The first time Chad Simpson imposed his will on a football field was around the age of 12 while he was playing for a Pop Warner youth team in Miami.
"He played nose guard, and the coach told him if he got five sacks he could play running back," said Mary Simpson, his mother. "He got his five sacks, and he's been a running back ever since."
Simpson's path to the NFL faced bigger roadblocks over the years. That path brought him to Baltimore in 2006, when he transferred from South Florida to Morgan State, and it brings him back Sunday to play for the Indianapolis Colts in a big AFC matchup with the Ravens.
At 5 feet 9 and 216 pounds, Simpson is the Colts' kick returner, gaining 22.4 yards per return this season, and a reserve running back, picking up 6.3 yards per carry on just 13 attempts. Although he was 2007 Player of the Year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and set the single-season rushing record at Morgan (1,402 yards), Simpson went undrafted, signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2008.
He was cut once this year, for a week, when the Colts needed to juggle the roster. Slowly but steadily, he has made progress toward a pro career.
"I'm still grinding, battling for a spot to play, doing what they ask me to do," Simpson said.
That he succeeded is no surprise to his mother.
"He believed he could do anything he set his heart to growing up," Mary Simpson said. "He never said no, he couldn't do something. ... He's struggled a lot in his life. He had no father, no man figure to push him. [But] he found a way to go to the next level."
Charles Simpson died of complications from diabetes when Chad was 10.
The NFL wasn't on Simpson's horizon during the two years he spent at South Florida. He had some moments - a 94-yard kickoff return against Louisville was one - but failed to impress the coaches enough to earn a starting job. So he transferred to Morgan at the suggestion of a Miami friend, Jerrell Guyton, who made a similar trip.
"When I met him," Morgan State running backs coach Earl Davis said, "I asked him if he was coachable. He said, 'Yeah.' Then he asked me if I could help him get to the next level. I said, 'Yeah, if you're coachable.' "
Simpson was coachable and more during his two years in Baltimore. He returned kickoffs, caught passes, rushed for 2,197 yards and scored 23 touchdowns for the Bears.
"He works hard and is humble," Davis said. "He has an unquestioned work ethic."
The Colts took notice. They were the only team that invited him to town before the draft, one of the few that expressed an interest after it. First-year head coach Jim Caldwell said Simpson has been a "real strong contributor" on special teams but that he also has made an impact running the ball.
"He's a guy that certainly gets down the field in terms of our coverage teams, and when he's called upon to carry the ball ... last week [against the New England Patriots] he ends up having four carries and averaging about 9 yards a carry," Caldwell said. "So, Chad does a tremendous job. He's a hard worker and a very, very committed member of our team."
At Indianapolis, Simpson, 24, said he has learned to speak with his actions and not his words. And he pays attention when quarterback Peyton Manning speaks.
"I've been playing since I was 7," Simpson said. "But I've learned more football these two years than the rest of the time I've played."
NOTES:: Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis' Right Side Foundation sponsored a trip for 21 patients from the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital to visit the Ravens' complex, watch Friday's practice and get a tour of the facility. Markakis and his wife, Christina, started the "Fund for 21" program in the past year to provide an educational and fun day for underprivileged or ill children in Maryland. "It's awesome to see these kids come out here and see the looks on their faces and how they're having fun," Markakis said. ... Ravens defensive end Dwan Edwards said he will appeal the $5,000 fine he received for hitting the Cleveland Browns' Joshua Cribbs on the final play of Monday night's game. According to an NFL spokesman, Edwards was fined for unnecessarily striking Cribbs in the "head area." ... Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who missed two games with an ankle injury, insisted he will play Sunday against the Colts. He's listed as questionable, however. ... Tight end Todd Heap, listed as questionable with a rib injury, said his availability will be a game-time decision. "It's going to be sore, that's the biggest thing," Heap said. He said he had had an X-ray and that he does not have broken ribs.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Colts by 1