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Sunday, August 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Speed kills, and Hawks' Simmons backing it up

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As Anthony Simmons blurred past him at the end of another 40-yard sprint, at the end of another grueling workout in the South Carolina swelter, Larry Greenlee looked at his stop watch, blinked his eyes and looked again. Then looked again.

4.28.

Did a 260-pound linebacker just run a 40 that would have been the envy of every wide receiver and cornerback? Was this the truth on Greenlee's stop watch? Or science fiction?

This was like Bob Beamon's long jump. Or Roger Bannister's mile. Something stunning had happened. Something practically supernatural.

"I was expecting fast, but this was kind of a shock," Greenlee said from his Clemson, S.C., home.

So Greenlee made Simmons do it again. One more 40, just to make sure.

"I needed a second opinion," Greenlee said. "I wanted to make sure it wasn't me."

Slowly Simmons walked back, coiled into his crouch and pushed his tired body for 40 final yards.

4.34.

It wasn't Greenlee. The linebacker was that fast. Faster than Baltimore's Ray Lewis, who runs 4.5s. Faster than any linebacker who's ever played the game.

You notice how the best athletes never are satisfied? It's as if they have a voice in their heads, an alter ego as stern as Patton, taunting them, goading them, demanding they get stronger, or fleeter, more sure-footed, or sure-handed. The best always want to get better.

At the end of last season, after he had led the team in tackles, after it was obvious the Seahawks were moving to the NFC West, Simmons felt the need for more speed. He wanted to be able to run with St. Louis back Marshall Faulk. He wanted to be able to match strides with San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens.

He wanted to be a hybrid, a 260-pound sprinter who could hit like Mike Singletary.

The great athletes are tinkerers. An all-star pitcher adds a changeup to his 95 mph fastball. A superstar center adds a drop step to his offensive game. The great athletes always are looking for another edge.

So Simmons went home and hooked up with Greenlee, his long-time trainer and assistant director of strength and conditioning at Clemson, and asked him to make him faster.

"We worked on the mechanics of sprinting," Greenlee said. "Training the nervous system to explode. He was going to be going up against the fast-break offenses in the NFC West and he wanted to be able to run with them.

"Anthony and I don't talk X's and O's very much, but you can be sure the name Marshall Faulk came up a few times just to focus some added motivation. And Anthony responded. He ran phenomenal times."

He ran the kind of times that skeptics don't believe. A 4.28? Who were they kidding. Did Maurice Greene stand in for him? Was he running downhill with a hurricane blowing at his back?

Greenlee videotaped Simmons running a 4.34 and sent the tape to ESPN.

"Let them time it," Greenlee said. "I just wanted them to know I'm not one of the guys who butters an athlete up."

Simmons needs no hyperbole. Just watch on the practice fields of Cheney. His speed is tangible. It's as obvious as Michael Johnson on the straightaway in the 200 meters.

He is one of the reasons you go to a game. When he's on the field, it's hard to take your eyes off of him. He's always around the ball. Coaches call it flying to the ball and when it comes to flying, Simmons is a linebacking Blue Angel.

"It's amazing to watch him on film," said Hawks linebacker Chad Brown. "You see him out of position, or see the play way away from him and then, boom, he's like a missile and you see him making the play. Some guys have gifts from God and that's his. An amazing speed and explosiveness."

Some players squander those gifts, but the smart ones, the great ones, add to them, becoming talent conglomerates.

Simmons is redefining a linebacker's role. Making the position faster than even Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor could have imagined. He combines the explosiveness of a running back with a linebacker's cold-hearted power.

"Speed kills," Simmons said with a smile.

He is the best linebacker never to make the Pro Bowl. He and Brown are solid-gold bookend backers. In his fifth year, now playing on the weak side, Simmons looks as comfortable as Shaq in the low post.

"He's really as talented a linebacker as I've ever seen," Coach Mike Holmgren said.

Simmons has arrived, but he isn't satisfied. He led the team in tackles last year, but that wasn't good enough. He wants what Ray Lewis has. He wants the reputation and the ring.

"I don't want any backs to have an edge on me," Simmons said. "We play St. Louis twice this year and I want to be able to smoke Marshall the whole game. That's a very big challenge for me. He's a running back who can do it all. And I want to be a linebacker who can do it all."

Simmons already is doing it all. And he's doing it faster than any linebacker before him.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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