it.”

Aiken head coach Carey Johnson echoed that sentiment.

“It’s left to him, but he has the want to succeed. He’ll be a perfect fit,” said Johnson, who praised Simmons while noting he’s facing an uphill battle because he isn’t the biggest of players. “He’s a big man in a little body, but he’s got a great nose for the football and is a great hitter. He has all the intangibles.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.